It might come as a surprise to most people under the age of 50 that one of the fastest growing online user groups ranges from 51 to 65 years old and over. This demographic is joining online sites to schmooze with peers in growing numbers, according to the most recent research on the subject.
Playing digital games can also have a positive effect, studies say, on a senior’s mental and physical health, cognitive skills, and self-esteem. Playing games can even improve their general outlook on life.
But in a 2010 study conducted at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel, and published in the journal “The Gerontologist” in 2011, Dr. Galit Nimrod, a researcher in the Department of Communication Studies and the Center for Multidisciplinary Research in Aging found something even more surprising.
In her large, qualitative study, “The Fun Culture in Seniors’ Online Communities,” the topics most frequently posted and discussed as part of online social games in the forum sections were sex, gender differences, aging, grandparenting, politics, faith, and alcohol.
When it came to having some laughs and a good time, seniors infused their game time with humor. Apparently, they “just wanna have fun.”
In an email, Nimrod told JTNews that in her newest survey of online senior respondents, one of her subjects put it quite nicely.
“As a widow,” wrote the respondent, “I get very lonely but am not well enough to go outside of the home…I have found support, friendship, humor, wisdom and answers to various questions from friends that I have met online…I get more support and day-to-day friendship from these people than my own family mainly because my family work and live apart from me but my Internet friends are on the end of my keyboard 24/7.”
In her study, Nimrod looked at 50,000 posts from forums in six of the largest online communities with members from around the world. These forums were identified as “fun” areas and included jokes, games, humor, and quizzes. Four of the sites were located in the United States, one was Canada-based, and one originated in Great Britain. The senior members of these communities had higher-than-average incomes and all communicated in English.
The game types included cognitive games, like trivia and alphabetical vocabulary games, associative games that required participants to complete a “go-together” phrase from someone else’s previous post, and creative games involving the creation of a poem, story, or limerick.
“An interesting fact was that the games in the communities were not competitive,” said Nimrod. “Hence, a sense of success and improved self-esteem could result not from being better than others but from the positive feedback from others on one’s own creativity, knowledge, or sense of humor.”
The seniors offered humorous tips about their sexuality, joking that it’s helpful to set a timer in case you fall asleep “in the middle,” Nimrod noted in the study. They also laughed about aging as being when you have more food than beer in the refrigerator. And, finally, what may have been the most important tip to other grandparents: “Do not lose your grandkids in the mall!”
“The humor in the communities, as well as the opportunity to practice and demonstrate their abilities and enjoy others’ feedback, offer important means for coping with aging,” said Nimrod.
The research cited in Nimrod’s study shows that 18 percent of 51 to 65 year olds in the United Kingdom play digital games, and 52 percent of the Finnish who are over 65 do, too. A 2007 study found that 42 percent of Americans over 65 go online.
However, Nimrod found that the frequency of online time paralleled the average family’s schedule, dropping off in the evenings, on weekends and during holidays, when families typically gather, and becoming most crowded during the weekdays.
Many respondents in her still-unpublished online senior survey described how the online companionship made them feel less lonely in their offline day-to-day reality.
“Family time is the priority, and online time is secondary,” said Nimrod. “Nevertheless, I found that sometimes participating in seniors’ online communities has an effect on members’ offline social life as some of them meet each other in person.
“Such relations cannot replace real relationships and/or significantly help seniors who suffer from loneliness. Still, they may provide enjoyable interaction and, to a certain extent, a sense of belonging.”