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Golden Years

Richard Bottoms

December 19, 2023

4 Min Read

Gaming can improve life satisfaction in older adults, so why do so few games offer modes of play suited for an aging population? For a generation who may have been in college or were working adults when home computing was introduced, computers and video games are not a foreign concept. But now, as their reflexes continue to slow, their eyesight dim playing video games becomes challenging.

The idea that computers and video games are entirely alien to older people is misplaced. The first hobbyist kit computers that debuted, such as the IMSAI 8080 & Heathkit H11 nearly 50 years ago and is something your tinkerer grandad likely experimented with in his thirties. At the same time, your still curious and engaged early-adopter grandmother might have been first in line to buy an Apple II computer in 1977.

Games produced for early 8-bit computers had figures barely recognizable as humans on screen. Still, developer Jordan Mechner scored an early hit with Karateka, which he created using many of the same techniques in use today, including rotoscoping. What made the game stand out was a tight story narrative told using simple shapes & colors. Nearly five decades later, older adults still enjoy those aspects of game design, especially when the user interfaces and user experience models account for slower reflexes or diminished eyesight. Age is not itself a disability, but many of the same accessibility factors that game companies consider today could also help to reduce age as a barrier in gaming.

Indeed, there may be a stigma attached if an action RPG like Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty announced the addition of a switch a player could throw where suddenly an 80-year-old grandfather could play competitively with other seniors his age, but it would not be an insurmountable task to do so. The complex themes in games like Frostpunk don't have to be dumbed down. In fact, a person with five decades of life experience might enjoy encountering deep dives into the moral dilemmas a society under threat could encounter. However, the user interface would have to be de-cluttered to offer better visual cues to the player.

A key consideration when designing role-playing or multiplayer games is ensuring key demographic groups have time to devote to any shared community. Buying the games themselves is only sometimes the primary revenue driver for companies. Upselling character costume buffs & improved weapons are often a game's most significant revenue driver. Purchasing power is a vital and attractive differentiator. In a contest between a 12-year-old who must wheedle cash from mom & dad to buy Fortnite V-Bucks and a grandad who can just slap it onto his Visa, the old man is potentially a more valuable customer. Suppose the gameplay was adjustable, encouraging grandparents to play co-operatively with their grandkids? In that case, much-desired improvements to skins and other buffs might likely be something Grandmom would gift to teammates who are also grandkids.

Older adults don’t just want to hang out with their kids in game spaces, though; competitiveness & community identity are just as strong in older adults as in younger people. People in retirement communities are not just up for playing golf and pickleball; eSports is not just something for kids with lightning-fast reflexes.

Over 18,000 Retirement Community businesses were registered in the United States as of 2022; League sports across just a fraction of those communities could be a massive revenue stream for the company that finds the sweet spot with games that encourage intra-community socialization. Competitive elder eSports leagues that handle match play between retirement communities could tap into a segment of gaming that is virgin territory. There's no shortage of IP (Intellectual Property) remembered from their youth that, given a modern digital revamp, they might flock to. 

This is an unrealized market in a barely supported segment for adults with disposable income, lots of time, a keen desire to connect with others, and sufficient knowledge of how to use the underlying technology when factoring in aging issues.

Nostalgia is not always melancholy. Hearing old songs you've loved can bring back happy memories of well-lived lives. The tools of gaming can shape environments that older adults can enjoy together.

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