Level Up

The Value of Video Gaming for Older Adults

I always thought the life cycle of a video gamer mirrored that of a Dark Age denizen: You’re done at 25. I’m 42, which makes me Egyptian pharaoh ancient. But when my 10-year-old stepson, who loves baseball and video games, agreed to play the latest Major League Baseball PlayStation game with me, I decided to get back into the gaming chair.

I’m not the only one — and despite how I feel, I’m not the oldest, either. About 25% of all video game players today are over age 45, according to the Entertainment Software Association. From 2016 to 2019, the number of gamers over age 50 jumped from 40.2 million to 50.6 million gamers, says one AARP study.

Older adults game on their phones, on their tablets and computers, and on game systems, such as Nintendo and PlayStation. They play world-building games like Minecraft, exercise-focused ones like Wii Sports, or online role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft. They also play puzzle games, strategy games, simulation games — anything you can imagine.

Who are these gamers? I practically sleep with my laptop and smart phone, and I couldn’t make it out of the first inning!

One gamer, I learned, is my neighbor Rob Chase, 52, an IT salesperson who lives in Park Ridge. In college, Chase and his friends liked playing tabletop strategy games, like Dungeons and Dragons. “When we all dispersed after college, we missed that connection. Video games allow us to get together again virtually to play the types of games we like.”

The social component — building connections and community — is one of the chief drivers for many people playing video games. Dawn Livorsi, a staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, says that video games go beyond providing a way for a group of college chums to yuck it up.

“A lot of grandparents, for instance, play video games, such as Minecraft, as a way to connect with their grandchildren,” she says. “Video games also provided a platform to break through the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic. There can be any number of reasons, but video games offer a chance for connection.”

Furthermore, video games can offer avenues for people to play other analog games online, such as bridge and Mahjong, that keep their minds engaged and their social connections thriving.

“I typically don’t see my clients running out to play the last edition of Madden football, but I do see them gravitating more for the connectivity piece regardless of the game,” Livorsi says.

Video games offer cognitive benefits, too. Take, for instance, 3D games — interactive games presented on a display in a three-dimensional manner. A 2020 study published in Behavioural Brain Research showed that playing 3D video games can improve memory in those over age 60.

And sometimes, the reasons to play video games don’t have to be so lofty.

“Instead of just watching a good movie, I get to be the central character in one,” says Tom Gowen, 51, a telecommunications engineer who lives in Manhattan. “I invest the time in a game if I connect with the story. For me, video games are my form of entertainment and a great way to relax.”

Whether it’s a cheat code to evoke nostalgia, a way to bridge generations, a tool to improve cognition, or simply a means to relax, older video gamers are defying expectations that gaming is the domain of the young.

Although temporarily discouraged by my poor first showing, I’m willing to give gaming with my stepson another chance. As a teen, I remember cringing as my parents struggled to learn how to use our home PC. That’s me — now. If I can get past my feelings of inadequacy, I may discover some of the fun — and benefits — that gaming has to offer.