Why video game makers need to pay attention to growing market of 50-plus gamers

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On a recent Thursday morning, Elmer and Anna Van Zee, who are 91 and 92 respectively, walk hand-in-hand down the hallway of the Steele Lane Community Center in Santa Rosa to a small conference room.

After situating his and his wife’s coffee cups and granola bar snacks on the chair between them, Elmer fires up a golf video game on the Nintendo Wii console connected to the big screen as Pauline Hatakeda, 86, and her husband Duke, 91, arrive. For about an hour, this foursome virtually putts, slices and attempts to get holes-in-one.

“It’s fun to play games with others,” Anna Van Zee said of their regular matches. “Besides getting the ball in the hole, a big challenge is mastering the controller.”

The Van Zees have a gaming console at home and often the Hatakedas join them there for more golf following a lunch outing. Pauline Hatakeda says, “This has helped me understand the game of golf so that I can enjoy it more when I watch it on TV.”

The city of Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks facilities have offered Wii sports for over seven years, first at the Bennett Valley Senior Center and now at Steele Lane Community Center.

“The program has great ADA-compatible options. The players can choose the physical level of their activity, sit or stand, be left or right handed. Not only is Wii user friendly but it has boosted their confidence with technology,” Recreation Coordinator Mickey Remy said.

She estimates about 210 people weekly use the Steele Lane center during the hours designated especially for seniors (between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.).

THE RISE OF SENIOR GAMERS

Lisa Cini is a designer with 25 years’ experience developing interiors that improve the quality of life for seniors and author of “BOOM: The Baby Boomers Guide to Leveraging Technology.”

Part of Cini’s work in designing for memory care facilities is to “gamify” the environment. For example, she uses color-coding, or creates a movement flow without the dead ends that lead to a patient’s frustration.

“There was an experiment in Stockholm, Sweden, where subway stairs were rigged to play musical notes — think of the big piano keyboard Tom Hanks jumped on in the movie Big — to encourage people to walk up to street level instead of taking the escalator. An amazing 66% more people took the stairs. When you gamify something, you can get a task done because it is fun at the core.”

“What developers need to pay attention to,” Cini concluded, “is the gap between what works for teens and what works for the 55-plus user, because there are billions of dollars involved, bigger than almost all professional sports combined. They don’t need to capture the senior market; it’s already there. They just need to tailor the games to this demographic, so older folks can join in on the fun.”

Given the fact that AARP surveys have found 43% of gamers over the age of 60 play video games every day, the demand from those retirees with time on their hands is clearly substantial.

“We are living in the golden age of video games, and players are thriving,” wrote Stan Pierre-Louis, president of the Electronic Software Association. The industry is thriving too, with sales exceeding a record-breaking $43.4 billion in 2018.

VIRTUAL REALITY CHECK

Gaming has proved its value as a testing ground for other technologies, too, such as AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality). AR is computer-generated content overlaid on a real world environment—examples are GPS driving maps or the headline-making Pokemon Go app. Virtual reality is familiar to almost everyone in some form, and the industry is in non-stop development of VR glasses, controllers, consoles and turbo-charged computers to support living and gaming in 3D.

Virtual reality games may not be as mainstream as other types, but there are many applications that go beyond play to allow learning, travel, meditation and creativity. Users may tour King Tut’s tomb or visit a favorite national park, explore the ocean floor without scuba gear or hike Machu Picchu. Tilt Brush by Google allows a budding artist to paint and sculpt minus the mess. Rendever and Mynd VR are platforms with content developed especially for therapeutic use in senior living homes.

Research led by Chee Siang "Jim" Ang, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent indicates that virtual reality applications can help even those with advanced dementia, as reported by Kristen Fischer at Healthline.com in May. Ang and his team used VR devices on patients, with a mean age of 69, who are living with Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s disease. The subjects visited five virtual locations: the countryside, a sandy beach, a rocky beach, a cathedral and a forest. Over multiple exposures, patients were able to recall old memories, improve mood, increase pleasure in subsequent artistic activity, and improve social interactions with their caretakers.

