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Research Focus: Aging Well – How digital games can help seniors

June 30, 2015

Today, many seniors struggle with issues of isolation and depression, often times having no friends or family around, leading to declines in their mental abilities. Most of us will likely face these same struggles as we age. Dr. David Kaufman’s research aims to eliminate these issues and stereotypes but with a digital twist: how to help seniors become fully functioning members of society and, create inter-generational play – helping grandparents bond with their grandchildren to create common interests - through the use of digital games.

“We view digital games [ie: video games] as being popular amongst the younger generation,” said Dr. Kaufman. “What if digital games could be used to solve several glaring issues amongst seniors including cognitive, social, physical and psychological issues? And perhaps one day in the future, help that very same younger generation who may have similar issues of loneliness, depression, isolation and others.”

A few years ago, Dr. Kaufman was approached to teach EDUC 351: Teaching the Older Adult, a course that was losing popularity. Dr. Kaufman also faced his own increasing concern – becoming a senior himself. Then it hit him; what if a senior’s quality of life could be enhanced through digital games? Believing in the idea of “teaching what you have to learn” and being inspired by the subject, Dr. Kaufman set out to do just that[i].

In 2003 the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) awarded Dr. Kaufman and his colleagues the Simulation and Advanced Gaming Environments for Learning (SAGE for Learning) grant – $3 million over five years (2003-08) – the largest SSHRC grant possible[i]. The SAGE project proved to be a catalyst for Dr. Kaufman and his team who felt that there was a real need to do more research around digital games and enhancing senior living, which helped lead to the creation of the Aging Well project[ii]. Dr. Kaufman wanted to make it a priority to get seniors - the largest growing digital and computer using population in Canada, and also most at risk for isolation - socially engaged with other people.

 “The goal is to demonstrate that digital games can improve the quality of life for seniors, improving cognitive skills, and providing social and emotional benefits while encouraging lifelong and continued learning,” said Dr. Kaufman. “With content built into the game, you can learn about topics of interest while you play.”

Under the Aging Well project, a survey was developed on digital game playing patterns and benefits for seniors. Information was collected from approximately 1,200 seniors in greater Vancouver, Quebec and Ottawa. Results showed that approximately 50% played table or board games; the other half play digital games (half playing 1-2 hours and a third played 5-7 days a week). The Aging Well research team found that despite public perceptions, getting older didn’t mean you were on an unavoidable decline. Regardless of age, one could maintain or slow the decline of cognitive functionality and contribute to successful aging. In other words, many seniors play digital games, so why not turn digital games into a tool for cognitive, social and emotional benefits.

The team decided to use social and multi-player online games, specifically World Of Warcraft (WOW) and the Nintendo Wii, the latter having had research done on its physical benefits but none on its social benefits, to continue their research. An eight-week virtual Wii bowling tournament was developed in 14 seniors centres to help further understand their findings and questions pertaining to loneliness, social connectedness, friendship and attitudes towards video games. The results showed positive social connections between the participants and decline in loneliness. Friendships, passion, and interest increased and seniors began engaging with their friends and families more and more.

The team also created a digital Bingo game where multiple-choice questions were embedded into the game. If answered correctly, one would progress in the game. This game helped with social engagement and connectedness while seniors learned content, as the questions were informative, focusing on nutrition and exercise. Each time the seniors played, feedback was provided, so they were learning as they went. Seniors were seen to be socially engaging with one another, even making new friends, and showed an increase in knowledge levels.

“Research takes place with members of the community,” says Dr. Kaufman who believes in conducting research that intervenes and helps people’s lives in some way. “Research is the cart, the intervention is the horse. Research shows what can be done and its impact on the community.”

Ageism still exists within society. The perception is that old people can’t be constructive members of society. If society sees them as gamers (the average age has grown to 35) then perhaps their attitudes may change as well. Digital games can help open up a number of activities for seniors that are active rather than passive – socially actively engaged rather than passively watching a TV screen alone.


[i] Dr. David Kaufman is co-leading one of the eight National Centres of Excellence (NCE) Workprojects as part of a large NCE grant from 2015-2020 for $36.6million.
[ii] The teams of faculty members are:
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grants recieved:

1. 2003-2008 (SSHRC) - $3 million - Advanced Gaming Environments for Learning (SAGE for Learning)  - a Collaborative Research Initiative grant as part of the Initiative on the New Economy (INE).
2. 2012-2016 - Insight grant of $388,000 - Aging well: Can digital games help older adults?
3. 2014-2016  - Partnership Development grant of $186,000  - From digital storytelling to life learning: sharing the wisdom of our elders

SSHRC project 1
1. David Kaufman, Professor, SFU
2. Louise Sauve, Professor, Tele-universite
3. Lise Renaud, Professor, UQAM
4. Many others from across Canada

SSHRC project 2
1. David Kaufman, Professor, SFU
2. Andrew Sixsmith, Professor and Director, Gerontology Research Centre, SFU
3. Louise Sauve, Professor, Tele-universite
4. Lise Renaud, Professor, UQAM
5. Emmanuel Duplaa, Associate Professor, University of Ottawa  

SSHRC project 2
1. David Kaufman, Professor, SFU
2. Andrew Sixsmith, Professor and Director, Gerontology Research Centre, SFU
3. Michelle Vanchu-Orosco, Postdoctoral Scholar, SFU

[iii] Both the SAGE and Aging Well projects are research projects. Both projects involve doing interventions with older adults and the research is about studying the impacts of these interventions.

Aging Well: Can Digital Games help? (2012-2016)

Principal Investigator: David Kaufman
Funding Agency:

Additional Team Members:
Dr. Andrew Sixsmith, Director, Gerontology Research Centre, SFU; Dr. Louise Sauve, Teleuniversite; Dr. Lise Renaud, UQAM; Dr. Emmanuel Duplaa, University of Ottawa; Dr. Ben Mortenson, UBC

Additional Links

AGEWELL National Centres of Excellence (NCE)


This study is being conducted in Vancouver, Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa to investigate whether digital games can provide cognitive and socio-emotional benefits to older adults; it also is addressing implementation and ergonomic issues for this target audience. 

Why This Project Matters

How This Project is Carried Out

Where to Learn More