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Keeping Seniors in the Game


Keeping Seniors in the Game


Keeping Seniors in the Game

Research led by David Kaufman suggests that digital games can enhance learning in older adults, as well as enhance overall wellbeing

Seeking holiday gift ideas for the seniors in your life? Consider a gaming system! Research by SFU professor of education David Kaufman suggests that users, including older adults–a group at risk of isolation, depression and cognitive decline–can experience multiple benefits from playing digital games. In fact, some digital games and simulations have been shown to inspire mental engagement, sociability and learning.

With an extensive background in distance and online education, Kaufman found himself intrigued by the rise of computer gaming, including how the technology could be used in an educational context. In 2003, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) awarded him a $3 million grant to lead a nationwide research network dubbed Simulation and Advanced Gaming Environments for Learning (SAGE) to investigate how people across age groups learn from “serious” games–games that have a purpose beyond pure entertainment. For example, in one study a game called Contagion was created to teach users how to avoid infectious diseases.

The results were positive, convincing Kaufman that such games can have a positive impact on learning, attitudes, and motivation, and suggested that they could make promising supplements to more traditional (i.e. face-to-face) educational methods.

“Losing your life in a game just means that you try again and that’s what learning is about,” he explains. It’s an iterative process where you make mistakes, correct them, and get feedback until you get it right.”

In a 2011 study, Kaufman gave Grade 4 and 5 kids a portable gaming console loaded with a game called Nintendogs. Over three weeks, the children looked after their virtual pet dog, nurturing, feeding and playing with it­, and as a result, study results indicated that their attitudes towards animals became more humane and empathic. In another study, he asked Grade 5 and 6 children to play a game that would teach them about asthma, and results were again positive: the children’s knowledge and attitudes around the ailment improved as a result of playing the game.

Currently, Kaufman is leading the SSHRC Insight-funded study “Aging Well: Can Digital Games Help?” It investigates whether digital games can provide cognitive and socio-emotional benefits to older adults. Not only are seniors the fastest-growing group of digital and computer users in Canada, but they also have the most to gain from using these new gaming technologies. Early findings have indicated declines in loneliness and boosts in reported friendships, passion and interests. Kaufman also recently received funding to serve as co-leader of a work project at AGE-WELL, one of Canada’s national Networks of Centres of Excellence, and involves developing and investigating digital games for older adults, as well as studying the potential benefits of intergenerational play. 


Dr. David Kaufman is has given more than 200 presentations worldwide, has more than 120 publications to his credit, and is the co-author of Educational Gameplay and Simulation Environments: Case Studies and Lessons Learned. He is a reviewer for many journals, professional associations, and funding agencies and has received more than $4 million in funding. Dr. Kaufman and his colleagues currently hold two SSHRC research grants and an AGE-WELL NCE grant for research that integrates digital games and gerontology to investigate how digital games can enhance the cognitive, social and physical lives of older adults. His research interests include: applications of educational technology, digital games for learning, digital games for older adults, digital storytelling for older adults, and medical education.

Q & A with David Kaufman 

If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?


How important is collaboration in advancing research?

In my opinion, collaboration is essential to do the best research and to move forward with our research and innovation. There are rare exceptions when one person alone made great advances. However, nearly all major discoveries and innovations were made by teams. Those that are diverse with respect to disciplinary knowledge, experience and personality seem to be the most effective.