Video game adverts are awash with fresh-faced young men – and more recently women – hunched over the latest must-have console. But beneath the fountain of youth lies a stream of elderly gamers who love nothing more than picking up a controller and playing anything from Skyrim to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
The stereotypical view that video games are the preserve of children and adolescents is now more myth than fact. Pensioners are playing more games than ever, and in fact, many of them have spent decades enjoying the medium; it’s easy to forget that the halcyon days of Pong and Atari are now almost 40 years in the past.
Last year, a survey by UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) discovered that 42% of Brits aged 55–64 and 27% of the over-65s have enjoyed playing video games in the past five years. Over 40% gravitate to the strategy genre, while 20% prefer multiplayer games. It’s further proof that gaming is spreading far beyond the younger generation.
There’s a potential mental health benefit to playing games, too. Research (such as this Canadian study) has suggested that seniors who play games even occasionally report better overall mental well-being, and that some forms of cognitive stimulation might delay the onset of degenerative neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Of course, there’s a wide variety of reasons why older adults enjoy games, including the social benefits: online gaming can also provide a valuable connection to the outside world.
The elderly are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, and this lack of human connection can have a profound effect on their physical and mental health. The ability to forge bonds with online players, then, is a genuine plus. Shirley Curry is an 83-year-old YouTube sensation affectionately known as ‘Skyrim Grandma’ by her mass of over 900K subscribers. Her nickname springs, of course, from her love of The Elder Scrolls; she also refers to her subscribers as her ‘grandkids’, and believes that playing games has helped to keep her mind in shape.
“I think that it has certainly kept my mind healthy longer compared to a lot of people I see around my age,” Curry says. “Although, even so, my memory does keep getting worse – but I started gaming 40 or so years ago.”
Curry also emphasises the importance of maintaining some kind of hobby to counter-attack those feelings of isolation and disconnect in later life. “As people get older, they should have any kind of hobby that they enjoy,” she says, “but so often they don’t, so they just sit and feel lonely. I have so many interests that I’ve never felt lonely. If older people want to play online with others, they can make some good and interesting friends to chat with – I know I have. Gaming is just another hobby.”
When asked if she thought the games industry could do more to include the older generation, Curry passionately believes that “involving us more in their advertising” and showing older people playing games could help spread the hobby’s popularity even further among the elderly.
All kinds of considerations go into developing a game, from its plot to its mechanics to the tiniest details of its visuals and sound design. But do game developers consider how their game is viewed through the eyes of an older person? Jeff Ross, game designer of the survival horror Days Gone at SIE Bend Studio, says that “simply realising there’s a broader audience is a start, but in order to effectively serve them it will require a deeper and more thorough understanding of the audience’s tastes and preferences, as well as what actually works.”
“I think the scientific data is too early to be specifically actionable, so I’d like to see an advocacy group emerge that can teach my industry about the things we can do better,” Ross says. “The accessibility movement is a great example of how the community has taught game developers about easy changes that go a long way in creating much more inclusive
experiences for people who used to be left out. As developers, this gives us tangible action items, and that’s the reason I’d like to see the same types of lessons for mental health or cognitive benefits.”
Delving further into ways developers could make their games more appealing to older players, Ross explains the hurdles that could get in the way of this happening. “One big obstacle to dedicated experiences might be how strong 55+ people are on social media,” he says. “If you’re an indie developer counting on viral awareness driving your sleeper hit, it’s not obvious that this is the audience who’s going to generate the buzz you need to break out from the pack. Ideally, developers don’t look at this as an either/or situation, and can learn to create games with broader appeal, along with gameplay that’s tailored to all audiences.”
As a self-confessed member of Generation X, Ross says that “the stigma around people of any age playing games has decreased over the years, but there’s still a trace association that games aren’t serious or timeworthy, but this stigma is eventually going to fade even more.”
Ross cautions that research into the subject is still in its infancy, but adds that “the initial findings bode well for establishing a connection between gaming and positive mental health benefits. It’s definitely eye-opening to me in that there’s a larger audience we can appeal to, as well as a potential area to improve how we make games for the greater societal good.”
John Garvin, Days Gone’s creative director and writer, has been playing video games since Pong came out in 1972, and believes that older adults value their time a lot more than the younger generation. Garvin says that, for a game to be worthy of an older player’s time, it needs to have depth, and speak to them specifically. “Games need to have more to say,” he says. “I’m not saying they all need to have a story, but older players value their time more. Sure, time-wasting games on their phones are OK – but are they going to sit down for two hours and play a game that doesn’t make them think?”
While reminiscing about his first job – making cartridges for the Atari 2600 – and going on to play every computer game in the eighties on the Atari 800, Garvin ponders whether games have a positive mental health benefit on the older mind. “I’ve played video games at every stage of my life, and I don’t see that changing. Is there a benefit to the mind? I’ll leave that to the experts, but I feel like anything you do to engage yourself mentally – reading, puzzles, movies, poetry, music, conversations, video games – is beneficial.”
While some elders find learning complex controls a daunting process due to arthritis or slower motor skills, there are plenty of older adults who are proficient enough to enter the competitive world of eSports.
Just a Number
Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter which calls for extremely fast reflexes, isn’t necessarily a game you’d associate with the elderly, but with nicknames that include Wanja ‘Knitting Knight’ Godänge and Inger ‘Trigger Finger’ Grotteblad, the Silver Snipers are here to turn everything you think you know about senior citizens and video games on its head.
The veteran eSports team from Sweden, whose squad ranges in age from 62 to 81, compete in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments partly due to the positive mental health benefits it provides, and also to be part of a younger gaming generation. “They make me feel a lot younger when I’m gaming with them, and the physical aspect is that my brain and hand co-ordination has increased,” says Godänge. “I can feel that my brain, with all that strategy and thinking, is keeping me on a healthy path. I have also noticed that my response time in the games gets faster.”
Grotteblad says that since getting into gaming, she’s made friends both on and off the screen. “It’s not uncommon to bump into other gamers in their 60s, and people aren’t ashamed of saying they’re seniors that play games.”
She also says that before she started gaming, she didn’t have as much in common with her grandchildren; now, it’s an interest they can share.
Whether older gamers play games for their mental well-being or simply out of habit, it’s clear that they’re the future of an ever-changing and maturing industry. “The youngsters that are gaming every day now will soon get old, and it won’t be too long before it’s common that all seniors are gaming,” Grotteblad points out. “For example, Counter-Strike has been around since 1999, and if you started playing that when you were around 15 years old, you would now be pushing 40. So this is only 20–30 years away. The industry needs to be prepared and develop games and equipment that are suited for the demands of tomorrow.”
Developers and publishers are only just starting to take notice of a market that doesn’t fit the ‘traditional’ mould of teens and 20-somethings, but there are at least signs that things are beginning to change. And they absolutely should: let’s face it, we’ll all be Silver Snipers one day.