Nintendo Wii is unlike traditional video games. It has an intuitive controller, they say, that allows you to simulate in-game movements, thus making it an ideal platform for active, social game playing - "fun for all the family". A new study puts this idea to the test in relation to well-being among 35 older residents (average age 82; 4 men) at an independent living apartment block in Connecticut. Patricia Kahlbaugh and her team said that a psychological challenge for older people is to deal with the restrictions that old age places on their way of life. Playing the Wii could be a way for them to socialise and be more active.
Once a week for ten weeks, 16 of the participants each received a personal visit from a female, undergrad research assistant who played on the Wii console with them for one hour. All participants in this condition chose to play the bowling game. A further 12 participants acted as controls and also received weekly visits from a research assistant for ten weeks, but during these visits the assistant and participant simply watched TV together for one hour. The assistants in both conditions were instructed to be "socially responsive". There was also a second control group of 7 participants who received no visits.
The headline finding is that after the ten week period the participants in the Wii condition reported experiencing less loneliness than they had at the study start. By contrast, participants in the TV condition and no-visit condition experienced an increase in loneliness (perhaps because they'd heard about the Wii playing and felt left out). Also, for nine out the ten weeks, the participants in the Wii condition reported more positive mood than participants in the TV condition (the no-visit condition wasn't part of this analysis). On a disappointing note, the Wii group reported no more physical activity than the TV group during the study and their life satisfaction was no different.
Whilst acknowledging the small scale of their study, Kahlbaugh's team saw the findings as a promising thumbs up for the Wii: "Although students were instructed to be socially responsive in both groups, bowling with a partner may have facilitated the creation of relationships between the elderly person and the younger student in a way that passively watching television did not," they said.
This is the first experimental demonstration of the benefits of Wii playing for older individuals, adding to existing case studies showing benefits for older people with specific impairments. "Based on this study of the Wii," the researchers concluded, "programmes aimed at seniors may want to seriously consider ways to incorporate this type of technology."
But before you rush out to buy the Wii for your older friends or relatives, it's worth bearing in mind that this study hasn't really shown that the Wii per se is the critical ingredient for the observed benefits. It's possible that the extra benefits over TV could have come from playing any kind of video game; in fact, they could have come from playing any kind of game at all, such as cards, which would also have been more social than merely watching TV. Another potential problem is that it's possible that the students in the Wii group were more fun to be with than the students who took part in the TV group. It's hard to say because the study doesn't provide any detail about the students or how they behaved, other than that they were all instructed to be socially responsive.
Kahlbaugh, P., Sperandio, A., Carlson, A., and Hauselt, J. (2011). Effects of Playing Wii on Well-Being in the Elderly: Physical Activity, Loneliness, and Mood. Activities, Adaptation and Aging, 35 (4), 331-344 DOI: 10.1080/01924788.2011.625218
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.