If you think that games for elderly persons consist only in playing cards or doing crosswords puzzles, you are not looking at the full picture. Statistics say that nowadays more and more seniors play video games for fun, and there is good news: some cognitive games for elderly people seem to be able to contrast the effects of aging on our brain, research says.
Video games for elderly people on the spot
A study published on Nature by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v501/n7465/full/nature12486.html demonstrated that playing a 3D video game designed to train multi-tasking abilities – that is the ability to perform two or more activities at the same time – is able to bring seniors’ performance at the level of people 20 years old in only 1 month of training. What made this study famous is that the positive effects of the game extended also to other non-trained abilities, such as concentration. This suggests that the game may have positive repercussions on everyday life, and this is a key point. Indeed having seniors mastering video games better than their grandchildren can be fun, but it is almost useless if this does not translate into an improvement in abilities useful in activities of daily living.
Serious games, what are we talking about?
Video games have a good potential as training tools because they can embed cognitive exercises into a playful context, thus boosting motivation and the willingness to keep doing the activity. Moreover, they have a number of features very useful for rehabilitation. For instance, they can provide immediate feedback on our performance (e.g., telling us when we make a mistake), and improve the game learning. And they can keep track of our improvements, and automatically adapt the game difficulty. This cannot be achieved in the classical paper-pencil cognitive exercises proposed in the clinical settings.
Commercial video games designed for fun may be able to improve certain aspects of our brain functioning, as a side effect. For instance, practicing with the Nintendo “Big Brain Academy” has been shown to slow down cognitive decline in persons affected by Alzheimer’s disease. However the most promising cognitive games for elderly people are those specifically designed for training purposes, also referred as serious games.
Serious games for what?
Serious games for elderly people can target improvements in different abilities, such as memory, attention and concentration, mental speed, or mental flexibility. Some very interesting serious games for elderly people combine cognitive training with a physical training (exergames). For instance, players can ride an exercise bike in front of a screen, and use their gestures as a commands mode instead of a regular mouse, thanks to motion capture devices such as the Microsoft KinectTM. Improving physical fitness, beyond having positive effects on its own, can boost the effects of the cognitive training in our brain.
Serious games for whom?
A golden rule to improve video games usability is that the game should be adapted to the final user. This means that the game should match the person’s interests, but also take into account his/her features and impairments, if any. For instance, a game for people with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease should be designed to limit the interference of memory problems in the understanding of the game rules. Providing reminders and employing a clear and clean graphical user interface may help in this direction.
When and where?
Serious games for elderly people can be used everywhere and when we want and have time. However is they are employed in a clinical setting as training tools, clinicians will establish some training rules, as it happens for physical rehabilitation. For instance, exer games for elderly people with dementia are probably safer in a clinical context, at the presence of a clinician who can help in the game and monitor the physical activity to avoid that it is too heavy, or not heavy enough. Cognitive games can be played also at home, but a caregiver may be necessary to ensure the game understanding.
Which video games for elderly do rejuvenate our brain?
Designing video games able to reverse the mental effects of aging is very tricky. Not all the products available on the market are conceived using scientific knowledge and clinical insights on the aging brain, leading scientists at Stanford University to say that, so far, “scientific evidence does not support the brain game claims”.
Successful games for elderly people are usually designed in multidisciplinary teams including clinicians, researchers, and IT guys experts in game development. Before saying that a serious game is effective as a training tool, rigorous clinical studies should be conducted to test the game efficacy. So the reputation of the game developers and the presence of sound evidence of the game efficacy are two key elements to check to orient our selection of serious games.
Let’s play for fun!
In summary, more research is needed to ascertain the effectiveness of serious games on cognitive impairments found in dementia-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, and to test usability and collateral effects of the games in the older population. However, even if a serious game were not able to boost our mental activity directly, it may have other positive effects. For instance, being engaged in an entertaining activity can improve mood and reduce apathy, which in turn have a positive effect in cognitive functioning, behaviors and quality of life. So, if we like a game we should play it, even if evidence on its efficacy is still lacking, without expecting magic effects. Quoting George Bernard Shaw: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”.
For more information on the advantages and disardantages of employing serious games in people with dementia-related disorder you can refer to the following paper, available online:
Robert PH, König A, Amieva H, Andrieu S, Bremond F, Bullock R, Ceccaldi M, Dubois B, Gauthier S, Kenigsberg P-A, Nave S, Orgogozo JM, Piano J, Benoit M, Touchon J, Vellas B, Yesavage J and Manera V (2014). Recommendations for the use of Serious Games in people with Alzheimer’s Disease, related disorders and frailty. Front. Aging Neurosci. 6:54. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2014.00054