Will Video Games Save Seniors from Despair?

While there are certainly a few exceptions out there, by and large, the places where we house our elders for whom we can no longer care on our own are pretty depressing places, which is why people only go there when they have no other choice. After all, who wants to live in a place where the highlight of your day is the afternoon bingo game? Which has always made me wonder something: What's with the bingo? It isn't as though when today's elderly were young, bingo was the most awesome thing in their social lives, the equivalent of today's young people going clubbing or BASE jumping or whatever. Seems to me it's something the staffs of nursing homes do because, well, that's what you're supposed to do, and the residents participate because they don't have all that many other demands on their time. When people who are in their 20s, 30s, or 40s today find themselves in nursing homes decades from now, they sure as hell aren't going to want to play bingo. So what are they going to do with themselves?

The answer has always seemed pretty clear to me: video games. Not only have today's young people grown up playing them, they're an excellent way to distract yourself from otherwise depressing situations. And as we learn from Slate, not only is it already happening, at least one study suggests that older people who play video games may be reaping benefits:

In a study to be published in the July edition of Computers in Human Behavior and available now online, researchers recruited elderly adults—with average age of 77—from senior centers, religious centers, and senior living apartments. As part of an effort to test cognitive training via games, the participants were first asked to rank their usage of digital games. The survey revealed almost a third of the seniors played at least once a week. Just over 17 percent played every day. Games reported included everything from computer solitaire and free cell to puzzle games (crosswords, Sudoku) and Wii Bowling.

The seniors also took part in a battery of perceptual, cognitive, and affective tests. These included the widely used CES-D scale for depressive symptomatology. Interestingly, the researchers found regular and occasional gamers to have significantly lower mean levels of negative affect. Additionally, gaming grandparents reported significantly better instrumental/everyday functioning than non-gamers.

"Lower mean levels of negative affect" means, basically, that they're happier. As the Slate piece points out, since this is a survey, we don't know which direction the causal arrow points (happier seniors might be playing more games, as opposed to games making people happier), but the fact that so many of them are playing tells you something. Granted, there are probably more seniors playing solitaire than Gears of War, but when people who grew up with video games hit their golden years, they could well end up spending even more time playing than they did in their youth.

And what's wrong with that? Considering how much more complex, immersive, and graphically and narratively rich today's games are compared to those of a few decades ago, just think what they're going to be like 40 or 50 years from now. Frankly, by the time my ungrateful kids shunt me off to the home, I'm going to be pretty pissed if we don't have full-on holodecks,11 It's actually more likely that the completely immersive virtual reality won't by a physical space you'll stand in, interacting with a shifting arrangement of matter, and more likely it'll be something that feeds stimuli directly to your brain to simulate these experiences. But you get the idea. where I can play a set against Roger Federer at Wimbledon, chat with Richard Feynman about the nature of the universe while sipping coffee at a Left Bank cafe, then blast some alien invaders, all in the same afternoon and with an almost perfect level of realism. And of course, in the holodeck I will be unburdened by my decaying meatsack, and will do all these wonderfully stimulating things while in the body of a particularly healthy 20-year-old. It's almost enough to make you believe growing old won't be so bad after all. Almost.

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