ElderFun: Putting Fun into Video Games for Older Adults

Written by Dennis Kappen



Much research has been done on the topic of the positive aspects of gaming and the use of gaming devices for older adults. Research has predominantly focused on areas of gaming and its applicability in various categories of rehabilitation; physical and cognitive training; leisure and entertainment; and adult learning. Older adults experience age-related changes in their cognitive and physical abilities. This paper has special significance because, this was the first paper that I had read, sent my way by Dr. Nacke, in my quest for research on the topic of social interaction in older adults.

Reference Information

McLaughlin, a., Gandy, M., Allaire, J., & Whitlock, L. (2012). Putting Fun into Video Games for Older Adults. Ergonomics in Design: The Quarterly of Human Factors Applications, 20(2), 13–22. doi:10.1177/1064804611435654


Learning needs and capabilities of older adults deteriorate with age. New technologies used in video games may pose barriers to the older adults’ population (McLaughlin et al., 2012) due to the decline in their cognitive and physical abilities. Game experiences and expectations from gamification experiments can pose serious challenges to game adoption.

Digital games or video games present a medium where social interaction takes place on multiple levels. These games afford the possibility of player to audience interaction, defining an element inclusivity of the audience engagement to influence player engagement. It also encourages people of different generations; different skill levels to play together and people who are unable to leave their homes due to disability to play online. These games help build meaningful empathy, encouragement, build morale and build co-dependent communities that help to nurture one another’s kindred spirit.

Aging causes perceptual, physical and cognitive decline, hence, the motivation to make a decision to play a digital game depends on motivated choice (Melenhorst et al., 2006).  McLaughlin et al., argue that the model of motivated choice while initially defined in reference to new technologies can be extended to the adoption of video games as a leisure activity.  Motivation and barriers are related to cost and benefits

Motivated Choice model extended to Older Adults

Costs Benefits Barriers


Time away from leisure activities

Monetary cost

Benefits from adoption of Technology

Convenience of use

Adaptation of technology

Enhancement of lifestyle

Limitations of ability

Perceptual barriers


Physical ability

Cognitive ability

The main idea that is theorized in the paper is that the existence of benefits is not sufficient to inspire older adults to adopt a new technology or a video game; the benefits must be perceptible to the users to make a motivated choice to adapt the game.


This paper is well written and has a reasonably good structure. The authors present a rationale behind the motivated choice decision of older adults in their decision making process to adapt a new technology or a digital game. The discussion in the paper is centered on key areas that influence the aspect of putting fun into videogames for older adults and defining motivated choice of adapting video games into their lifestyle. My intention is to discuss these areas from the point of view of its relevance and its ramifications on the lifestyle of older adults.

Cognitive and Physical Abilities

Much research has shown that playing videogames have helped improve cognitive abilities, physical dexterity, reasoning abilities, mental rotation, spatial attention, task switching, working memory, short term memory and reaction time. I believe that, the presence of a large baby boomer population, rapidly expanding digital technologies, continuously evolving social media technologies, immersive gaming systems such as Wii and Kinect systems demand the need for integrating these technologies and devices for the older adult population. While the focus of the gaming industry has been more aligned towards design and development of games and devices for the younger generation, it is imperative to understand and implement games and devices for the older population.

Social Interaction

Games have also been a social activity and have had multi-leveled influences on social interaction. Hultsch et al., (1999) indicated that active social interaction is negatively correlated to Alzheimer’s disease (ALS) is positively related to self-reliance, self-efficacy and well-being.

Video games can excel in social interactions by enabling persons with disabilities to interact with one-another, enable interactions between players of difference age groups, and enable interactions between players with different skill sets. Persons with disabilities can play without having to leave their place of residence and engage in a meaningful social interaction with others. Older adults with active social life deals with stress better and help to improve their life expectancy (Eisenberger et al., 2007; Maier et al., 2005).

I found it interesting to note that apart from the benefits of social engagement, a motivated choice decision in adopting a video game is also dependent on various costs that could bar older adults from adopting electronic games. I believe that evaluating motivated choice was a key aspect of the paper; wherein the decision to play a game goes beyond the tangible benefits of physical activity and cognitive engagement, but the value of the perceptible benefits of a social, entertaining and engaging way to spend ones time in playing a game

Study design

The authors collected qualitative data by conducted two gaming focus groups of older adults (age>60) and a research study involving the Nintendo Wii. The sample size in the focus groups was 13 adults which is low from a study design perspective. The focus group information helped te authors to categorize the games that the older adults were used to playing into four genres: puzzle games (Tetris, Bejewelled), computerized versions of word games (Boggle, Crosswords,Yahtzee), computerized versions of card games (Solitaire, FreeCell, Spider Solitaire)   and virtual analogues of physical sports (Wii Bowling, Wii Tennis).

Comments from the focus groups helped the authors to select a game for a subsequent study which involved more than 30 players. The study aimed to correlate age-related differences in affect, perception and cognition corresponding to cost and benefits experienced by the players.

Bloom Box, a specific game designed by the authors for all ages, required motor control, reasoning and reaction time. It was different from the game the participants had played prior to the research study. In this game a participant had to throw a virtual projectile using a Wii input device and achieve a goal of knocking down a stack of blocks

The study used two cameras, one front and one side to record the player’s actions and expressions.


