Photo credit: Anne McLaughlin.

Video games can challenge a player’s responses, concentration and creativity. They also might keep an older player’s brain limber.

By Stephanie Soucheray

It’s not every psychology professor who could coax his grandma into playing World of Warcraft, an online fantasy game. But a few years ago, that’s exactly what Jason Allaire did when he found himself hanging out with his grandmother, who was then 75.

Photo credit: Anne McLaughlin.
Photo credit: Anne McLaughlin.

“After she was done playing, she said, ‘My brain is tired,’” said Allaire, a researcher at N.C. State University. “She found it stimulating and enjoyable.”

Allaire, a longtime fan of video games, decided that digital games – computers, phones, handheld devices or consoles like Nintendo Wii – were a good tool to measure cognition and memory in the elderly. But his most recent study, co-authored with Anne McLaughlin, entitled “Successful Aging through Digital Games: Socioemotional differences between older adult gamers and non-gamers,” in Computers in Human Behavior, shows that video games may also be beneficial for promoting good mental health in older adults.

In a data analysis that looked at a four-year study from the National Science Foundation concerning video games and the elderly, Allaire and McLaughlin found that those adults over the age of 63 who reported playing digital games in any amount were happier about their lives compared to adults without digital games.

“They had more positive emotions and lower rates of depression,” said Allaire.

He said two-thirds of those polled said they played digital games at least once per month, but often more frequently. More than 30 percent played once per week or more.

“Oftentimes the gaming industry focuses on young players, the 13 to 27 demographic; they don’t focus on adults,” said Allaire. “So it’s surprising that so many were playing games, but not surprising that we saw those differences in mental health. When individuals choose what they do and are engaging and it’s fun, it’s going to have a positive effect.”

Changing stereotype

After years of studies that linked video game playing to antisocial behavior and poor health, there seems to be a groundswell of new research supporting video games. Recent studies have shown that games can help surgeons perform better before surgery or help dyslexic kids learn to read.

“There was the old stereotype that a gamer is a 40-year-old in his parent’s basement,” said Allaire. “But that’s not true anymore.”

Allaire said this study will help him move forward with research that looks at developing games that help the elderly retain certain cognitive skills as they age and work key neuropathways for memory and learning.

But he said he got some unwelcome attention last month when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) called out  Allaire and his work during talks about wasteful government spending during the sequester debates.

“Eric Cantor used me as an example, and basically said, ‘Look, we’re paying someone $1.2 million to have old people play World of Warcraft,’” he said. “I agree with him; spending $1.2 million on World of Warcraft would be a waste, but he got it wrong.”

Allaire said the World of Warcraft study ran about $5,000 and the $1.2 million referred to an NSF study of experimental design that assigned 150 adults to play games with different conditions: either alone or with a partner, and at easy or hard levels. And, most importantly, the $1.2 million was paid out long before Americans even knew the word “sequester.”

Currently, Allaire is working on a food-preparation game and app that would be used by older adults to “practice between switching tasks,” Allaire said. “The more you can get older adults to switch their attention back and forth, you can improve their cognitive functioning.

“Digital games are a great way to do that.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...