Saturday, February 25

'World of Warcraft' boosts seniors' brainpower: study

"Hey Grandma, can you grab your battleaxe and help me save a dwarven princess from the evil Dark Iron Clan" may not sound like part of a healthy senior's lifestyle, but a new study suggests otherwise.

Playing the online role-playing fantasy game "World of Warcraft" boosted the cognitive function of older adults who participated in the North Carolina State University study.

"People who played ‘World of Warcraft' versus those who did not play experienced an increase in cognitive ability, particularly older adults who performed very poorly in our first testing session," the study's co-author, Dr. Jason Allaire, said in a telephone interview.

In the study, Allaire and his co-authors, Dr. Anne McLaughlin and PhD student Laura Whitlock, first tested the cognitive abilities of adults aged 60 to 77 to set a baseline. The experimental group played "WoW" for about 14 hours on their home computers, while the control group didn't play at all.

Allaire said the group that played the game showed "statistically significant" improvement in their cognitive abilities.

The researchers, as part of NC State's Gains Through Gaming laboratory, chose "World of Warcraft" because its task-based game play is scientifically found to be cognitively complex. For those uninitiated in the mythical land of Azeroth, players in "WoW" create their characters, whether they be human warriors or druid warlocks, and proceed on quests of their choosing, either alone or with other "WoW" players.

As a fan of the game, Allaire said he had seen first-hand how the game affected seniors.

"I had my grandma play and after she played she commented on how tired she was," Allaire said.

The "WoW" study is hardly the first to suggest that gaming has a myriad of positive qualities for older adults and seniors.

Research conducted at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine in 2010 found that "exergames" (which use some type of exercise during game play) improved the mood and mental health of seniors.

A 2008 study by the University of Illinois found that adults aged 60 to70 had improved cognitive functions after played strategic video games.

Video games are increasingly becoming a part of some seniors' lifestyles, with Nintendo's Wii becoming a surprise hit among older adults since its release in 2006.

Meanwhile, middle-aged adults are sticking with Pac-Man as they grow older. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 29 per cent of computer and video game players are over 50.

However, it's hard to point towards many mainstream games that are not aimed at teenagers or young adults. The Wii games popular among seniors, particularly Wii Sports or Wii Fit, were actually aimed at the other demographic end.

Technology writer Peter Nowak says that as lifelong gamers age -- particularly those who started playing as children in the late 70s or early 80s -- the video game industry will start releasing more products for older adults.

"The Wii really opened up the potential to cater to older generations," Nowak, the author of "Sex, Bombs and Burgers," said in an interview. "(However) I think you would be hard pressed to convince today's seniors to play video games, but as the current generations get older that's going to be less of a problem.

"That means that there's a much bigger market for the video game industry (in the future)."

Allaire thinks the video game industry has a largely untapped audience in seniors right now.

"We thought older adults, they wouldn't be interested in video games, but we found the opposite. Only one person dropped out (of our study). Everyone was really excited to play the game," he said. "It really energized them."

The study has been published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

"World of Warcraft" was released by Blizzard Entertainment in 2004 and is still, by far, the world's most popular online role-playing game. It has more than 10 million active subscribers.

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