Ang believes creators could make VR settings that are customized for each patient to allow them to explore their own home or a favorite location, and positively counteract social isolation and depression.

A PRESCRIPTION FOR A GAME

Some researchers, such as Adam Gazzeley at the University of California San Francisco’s Neuroscape Lab, are going in a different direction, “trying to create an entirely new category of medicine” by combining the latest high-tech advances with neuroscience.

In a 2016 Medscape interview, Gazzeley describes how he enlisted his friends Matt Omernick and Dmitry Andreev from LucasArts to help him improve the cognitive abilities of older adults using a custom-designed video game that would challenge the brain in just the right way. The pair, best known for creating Star Wars games, came on board with enthusiasm.

Omernick’s reaction was, “I have been teaching teenagers how to kill aliens my entire life. I’m ready to use my skills for something different.”

The first game Gazzeley’s team developed, called Neuroracer, addressed multi-tasking ability — a skill that peaks in one’s early 20s and then declines throughout life.

A group of 60 to 80-year-olds played the game in their homes for 12 hours over the course of a month. Researchers found that over that period, they could revert multi-tasking ability in the game to what it was for 20-year-olds. They also found that players also improved their working memory.

Capitalizing on the brain’s neuroplasticity (the ability to form new neural connections to replace those lost either through injury, disease or age), Gazzeley and Neuroscape continue testing specialized video games with the same rigor drugs are tested. One game they have developed, called Body Brain Trainer, challenges the user both physically and mentally in one game experience. Several of their studies are going into a full FDA approval process, “complete with controls, double blinds, in every way a drug trial except it is a video game.”

Gazzeley pointed out in a web video (neuroscape.ucsf.edu) that there is great enthusiasm for this work related to diseases that have both movement and cognitive issues, like Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s. He and his team have long realized the potential of using video games to improve attention and the quality of our minds; they hope prescription video games will be part of medicine’s future.

Wynnelena Canio, a geriatrician and psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, focuses on delivering a comprehensive approach to management of age-related conditions. She says, “Most of the video games out there have evidence of improving only the attention part of cognitive function. It’s games like Wii tennis and bowling that engage the player’s body, to the point of working up a sweat, that are most effective in maintaining mental and physical health.”

Canio is the lone geriatrician on Governor Newsom’s newly-formed Alzheimer’s Prevention and Preparedness Task force.

“Studies show that regular, consistent aerobic exercise delays the onset of dementia; if I could put that in a pill, I would!” Canio declares.

But she also made the point that if an elder is being pressured by family to “do brain games for their own good” and Dad or Mom doesn’t want to play, the stress caused will counteract any benefit. “Whatever the activity, it has to be fun and interesting for them.”

CONTROVERSY

Allan Bernstein of the North Bay Neuroscience Institute in Sebastopol concedes that video games and memory is a “great topic for discussion.”

“We know from running multiple clinical trials on Alzheimer’s disease that enthusiasm for just about anything will produce positive results even if the long term results are minimal or lacking any evidence of sustained benefit. From a business standpoint, it is a great opportunity. From a medical/scientific standpoint it has failed to stand the test of time.”

In 2016, the creators and marketers of the Lumosity “brain training” program paid a $2 million fine for deceptive advertising for suggesting that their games could stave off memory loss and dementia. The FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said that Lumosity did not have the science to back up its ads.

Related to the controversy, UCSF’s Gazzeley, in his Medscape interview with Dr. Eric Topol, concedes that “not everything we do for our brains is going to be equally effective or even good, just like not everything you put in your mouth is going to be equally beneficial for your body.”

There is scientific evidence for using Wii sports and virtual reality games therapeutically. But for millions of older game enthusiasts, documented by AARP surveys, they are using this most powerful form of interactive media to “disrupt aging.” Whether it’s improving balance, coordination and strength, or boosting multi-tasking ability, memory and problem solving, the game players feel more robust and vital. They are relaxing and relieving stress alone with their phones or engaging in battles and building online worlds with others. And most importantly, they are having a heck of a good time.

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