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While the stereotypical image of a gamer might be a millennial sitting on the couch in their parent’s basement, there’s a new crop of video game players getting in on the fun. In fact, there are a growing number of older adults who have discovered the fun and health benefits of playing video games. And while some people joke about seniors not understanding technology enough to get their system up and running, there are many tech-savvy grandparents out there who enjoy getting their game playing on.

How Many Seniors Play Video Games? 

A study done by Big Fish Games in 2015 found that more than a quarter of all gamers are now adults aged 50 and older. Some seniors have even organized their own video game tournaments in order to connect with others in the community.

The majority of older adults state that they play video games in order to keep themselves mentally sharp, reduce boredom, to be challenged, and to have fun. Since they can be enjoyed by people of all ages, video games are a fun activity for the whole family.

Benefits of Video Games for Seniors

Research out of the University of Montreal found that people who regularly engaged in playing video games had decreased cognitive impairment, and that gaming might even help to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s.  

Over the course of two studies, young adults played 3D logic- and puzzle-based video games. Following game time, tests showed that the gray matter in their hippocampus increased. The hippocampus is primarily associated with spatial and episodic memory, a key factor in long-term cognitive health. The gray matter within the hippocampus is often used a marker for neurological disorders that can occur over time, including mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's.

Replicating the study with older adults over a period of six months, the researchers discovered that seniors who played video games five days per week showed an increase in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum, and that their short-term memory also improved.

Regularly playing video games has also been shown to improve or enhance visual-motor tracking, selective attention, and memory challenges in senior individuals, making gaming no longer just kids entertainment. One of the key findings, however, is to not just play the same old games year after year, but to learn new games in order to reap the most benefits. Other benefits are also seen in skills related to decision making, hand-eye coordination, and in some cases, auditory perception.

Another benefit of video games for seniors is that they can be enjoyed by those with various abilities. Even if a person is confined to a wheelchair, they can still enjoy a rousing game on their favorite entertainment system – the only caveat being that they will need to be able to operate the controller in some manner. If someone has difficulty leaving the house, they can still reap the rewards of social connections through playing online video games. Games can often be customized for accessibility for those with visual impairments, or through custom controllers.

Potential Downsides of Video Games for Seniors

Two of the most frequently touted downsides of video games are the risk for addiction and damage to the eyes.

A research paper from McMaster University found, however, that seniors who had eye damage and played first-person shooter games could still make out small print and recognize faces with ease. Because players needed to move their eyes quickly in order to play the game, it improved these skills even when they weren’t playing.

Seniors aren’t immune to video game addiction, however, and it is a very real problem for some. Limiting gaming time and making sure the person’s schedule is such that they have breaks to get out and about can help prevent addiction. Signs of video game addiction to watch for include:

  • Aggression toward video games (believing that the games are real or have a real impact on life)
  • Playing video games instead of socializing with friends or family  
  • Playing video games rather than getting outside
  • Playing video games for long periods of time, and becoming aggressive if they can’t play video games
  • Playing video games more than 6 hours each weekly
  • Spending most of one’s free time playing video games
  • Anxiety when anticipating a new game or the ability to play a game

Video games can also result in overuse or repetitive strain injuries. While these can be painful or activity limiting, the solution is pretty simple – take more breaks! Stretching, moving through one’s full range of motion, splints, or strengthening exercises are all ways to relieve the discomfort seniors may experience while video gaming.

Best Video Games for Seniors

For seniors and aging adults, exercising the brain is just as important as physical exercise, and video games can provide this stimulation. Through several different studies, researchers have found that World of Warcraft, NeuroRacer, and War Thunder are all excellent video games for seniors to play.

Nintendo Wii games that encourage physical activity have historically been a popular pick among older adults, with local and national tournaments taking place. “Bowling” nights making use of the gaming console also provide a means of social interaction for older adults. And because video games are played and enjoyed by people of all ages, there’s an opportunity for intergenerational game playing to take place. In other words, grandparents can enjoy this activity with their children and grandkids.

Exergaming, as it is known – combining exercise with video games – is also an effective means of promoting increased balance, postural control, and helping to prevent falls. This gamification of exercise can also be a powerful motivator for helping people stick with a program.

There are thousands of brain-boosting video games available – for computers, tablets and smartphones, or on console gaming systems. The choices are literally endless. Seniors should be encouraged to try a variety of games and systems in order to find what they enjoy best. They can also ask family and friends for recommendations and might find a new opponent or gaming partner in the process.