Teaching Old Folks New Media

Had to go to China--well, the China Daily, anyway--to find out about University of Texas at Dallas professor Mihai Nadin, who is developing video games for the elderly. Makes sense: Just before he died, my grandfather lamented that one of his biggest regrets in life was not learning how to play Pong. Actually, Nadin's got a little more in mind than just getting the elderly on an Xbox: He's created equipment that will allow senior citizens to, oh, play "tennis against the wall of his bedroom, using a touch-sensitive glove and wearing a virtual helmet." As the story reports this morning, Nadin's "vision could become part of an electronic reality available to seniors in coming years helping them maintain cognitive, anticipatory and physical skills." Says the China Daily:

The 68-year-old engineer and philosopher heads a US$13-million long-term research project at the University of Texas aimed at designing games and other therapeutic behavioral environments for the aging baby-boomer generation.

"This is not a marketing opportunity but a social responsibility," said Nadin during a presentation at the Games for Health Conference in Baltimore.

"Games will entice the aging to remain fit and mentally active, to connect with others."

His research project is called Seneludens, a title derived from two words: senescence, from the Latin word "old age" and ludens, as in playful human.

On his own Web site, Nadin has plenty more info about the subject, and it's a fascinating read. In this interview in particular, he talks about why how easy it'll be to get the elderly to partake in so-called "new media."

Do you think you can teach an old dog to play a new medium?

Old media (chess, cards, dice, hide-and-go-seek, you name it) used to be young once upon a time. To play or not to play has to do with the attractiveness of what the playing, that is, the game, is about, what it involves, the reward. This reward can be emotional (seeing your grandchildren or remembering aspects of one's life), or physical: a good feeling after a workout. Sure, if seniors, I mean those not exposed to the computer through their professional life, will have to learn how to use the computer in order to play, forget it. The computer has to disappear as a machine in itself; it has to evolve, or be integrated into new media. This is one of the dimensions of this project.

"Old dogs" are driven by some feelings and desires that can be effectively translated into the "wager," or the challenge and reward, that new games present (family feelings, interest in maintaining relations with friends, curiosity, or just challenging oneself).

In related news, my father learned how to get online over the weekend. Then he promptly crashed my mom's computer, for which she blames me. Good luck, Dr. Nadin. --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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