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Silver gaming – an alternative to TV for seniors

Image of a man standing in front of a screen

Dr Damian Gałuszka, Photo by Marianna Cielecka

Silver gaming – an alternative to TV for seniors

"The use of screen media by seniors usually consists in many hours spent in front of a TV screen. I would rather them to make an effort to use interactive media such as digital games," says Dr Damian Gałuszka from the Faculty of Humanities, author of a monograph on the role of digital games in the life of seniors, published by the AGH University Press.

In his publication, pioneer on the Polish market, the academic analyses the literature and other works on the use of digital games by seniors, taking a glance at social, cultural, and demographic fundaments of the addressed phenomenon. A significant part of his book is also an overview of 20 interviews conducted by the author with seniors who play games but also with experts with knowledge and expertise on the use of games and other digital media when working with the elderly. The research was complemented by observations of activities with the use of games organised in a senior centre in Danish Odense and computer classes in one of Krakow’s Seniors Activity Centres. By referring to the collected material, the author shares his recommendations on how the popularisation and use of digital games among seniors may support the process of successful aging.

Piotr Włodarczyk (Centre for Centre for Communication and Marketing at the AGH University): The topic of seniors playing digital games appeared in the public discourse mostly as a media curiosity. You entered onto this ground as a sociologist. Was it easy to reach the audience that you were interested in?

Damian Gałuszka: Getting access to such a group of people who had extensive experience with digital games turned out to be more difficult than I initially presumed. In previous studies with the participation of adults, their lack of time used to be the main challenge. As far as seniors were concerned, I was naive to think that it would be the other way round and they would be willing to meet and talk. It was not always the case. We came across various barriers, such as not defining oneself as a player, as some would downplay their experience and knowledge on the matter, therefore they lacked motivation to even start a conversation with me. Sometimes people resigned without any particular reason by simply refusing the interview. I say this because each such person was worth its weight in gold, firstly, because there are not that many such people in Poland, secondly, besides a few cases known from the media, these are invisible people, dispersed. As a result, I applied the snowball method based on networking and recommendations.

How the portrait of an elderly player may look like based on the interviews with people you managed to reach?

In this relatively small sample which I managed to study, we could observe some diversification. One part are the people who started their gaming journey in adulthood. Then, a relevant context in our conversation were inspirations from the young. If there were children in the life of the interviewee, usually a digital device came with. Most often it was a computer which, opposite to game consoles popular in the west, was a more universal device at a comparable or even lower price. Then, the subjects’ interest in games arose due to the observation of their environment. It was not always the family. These could be younger colleagues or some pupils who talked about games. Sometimes these people helped an elderly person to enter the world of digital entertainment. In the case of the people I studied, as this situational context faded and their own children grew up, there was less of the playing or it changed. One such example is an interviewee who lived through a period of fascination with Harry Potter books, films, and games with her entire family. When the children grew out of it, she also stopped being interested in it. Her use of games has changed in such a way that, as someone who spends a lot of time actively outside of home, she has switched to much simpler ones on a smartphone. Another group arising in the sample were what I call “stable gamers,” namely those who are able to play one game or a series of games for many years. Finally, there are the most dedicated gamers, who, like young people, heavily play the games we associate with the bestseller lists, series such as "Total War," "The Last of Us," "Assassin's Creed," "The Witcher," or even multiplayer shooters games that require particular dexterity. They also splurge on their hobby the most. They are also able to give up other pleasures in order to put aside funds to buy a game or console.

Does the gaming industry meet the needs of such people?

We notice that big players take some actions in this respect. A few years ago, Nintendo created a dependent brand which was supposed to promote one of the consoles and dedicated games among people who play occasionally or not at all, including the elderly. Although the venture was shut down in 2011, it shows that years before some developers were aware that there is a yet-to-be-developed potential on the market. In turn, two years ago, there was a video published on the official Xbox account on YouTube promoting the console based on a story of a senior who due to the pandemic isolation could not directly interact with their grandchildren, but, due to online games, they could stay in touch with their family members.

I believe that if this sector is to grow and keep the pace of the increasing generated income, it must be open to new audiences. Despite the core of the market still being young people, the average age of a player in the USA or in Europe is slightly over 30. The stereotype that mostly children and teenagers play games is untenable in the context of data we have. As far as the youngest age groups are concerned, this segment is already saturated in terms of gaming, and children and teens do not have their own money, so there is a financial limit. Middle-aged people may have the money to buy devices and games, but they lack time to engage in gaming due to their family and professional responsibilities. That leaves us with seniors. Studies from the USA and Western Europe show that from a few to a several dozen percent of studied players are 45+, 50+, and 55+, depending on how we segment the data. It is in this exact group that there is still much left to do as regards the popularisation and sale of games. Macrosocial demographical processes of aging and digitisation and ludification of culture contribute to the fall of the group of potential young players and the rise of the silver gamers. The gaming market will have to somehow manage in this new reality.

We can already see some indicators that may herald a broader trend. The recently concluded Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas featured panel discussions and speeches on accessible game development and gaming among the elderly. Lately in the United States, there was also a summit devoted to silver gamers, with representatives of the business invited.

In your book you pose a research question on whether it is possible for gaming to support the successful aging process. What do you mean by this in the context of digital games?

I consider silver gaming to be an activity we undertake in later stages of life, a stimulus to increase cognitive effort, gain currently relevant digital competencies, and connect with other people. The use of screen media by the elderly mostly consists in hours of traditional TV consumption, in this case  this is not even its personalisation version with the use of VOD. Thus, I would prefer that they make an effort to take advantage of interactive media, which include digital games. However, I would like to caveat that I do not consider every use of games by seniors to be desirable. If someone has been using one simple smartphone or browser game for many years, it makes no qualitative difference. The beneficial use of games that I would like to promote is to reach for a variety of productions, challenging the player to master more and more rules and strategies, as the idea is to provide oneself with different stimuli. All in all, playing itself should an element of a variable spectrum of undertake activities. This limits the negative potential of this practice that is also present and can lead to alienation or addiction.

