Digital Game Design for Elderly Users

Introduction

Games have been there since time immemorial for all age groups – from children (the normal play games) to adults a good example is hunting games in times of yore (or hunting for fun and a source of entertainment). With the advent of computers, games have evolved into a new dimension, that is, digital games. As will be noted, in today’s society seniors play digital games to a lesser degree as compared to the younger age groups. This is because most games are designed for the younger demographic as compared to the seniors.

Game developers should start thinking seriously about catering to the gaming needs of the senior generation. This is because, from a socio-physiological point of view, digital games have the potential for enhancing the lives of the elderly, potentially enhancing their social interactions (very important to seniors), improving their physical and mental alertness and health, and finally as a way of entertainment. From a commercial point of view, elderly users have the potential of being a very large consumer base, as shown in a UN (2006) report. The proportion of seniors in comparison to other age groups is on the increase.

In this topic, I discuss some demographic characteristics and age-related factors, for example, cognitive and sensory abilities that may influence a senior experience in using and interacting with digital games. It is important to note that when it comes to the elder population, the benefit of a digital game is held as a very high priority, even over the usability of the game. Game design for seniors should consider high usability and most importantly a rich and rewarding experience for the end-user.

Elderly Gamers Statistics

It is estimated that by the year 2020, one in four (25%) of the European population will be aged over 60, the largest increase expected in the 75+ age group.

A recent study done under the BBC shows that people in the 65 and above age group watch more television than any other age group, and are likely to rate television viewing as their favorite pass time activity. This is the age group that also least uses the internet. If they use it, it is solely for practical matters, for example, shopping, education and finance. However a good proportion of pensioners (a third) like to keep up with emerging new technology (Pratchett et al., 2005).

Pioneering research Whitcomb (1990) showed that a large proportion of seniors were interested in playing digital games when offered such opportunities via organizational stimulation or study programs. The research showed that such interaction with digital games could result in benefits such as improvement in motor speeds, better social experience and educational enhancement and enrichment. It was also found out that many games were not enjoyable or incompatible because of usability issues, for example, a challenging interface (small-sized objects).

A Finnish consumer study done by VTT as part of the Exergames project which involved 1489 respondents from all age groups (from 13 to 76) found that 52% of pensioners (overage 65), nearly half of the pensioners, played computer games, and 22% of pensioners played digital games daily. However 93% of pensioners spent an hour less playing at a time (Kangas & Lampila, 2006). In the United States, a publication by Entertainment Software Association (ESA) gives data from a sample population of 1500 respondents. They found that 19% of Americans over 50 played video games in 2004. In 2005, the number had risen to 25%.

From the given data it is clear that seniors play digital games to a lesser degree as compared to the other younger demographic, but this is not because of a lack of interest and openness. Seniors invest in new technology mostly if they perceive it to be of benefit to their purposes. The perception of a lack of benefit is most of the time reason enough to reject a new technology. In support of this Eggermont et al. (2006) report that generally, the elderly support technological advancement, which provides opportunities for them but not at any cost. For example they do not want a technology that replaces face-to-face contacts.

Age-related changes and digital game design

There are various changes brought about by age and the aging process. These changes impose various requirements on digital game interfaces in order for the games to be enjoyable to the elderly.

First, with increased age there is a loss of visual acuity (visual sharpness and acuteness), reduction in visual range, loss of contrast sensitivity and problems with glare. These visual decrements make it challenging for seniors to perceive small objects in a display, read small print or locate information on a complex screen. To solve these emerging issues, the user should be allowed to control font, color and contrast settings, as well as window resizing.

Secondly, aging is also related to loss of audio acuity. Older people find it hard to understand synthetic speech, because it is somewhat distorted, and they also find it hard to hear sound effects. It is recommended that digital games for seniors should have a lower tone frequency. Also, it is recommended that other modalities should be provided to enhance the message conveyed by a sound effect in a game, for example, vibration in the joystick or force-feedback joystick. Also for social online games both headsets and keyboards are recommended.