It was interesting to note the authors differentiating costs into the following:

Costs attributable to physical changes

  • lack of control
  • limitations in motor skills
  • challenges in dexterity and hand to eye coordination
  •  visual challenges such as readability, and ability to differentiate gameplay elements from the background scene
  • challenges due to game emphasis on speed accuracy and coordination
  • poor game design for the older population

Costs attributable to cognitive changes

  • memory demands on the player (need to remember information needed for gameplay)
  • challenges in reading comprehension
  • inability to juggle multiple mental models for interfaces

Affective costs

  • Stereotype threat (negative stereotype of their social group)
  • Expectation of failure; Fear of failure
  • Lack of confidence
  • Frustration
  • Emotional arousal
  • Lack of motivation
  • Negativity
McLaughlin-Putting Fun

Credits:McLaughlin A. et al.,Putting Fun into Video games for Older Adults


There had to be an inherent gain to playing the game, which, could be either a tangible or intangible benefit occurring from indulging in a gaming activity. In addition to a physical and cognitive training achieved through gaming activity, the perceptible benefits could manifest in the form of fun, social interaction, self-esteem, increased well-being, positive emotions, achievement, and status to mention a few.

Suggestions for improvement

The paper indicated that Bloom Box was designed for all ages and required motor control, reasoning and some reaction time. However, the authors did not explain how the reasoning aspect of the Bloom Box game worked.

The authors indicated the existence of metrics of gameplay via literature review, and used established game usability and “funativity” metrics such a survey questions and flow questionnaire. However, the results section of the research study was inserted under the benefits section of the paper. It would have been better to have a separate results section in the paper identifying the variables measured and the corresponding variances.

While the authors indicated the importance of benefits of play based on literature review, from my perspective, the authors should have selected a few benefits and determined the relevance and variance of dependent variables within the Bloom Box game.

The authors indicate that certain benefits of play increased during gameplay; however, they do not indicate how this increase was quantified via defined metrics for gameplay evaluation.


During the research study of the Bloom Box game, the players tended to support, encourage and even comment on another player’s performance. Encouragements from players lead to better collaborative efforts in completing the task activity within the game.

Initially, even though the older adults playing the Bloom Box game found it to be challenging, they came back to play the same game over a 15 day research study period. This helped to reinforce the fact that repetitive actions in the game helped them to remember certain actions, and indulge in participating in the game activity from a social interaction benefit.

Usability techniques can be mapped to the design of games for older adults however must be modified to account for age related changes. Older adults will be motivated to play a game provided they can see a definite benefit if spending the time to engage in the play activity.

Image Credits
Homer Simpson

3 thoughts on “ElderFun: Putting Fun into Video Games for Older Adults

  1. Michael Miljanovic

    One comment I’d like to make regards the supposed cognitive decline of aging populations. With the exception of individuals who develop disorders, I have seen some studies suggest that elder populations are actually more adept at skills such as problem solving (which is highly important for playing video games) than younger players. I do agree that this is not always the case, especially in the case of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s or similar ailments, but I think there is a subset of the older population that actually has a more agile mindset than the youth of today.

    Back on topic, I think the structure of this review is a little unorthodox. The ‘summary’ section is actually just the introduction, and the discussion includes the methods and results of the paper. While this is by no means incorrect or wrong in any way, it does make it harder to distinguish between the sections of the review that are objective and those that reflect the reviewer’s personal opinion. My favourite part of this review was the ‘suggestions for improvement’ section, as it clearly indicated what parts of the original paper needed to be remedied. If anything, I would like to see more of this sort of writing. I was a little disappointed that the conclusion of the review was just a reflection of the paper’s conclusion rather than a summary of what the reviewer liked/disliked about the paper. The writing in this review is excellent, but I would like to see more of the reviewer’s personal opinions.

  2. Dennis Kappen Post author

    Thank you for the comment. Based on a collection of 158 papers in my collection (I need to dig deeper to find more papers in this research area) , research has shown that there is a deterioration of cognitive and physical skills in the context of an aging population. These studies are relative to comparisons being made with studies on a relatively younger population.

    Problem solving skills can be maintained and enhanced through engaging in brain training activities, I am keen on reading the studies that you mention in your comment. I would like to add these to my collection. Hence , please e-mail me these studies.

    Regarding your comment on the discussion section of the review, I disagree with your broad generalization. I prefer to establish key takeaways/categories/contributions while reviewing the paper. I have explained my rationale within the key takeaways/categories/contributions as a means to either justify or critique the authors statements. The only area where I present key text from the paper is in the area regarding “motivated choice” and the authors’ definition of “costs”, which in my opinion are pivotal research contributions in the paper.

    I believe that when reviewing any paper, from my perspective, I prefer to find and highlight key positives. My way of being an eternal optimist is to find positives, if any, as opposed to just searching for negatives:) Perhaps, I need to skew this attitude and find more negatives when reviewing a paper, which in turn could help balance my reviews. Each category within the discussion explains my perspective on the relevance of the category in relation to the “gestalt” of the paper.

    Lets exchange papers so as to build our own collections :)


  3. Rina Wehbe

    The above exchange of comments made me curious. I found a few articles citing the decline in cognition and memory. Memory seems to be in focus. Of course we must distinguish the typical trajectory of aging from the non-typical. Personally, I thought this paper was well written:

    Hedden, T., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2004). Insights into the ageing mind: a view from cognitive neuroscience. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 5(2), 87–96. doi:10.1038/nrn1323

    I would also be interested in reading the papers Mike was mentioning as well.

    Overall, I thought this paper was informative. I especially appreciated the table featuring quotes representing the costs and benefits of gameplay. I felt that was a really interesting way to get the point across. I also liked how the authors ended with Design guidelines.

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