The researchers knew that play can help ageing people stay cognitively fit and stimulate much-needed social interaction. What they hoped was that they could design and build a computer-enhanced play platform that elderly people could use easily, would enjoy, and that would enhance quality of life.
"Play is good in itself", stated Malena Fabregat, ElderGames co-ordinator, "but the challenge was to allow the users to train what the experts told us were the most important cognitive abilities in this period of life."
Malena Fabregat and her colleagues were aware that many elderly people are afraid of new technologies and tend to avoid them. They were surprised by how quickly elderly participants overcame their technological fears. "Even with the first prototype, which had lots of cables and cameras, after five or ten minutes they had absolutely forgotten about the technology", stated Malena Fabregat.
Extensive trials allowed the researchers to perfect an inviting, interactive play table and display, and develop a set of computer-driven games that exercise and track important cognitive skills, stimulate social give and take, and are fun. "This is very simple, but very important at this time of life", stated Malena Fabregat. "Elderly people need to feel useful, to feel capable, and to feel that they have things that are interesting to do."
The ElderGames play platform and suite of games meet all of those objectives. "And they provide an opportunity just to have a good time", she stated.
The ElderGames project, which received funding from the Sixth Framework Programme for research, had several goals. The researchers wanted to create an attractive, easy-to-use play platform that could support a wide variety of computer-driven games, and that would allow caregivers to assess the cognitive skills of individual players over time.
To accomplish those goals, the researchers needed to be able to identify individual players accurately, and to track each person's play on a moment-to-moment basis. They accomplished that by using multiple cameras mounted on risers at the corners of the table and special handheld pointers that players use to indicate their moves or choices. The cameras and pointers allow the real players to interact naturally with the virtual world on the display.
The result is a comfortable table with graceful bays on all sides which make it easy for players to reach anywhere on the large plasma or LCD display that makes up most of the table's surface.
The ElderGames team put a great deal of effort into identifying and developing games that seniors would find interesting, that would stimulate socialisation, and that would challenge important cognitive skills.
Working with experts from a variety of fields, the researchers homed in on a set of important mental abilities that are most affected by ageing, including the ability to maintain and direct one's attention, executive functions such as planning, problem-solving and decision-making, fine motor skills, and memory.
They analysed hundreds of games to find ones that utilised those key mental skills, that could be played interactively, and that were challenging and enjoyable enough to entice players to play again.
The result is a suite of 20 games that seniors or caregivers can select, which together exercise all of the targeted skills. In addition, the researchers developed software that tracks the functioning of each player over time, with the aim of providing caregivers with an early warning of potentially serious cognitive changes. The researchers have now tested the suite of games and the prototype game table at centres in Spain, Norway and the United Kingdom.
According to Malena Fabregat, the trials have shown that the ElderGames system benefits seniors in a variety of ways. Crucially, she says, it promotes active, healthy ageing. "There are many studies showing that play and leisure activities correlate to life satisfaction", she stated. "This is one area where ElderGames has proven itself."
In addition, caregivers and doctors have been impressed by the ability of the system to warn them when an elderly person is showing even subtle cognitive changes. "The experts were able to get high-quality individual information from these group activities", stated Malena Fabregat. "This multiplied their ability to monitor and assess the people they were responsible for."
One reason for the high quality of information the system provides, Malena Fabregat said, is that even though the elderly players know that their performance is being tracked, they are relaxed and responding naturally, in contrast to their performance in anxiety-provoking clinical testing situations.
Amparo Ruiz, an occupational therapist in Galicia, Spain who helped supervise some of the field trials is excited by the system. "The elderly people like it when they play and feel integrated into the new technologies", she stated. "And for me it's very important that I can get information about their attention, memory and other functions while they are playing, and then choose games that emphasise the areas where they have problems."
Malena Fabregat and her colleagues are eager to see ElderGames reach seniors and their caregivers worldwide. Commercial game companies in Europe, North America and India have already shown interest in the system. "We've had some very good reactions to the prototype", stated Malena Fabregat. "We'll see what happens next."