Digital game activities in later life: from cognitive training to intergenerational learning.

Margarida Romero. Assistant Professor of Educational Technology. Université Laval (Canada).

Elderly population is on the rise and the diversity in their attitudes and uses of technologies in general (Loos, 2012) and their motivations to play digital shows an increasing diversity (de Carvalho & Ishitani, 2012). If play is accepted as children’s natural way of learning, adulthood play is often perceived as a waste of productive time (Prensky, 2001) and as an unproductive activity (Pearce 2006), “creating neither goods nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind” (Callois 1961, p. 9-10). Nevertheless, the use of digital games continues to grow among younger and older adults. Senior gamers are a growing community. Nap, De Kort and IJsselsteijn (2009) observes a rise from 9% to 26% of senior gamers (50+) in the USA. Technology could (and should) contribute to the active ageing of the 21st century elderly through the use of ICT.

In the context of the Silver Gaming Working Group (Eugene Loos, Josep Blat, Margarida Romero; within the international partnership “Ageing + Communication + Technologies” (ACT, 2014-2021) my research aims to identify the different DGBL activities in later life. In this stage of the research, the literature review leads us to identify different types of digital game activities in terms of Prensky (2001) in 7 of them. An emergent coding analysis (Paillé, 1994) identified four types of game activities among elderly according to the game purposes: (1) intergenerational learning; (2) cognitive training; (3) emotions and well-being; (4) entertainment.

Regarding the first group of activities, there is a growing number of studies highlighting the interest in intergenerational learning by playing games among different generations (Ypsilanti et al., 2014). Chua, Jung, Lwin, and Theng (2013) observed that intergenerational game activities pairing young and elderly volunteers influences positively the intergenerational perceptions among the young and older participants. Moreover, they noticed a reduction of the intergroup anxiety and attitudes. Even-Zohar (2011) observed an improvement in intergenerational solidarity when observing an intergenerational game activity reuniting grandparents and their grandchildren.

Games are also studied in relation to their cognitive benefits for older people. The study of somatosensory video game interventions on seniors with cognitive disabilities by Chen, Chiang, Liu and Chang (2010) showed a positive impact on selective attention among them. Simpson, Camfield, Pipingas, Macpherson and Stough (2012) analyzed the use of MyBrainTrainer online computer mini-games among elderly. Their study observed a significant improvement in simple and choice reaction time task, but any other cognitive improvement has been observed in terms of digit forwards and backwards, spatial working memory, digit symbol substitution or other complex cognitive tasks. Yet, other studies claim no strong cognitive benefits (e.g. Owen 2010), which make this second group of activities more uncertain in terms of learning benefits.

The use of digital games for emotional and well-being is addressed by Etchemendy and colleagues (2011) which observes a positive impact of the serious games Butler, an e-health platform, on the elderly’ mood states.

Finally, the uses of casual games on the Internet were observed in 34 interviews with elderly Internet users in Estonia (Tambaum, 2010) for entertainment purposes. Other studies have observed that senior gamers play casual games more frequently and spend more time playing digital games than younger players do (Gajadhar, Nap, de Kort, & IJsselsteijn, 2010). This might be due to an increase of free-time in later life.

The analysis of these four types of gaming activities contributes to identify the benefits and limits of digital games for older people. We have also observed that all the studies reviewed portray older people as passive players and place them in the consumer end of the spectrum in relation to the games designed by researchers or game developers. We aim to highlight the importance of engaging elderly in digital creation activities (Hyvönen, Romero, Hakkarainen, & Impiö, 2013; Uzor, Baillie, & Skelton, 2012) if we aim to design games they really want to play and reap the benefits from doing so. Participatory design of digital games (Blat, Arcos, & Sayago, 2012; Vanden Abeele, & Van Rompaey, 2006, Apri) should help us achieve this goal and allow them to engage in game creation activities instead of using games that have been designed for them by younger generations.


Selected references

Blat, J., Arcos, J. L., & Sayago, S. (2012). WorthPlay: juegos digitales para un envejecimiento activo y saludable. Revista Lychnos, (8), 16.

Chua, P.H., Jung, Y., Lwin, M.O., & Theng, Y.-L. (2013). Let’s play together: Effects of video-game play on intergenerational perceptions among youth and elderly participants. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(6), 2303–2311.

de Carvalho, R. N. S., & Ishitani, L. (2012). Motivational Factors for Mobile Serious Games for Elderly Users. Proceedings of XI SB Games.

Etchemendy, E., Baños, R. M., Botella, C., Castilla, D., Alcañiz, M., Rasal, P., & Farfallini, L. (2011). An e-health platform for the elderly population: The butler system. Computers & Education, 56(1), 275–279.

Even-Zohar, A. (2011). Intergenerational Solidarity Between Adult Grandchildren and Their Grandparents With Different Levels of Functional Ability. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships, 9(2), 128–145.

Hyvönen, P., Romero, M., Hakkarainen, P. & Impiö, N. (2013, August). Creative collaboration for enhancing older adult’s ICT use. EARLI, 2013.

Loos, E. (2014). Designing Meaningful Intergenerational Digital Games. ICCMTD, April 2014, Istanbul, Turkey.

Nap, H. H., De Kort, Y. A. W., & IJsselsteijn, W. A. (2009). Senior gamers: preferences, motivations and needs. Gerontechnology, 8(4), 247-262.

Ypsilanti, A.,Vivas, A., Räisänen, T., Viitala, M., Ijäs, T., & Ropes, D. (2014). Are serious video games something more than a game? A review on the effectiveness of serious games to facilitate intergenerational learning. Education & Information Technologies, 19(3), 515–529.

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