Brain Games

How video gaming benefits older adults

Brain Games

A new generation has discovered the fun of playing video games. Seniors are getting a cognitive workout while creating new social relationships.

Gamer Grandpa is a popular video on YouTube featuring a grandfather playing a video game with his grandson. The video is sure to make anyone smile—the 84-year-old giggles, squeals, and squirms with delight like a little boy. One thing is clear: he’s having the time of his life—while stimulating his brain.

In case you aren’t familiar with YouTube, it’s a video-sharing website that measures a video’s popularity by the number of people that watch it. Gamer Grandpa has more than a million views so far. The video is a delightful departure from the prevalent media spotlight on violence and sexism in video game culture. Until recently, gaming was seen as the slightly seedy pastime of adolescent males. Gamer Grandpa offers a glimpse into a new era in which older adults can not only enjoy video gaming, but thrive on it.

Social media savvy

When it comes to new technology, older adults have already made a significant foray into social media. Basically, social media involves networking and sharing content on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. According to the Pew Research Center, the fastest growth in social networking sites comes from the 74-plus demographic.

Social media keeps older adults connected to their children and grandchildren, allowing them to peruse the latest family videos and photos. Additional benefits include saving money through online deals or staving off loneliness by joining an online community of like-minded peers. Research has shown that online interaction for older adults has psychological benefits too—one such study estimated that internet use decreases depression by about 20 percent.

Dr. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, believes that social media is a gateway into technology for older adults. Their use of social networking sites makes the web less intimidating and eases the fears older adults have about technology. And with sites such as Facebook offering games as part of the social experience, it’s no wonder that older adults are transitioning into regular gaming as well.

The golden gaming years

The evidence for increased participation in gaming can be seen in assisted living communities across North America. In many of these facilities, chess and checker boards gather dust as older adults flock to gaming systems such as the Wii. The Wii requires gamers to get up and move: by mimicking the motions of sports such as tennis or bowling, older adults get exercise while socializing. The physical benefits are undeniable, with some studies finding that motion gaming can improve balance and help prevent falls.

Psychological benefits

However, psychological benefits are coming to light through research as well. One study looked at two control groups over a span of 10 weeks: the first played the Wii for an hour a week, while the second watched TV instead. The Wii group reported decreased loneliness and a more positive mood. One gentleman even took his old bowling trophies to the gaming session. For him, playing the Wii was a way of recapturing the fun of the past.

The psychological benefits of gaming are not limited to motion-based games, which admittedly are not entirely suitable for older adults with limited mobility. Fortunately, it seems that any sort of digital gaming promotes positivity. Research from North Carolina State University found that adults aged 63 and older reported higher levels of well-being and self-esteem by playing everything from online solitaire to crosswords to sudoku.

Cognitive workout

But why stop there? While playing poker on the internet or bowling on the Wii is good fun, this type of game is just a crossover of an analog game to a digital equivalent. Most older adults are so familiar with the rules, they could play blindfolded. Learning new rules and figuring out new abstractions is what really provides a cognitive boost.

For example, in one study, almost 700 subjects were divided into two age groups, 50 to 64 and over 65. Members of each group worked on a crossword puzzle or played a video game called Road Tour. A year later, testing revealed that the video gamers in both age groups had improvements in memory, attention, problem-solving skills, and perception.

The underlying physiological processes behind these improvements were considered in a paper on the cognitive benefits of computer games for older adults. The key lies in brain plasticity—challenging yourself repeatedly with an information-rich activity will actually reorganize your brain and improve your performance.

You could train your brain in this way by learning to play the piano or navigating through a foreign city, but games provide additional benefits. In the same way that weight training strengthens muscles, gaming generates a potent combination of concentration and reward (through surges of neurotransmitters such as dopamine) that strengthen neural circuits. As an added bonus: gaming is just plain fun.

So, what are you waiting for?

If you’re an older adult, now is a great time to start gaming. As interest in gaming gains momentum, technologists are exploring how to tailor game design to older users. New ways of interacting with computers and tablets, such as touch-screen displays, natural language voice recognition, and gesture-recognition technology, are making gaming more simple and intuitive than ever. And with integration into social media, games are becoming more social too.

You could play a game with your grandchild online and be the coolest grandparent around. But when you win, try to resist the temptation to boast about it on Facebook—even though you’re grinning from ear to ear. Ready to play?

Here are some game genres older adults will enjoy:

Type of game Description Example Gaming system
concentration training test your knowledge through mental challenges and quizzes Brain Age Nintendo DS/3DS
strategy manage people, marshal resources, and build things SimCity multiple
puzzle develop logic, improve hand-eye coordination, and have fun Tetris multiple
motion-based work on balance while socializing Wii Sports Nintendo Wii

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