What obstacles stand in the way of seniors who have not played games yet being able to enter the world of proper gaming?

Several categories may be mentioned here, but I would put age-related stereotypes first, both those manifested by family members or friends who tell an older person, "playing is for the young, you can't handle it," as well as similar self-stereotypes about one's own agency and abilities. Such views self-limit people and do not allow them to make effort to learn how to use the device, install the software, and how the rules of the game work. Another category is the financial barrier. As described by one of my interviewees, even the most engaged players live off the pensions and the Polish ones leave little money for expenses outside of the category of basic necessity. Some of my interlocutors admitted that they happened to buy games at supermarket sales or used one game for a very long time, which is unlikely to be the case with younger gamers, who can afford to spend a larger sum of money on their hobbies or are able to make purchases more economically – buying used games, using subscriptions, or buying digital games on sale. The peculiarity of the medium itself is also an obstacle, which is related to deficits in digital competence in the elderly. If a game does not allow you to adjust the interface, change the font, or lower the difficulty level, not to mention more elaborate options, such as being assisted during gameplay by a second person during more difficult passages, then an elderly person may refrain from playing such a game.

If seniors who would like to try digital entertainment cannot rely on the help of their immediate environment, there remain institutions whose mission is to help the elderly. Are such places prepared to provide in this respect?

Statistically speaking, there is quite a lot going on in the various projects aimed at developing the competencies necessary to function in a digital society. The problem is that both from the interviews I have conducted myself as well as from other sources I have analysed, it appears that entertainment and the possibility of using smartphones, computers, or game consoles in a ludic capacity are overlooked in the process. This can be understood to some extent because the institutions running such projects sometimes have to operate under financial constraints and insufficient personnel. If in the neighbourhood there is no trainer with knowledge and capacity to convey it, it is hard to expect the context of digital entertainment to emerge. This is especially true if the elderly themselves do not report such a need, because, for example, they are not aware that games exist at all and could contribute anything good to their lives, and manifest sometimes downright negative attitudes toward the medium or share stereotypes about their own low competence in this regard. As a matter of fact, there have been a few noteworthy initiatives, such as the project implemented in Katowice by Urszula Klosinska who used an Xbox console along with a Kinect motion controller in one of the hospital's geriatric wards to activate people suffering from dementia and create a space to spend time together with loved ones or hospital staff. The first webinars on gaming in the context of the elderly were also created, but in the institutional sphere, these are all scattered, uncoordinated, and occasional initiatives. Even state campaigns to encourage older people to enter the digital world omit the entertainment context, as if we do not use computers and other devices for fun. One can also encounter displays of sheer ageism, when guides on the use of smartphones by the elderly recommend that simple games be uninstalled from their devices, as they will still inadvertently click on something and expose themselves to unnecessary costs.

That is, instead of educating properly, some prefer to get rid of the problem in advance.

This approach amplifies the fear associated with the use of these devices even further. I had the opportunity to observe a computer training course, where the seniors, sentence by sentence, wrote down each successive step in their notebooks. And yet it is obvious that when they get home and turn on their devices, some situations that were not anticipated in the scheme may arise, a pop-up or a message will appear that will require the user to make a decision. This is when certain concerns arise, that if you do something wrong, you could damage the device and expose yourself to repair costs. We do not have a similar fear ourselves, yet some seniors are being taught so. This shows how much there is still to change when it comes to the awareness of these older users of cyberspace.

At the same time, I do not want to generalise, because I also talked to seniors who ran Facebook groups, blogs, or even with the support of a child, a streaming on YouTube. However, you have to look at the proportions. How many find their way in this digital world, but how many are still struggling with basic competencies in this area?

Are you not afraid that the conclusions of your research will quickly become outdated, as more and more people will be entering their senior years already operating in this digital world with confidence?

Many decades ago, an American sociologist, William Ogburn, coined a hypothesis of cultural lag. What he meant by that was that technologies change so intensively in the material form, that people do not keep up in the cultural one. We constantly have to chase technology. In my book, I refer to a simple invention, a TV. If someone who learnt how to use a TV in the 90. got a smart TV today and tried to use in just like he learnt before, they would use only a small fraction of the potential of this technology.

In the literature in English, one can find many articles and reports on the issue of silver gaming. There are not that many books, but my publication is the first one in Poland that deals with this topic. There is always some risk that researchers will verify my conclusions, either positively or negatively. I truly wish that to happen because that is what science is based on. Perhaps some of my findings will become outdated for those who are already playing today and will have a very long history of playing. However, they will remain in force in case of the people who will enter the gaming arena at later stages of life. A lot of barriers and issues will not disappear overnight and we will have to seek solutions.

Have you received any signals that your publication arouses interest in the academic or institutional community?

The reception of the idea and the way it was presented in the book has been very positive. Such new and unobvious topics, such as the elderly playing games, naturally draw some attention at first. However, obstacles appear once we want to change something in practice. Then, it has to be planned and funds need to be found. My dream is to finally move to practical action after reading these 300 pages of theory. If someone was inspired enough to organise workshops or a social campaign, I would be eager to collaborate.

Dr Damian Gałuszka – sociologist, assistant professor at the Faculty of Humanities at the AGH University, long-standing enthusiast of video games. He is concerned with analysing the influence of technology on the functioning of societies and people with particular focus on digital solutions. Author of numerous studies, speeches, and academic papers, including his monograph on video games in family environment.