Thirdly, with aging comes a change in motor skills. Seniors experience a slower response time, balance and coordination disruptions and a general loss of flexibility. From the interface design point of view, design should be simple and intuitive, keeping memory and cognitive load at a minimum.

Benefits of playing Digital Games

Hollander and Plummer (1986) undertook a three-week study on a senior community, who were asked to play video games. Results report that playing thought-provoking games was found to be attention-grabbing and stimulating. There was a better constructive use of leisure time, and participants had increased feelings of success and achievement.

McGuire (1984) studied effects of digital games on improving self-esteem among elderly long-term care residents. Senior residents in one wing were offered video games for eight weeks, whereas residents of the second wing did not play video games. Results show that elders who played video games had an improvement in self-esteem.

Miller (2005) did a report on a trial of 95 healthy seniors with an average age of 80. Those that played HiFi (a game designed to boost brain function), on a regular basis had improved attention and memory scores. It is important to note that research into this area is still in its infancy.

Design Opportunities

There are four main areas with significant design opportunities. First, the use of digital games for relaxation and entertainment. Self-efficacy in seniors can be improved via accessible game design and intuitively integrated feedback. Digital games can act as a good alternative to television viewing.

Secondly, digital games can be used as a means of socializing with others within and outside their social network. 60% of gamers sampled (N=2000) play games as part of a social component. Digital games also connect different age groups in enjoying a common activity.

Thirdly, games can be used to increase and improve some mental functions. Also the sense of achievement and perceived self-efficacy provides a certain boost to one’s self-esteem. A good example is Nintendo DS platform brain-teasing game, Sony EyeToy and Nintendo Wii allow for a physically and mentally active way of interacting with the game content.

Conclusion

Digital games hold significant potential for elderly users, one that has hardly been tapped to date. There is not only an entertainment value in interaction with digital games but also a therapeutic value. Digital games also enhance social connectedness and enlarge their support structure.

Also noted is the fact that senior users are most hurt by usability issues as compared to younger users. Most game developers are unaware of game accessibility guidelines, which could benefit a range of users including the elders. To counter this problem extensive user testing with senior users should be employed before a game is released to the consumer market. Applying design guidelines specifically tailored for seniors is also helpful, especially if game designers have this population segment in mind. For example read designing computer systems for older adults (Czaja & Lee, 2003).

We need to ensure that elderly users see the benefits of engaging in playing digital games, so that they are willing to invest their time and energy in a rich and rewarding experience. Finally there is a need for more research into the area. Noted is that the study in this genre of digital games (games for seniors) is in infancy and more research needs to be conducted to show the effects of different game types to different seniors, putting the said hypothetical benefits of engaging in digital games to a more thorough test.

References

Czaja, S.J., & Lee, C.C. (2003). Designing computer systems for older adults. In: The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook – Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Eggermont, S., Vandebosch, H., & Steyaert, S. (2006). Towards the desired future of the elderly and ICT: Policy recommendations based on a dialogue with senior citizens. Poiesis & Praxis, 4(3), 199-217.

Hollander, E.K., & Plummer. H.R. (1986). An innovative therapy and enrichment program for senior adults utilizing the personal computer. Activities, Adaptations & Aging, 8(1), 59-68.

Kangas, S., & Lampila, P. (2006). Young people involved in developing prototypes of role games that encourage physical exercise.Espoo: VTT Press Release.

McGuire, F.A. (1984). Improving the quality of life for residents of long term care facilities through video games. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 6(1), 1-7.

Miller, G. (2005). Society for neuroscience meeting: Computer game sharpens aging minds. Science, 310 (5752), 1261.

Pratchett, R., Harris, D., Taylor, A., & Woolard, A. (2005). Gamers in the UK: Digital Play, Digital Lifestyles. London: BBC.

UN. (2006). World Population Prospects, The 2006 Revision United Nations Department of economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. Web.

Whitcomb, G.R. (1990). Computer games for the elderly Proceedings of the conference on Computers and the quality of life. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University.