Physical Video Games May Help the Elderly Psychologically

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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.

Studies show that video games that encourage physical activity also help with depression, sense of place and relevancy.

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.

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Aylin Zafar is a freelance writer based in New York.

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