For years, increasingly sophisticated video games came with increasingly daunting controllers. Anyone who grew up with Pong or an NES could be forgiven for fearing today's byzantine rigs. So perhaps it's not surprising that the new, more intuitive interfaces of the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect have opened up new markets for video games. What is surprising, however, is how psychologically beneficial these new activities are for a key new group: the elderly.
The Wii has been popular for some time among older consumers, while the holiday's hot item, the Kinect, is just reaching past its earliest adopters. While the Wiimote sent signals from a controller you held to a receiver near your TV, the Kinect detects your body and uses it as the game controller. Both fit under the general category of "motion gaming" which dispenses with the traditional buttons and joysticks of yore.
There's no denying the physical benefits of motion gaming: studies have shown that even just a few sessions with the Wii has led to improved balance, coordination and strength, and could help prevent falls, a serious concern for many seniors. Wii Bowling has spawned entire leagues and tournaments, taking over nursery homes, retirement communities and community centers as one of the fastest-growing and most popular social activities.
But the benefits may extend beyond just fun and games -- studies are also showing that these exergames -- video games that encourage physical activity -- are also proving to help with depression, sense of place and relevancy. They may even help bridge generational divides between grandparents and younger adults and children by offering them an equal playing ground.
In a poster presentation at the Gerontological Society of America's Annual Scientific Meeting in New Orleans late last year, Patricia Kahlbaugh, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut State University presented a study on the effects of playing Wii on loneliness and mood in the elderly.
As some adults get older, they may no longer have the physical strength or agility to engage in their chosen pleasures of life. For some, the sense of loss can deepen into depression. By recreating the experience of previously enjoyed activities like tennis, bowling, and golf, Kahlbaugh says the Nintendo Wii may allow elderly individuals to engage in these previously enjoyed activities, allowing them to "regain the psychological benefits such activities once afforded them."
To test the game's impact on greater life satisfaction, loneliness, greater positive mood, and increased physical activity, Kahlbaugh created a study of 36 individuals -- average age 82.6 years -- from residential facilities in New Haven County. All were in general good health and held high school degrees. The participants were split into two groups -- 16 were assigned to play the Wii for an hour per week with an undergraduate student, while 12 watched an hour of television per week with an undergraduate student, all over a span of ten weeks. Seven students were then assigned as additional controls.
While the quantitative results didn't yield any differences between groups in life satisfaction or weekly physical activity, the Wii participants reported higher positive mood in comparison to the TV group. The Wii group also reported feelings of decreased loneliness and feeling more connected to others, which could be attributed to the social nature of the game and the subculture it created within the residential community of those participating in the Wii study.
The feedback from the seniors themselves was more telling, Kahlbaugh says. Participants made comments about feeling "more a part of things" or feeling "more in" with the younger generation, creating a greater sense of self and purpose. "There was an older gentleman who came to play a session with his old bowling trophies," said Kahlbaugh. "For him, playing the Wii was a way to recapture the fun and sense of achievement he had had in the past." The study was so popular among participants, two of her students stayed on after the study to volunteer with the seniors who wanted to continue their weekly bowling sessions.
Another study by the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine supports the link between exergames and mental health in seniors. Focusing on seniors with subsyndromal depression (SSD), researchers conducted a study of 19 participants (ages 63-94) who played an exergame on the Wii for 35 minutes, three times a week. "More than one-third of participants reported a 50 percent or greater reduction of depressive symptoms," said lead researcher Dr. Dilip V. Jeste. "Many had a significant improvement in their mental health-related quality of life and increased cognitive stimulation."
For Kahlbaugh, the study of interactive gaming's impact on depression and mood was a personal one. "My motivation for this [study] stemmed from my dad who had his leg amputated due to diabetes several years ago," she said. Kahlbaugh grew up playing tennis with her father, who is now occupied as the sole caretaker of her mother who has Alzheimer's.
Given a Nintendo Wii Sports package by his kids, he spent hours at a time playing the games. After one such night, Kahlbaugh asked him what he got out of the Wii experience. What he said struck her: "The trick of getting older successfully is finding out how to stay relevant."
"I've always had that quote in my mind and [it], in fact, is the reason I set out to do the study in the first place. I really wanted to find out if the Wii would have positive benefits to the elderly in terms of successful aging," Kahlbaugh said. It seems to have, so far.
More than just a game or workout, motion gaming is a link between the evolving technological world and the pastimes seniors have long enjoyed--and, really, who wants to feel like they're being left behind?
Aylin Zafar wrote this article as part of her MetLife Foundation Journalists on Aging Fellowship in partnership with New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.