Leveling Up: Defying Stereotypes, Older Adults Embrace Digital Gaming

By Mark Ogilbee posted 05-30-2024 11:05 AM


The world of gaming is no longer just for the young. More and more, older adults are discovering the joy and benefits of gaming, particularly on their smartphones, proving that age is no barrier to exercising the mind, finding new ways of connecting with friends and loved ones, and having fun while doing it. In the vast landscape of gaming, there's something for everyone. 

The thought of older adults embracing digital gaming might cut against stereotypes, but in fact, the audience is large — and it’s growing. “In the United States, over 52 million people over the age of 50 play video games, and that’s projected to grow to more than 100 million people by 2045,” says Maura White, senior director of AARP Gaming & Community. “AARP sees video game play as meaningful play and part of healthy aging, thanks to the potential benefits of reducing stress, providing mental stimulation and connecting people.”

The reasons aging adults are increasingly embracing games are diverse, but a whopping 76% of people 50-plus report that their top motivator is simply having fun, followed closely by finding relaxation and to pass the time. A majority, 60%, also turn to games and the problem-solving challenges they provide as a way to engage their minds and stay mentally sharp. And when the anxieties of life pile up, fully half of all older gamers report that they play games to relieve stress.

Social connection is another motivator; gaming is also an excellent way for older adults to connect with friends and family. This is especially valuable for older adults who may face challenges in socializing due to mobility issues or living far away from loved ones. Nearly 40% of older adults play games with others — especially with their children or grandchildren, who are the most common gameplay companions — which offers a fun and unique way of connecting online when they can’t be nearby. 

Older gamers also face some challenges, however. Two-thirds of gamers over 50 have experienced some form of age-related health decline such as difficulty seeing, hearing loss, mobility issues and memory challenges, any of which can interfere with the gaming experience. In fact, half of older gamers report experiencing difficulties while gaming, including confusing instructions, lack of tutorials and lack of in-game assistance. And while many games feature a spectrum of accessibility features to help overcome these problems, many of them go unnoticed by the gamers themselves. Notably, AARP research shows that the same solutions that help older gamers overcome these challenges can improve the gameplay experience for all gamers, regardless of age.

But video console-type games aren’t the only gaming experiences older adults are seeking out. In fact, while about half of older adults gravitate toward arcade-style games, many more seek out digital versions of more traditional games such as puzzle, logic, card, tile and word games that can stimulate creativity and offer learning opportunities.

Mindless Inc., an ATC startup participant (and known as Freestyle+ within the Collaborative), is a content and game developer that focuses on improving people’s mental fitness through play. The company offers a variety of game experiences, many of which are part digital experience, part in-person (or virtual) interaction. But they are all rooted in the company’s philosophy of wordplay as a workout.

“The games we make are inspired by techniques from the entertainment world — specifically improvisation, freestyle rap and standup comedy,” says Sammy Wegent, co-founder and co-CEO. “The games are AI driven and science backed, but we’re taking these techniques from performative, creative art forms and applying them to games that can help improve your mental fitness and connect with people.”

While many games such as crossword puzzles and logic-based games are convergent — having right and wrong answers, winners and losers — Mindless specializes in more open-ended, divergent games. “There are a lot of games out there where you have that Aha! moment, and we have games like that,” says Wegent. “But a lot of our games are based on collaborative techniques, where you have to build off someone else’s ideas creatively.”

For example, Mindless offers a humor-based news-oriented game called Punned It (which itself is a pun), where players can flex their creative chops by creating puns about a fictional news headline. “It's a low-stakes environment where you can express your own sense of humor,” says Wegent. “People may not think of themselves as funny, but it’s a really good exercise for your mind because to make a pun, you have to understand how words work in multiple contexts, then quickly find a way to make something new that also makes sense for the category you’re given.”

A great advantage of this approach is that it emphasizes the benefits of the process of playing, rather than the result. “Divergent games can be social and creative, allowing you to get creative in ways that brain teaser-type games don’t allow for,” says Wegent. “They allow you to express yourself spontaneously within the parameters of the game.”

Moreover, Wegent offers anecdotally what AARP research bears out: “Conversation-based games can be especially beneficial for older adults, because they can create connections that reduce loneliness and social isolation.”

Gaming for older adults is serious fun — and serious business — and AARP plans to continue engaging in the space. “The future of video gaming is promising, offering intrinsic value to players, promoting longevity and benefiting from organic recommendations through family and friends,” says White. “As technology advances, so too will the gaming experience. With most adults now engaging in video games, it's crucial for AARP to remain active and influential in this dynamic industry for the benefit of our audience.”

To learn more about Mindless Inc., check out their website. You can also play mahjongg, trivia and other games at the AARP Game Center!