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Ageing-related R&D: FGCSIC Proyectos Cero


(1) Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), (2) Instituto de Investigación en Inteligencia Artificial (CSIC), (3) University of Dundee (Scotland, United Kingdom)

Worthplay: digital games for active and healthy ageing

The objective of the Worthplay project is to conduct research into the design, development and evaluation of a prototype online game for the elderly, with a view to subsequently developing quality games that make a genuine contribution to active ageing, and enhance elderly people’s physical and psychosocial well-being.

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The role of ICTs in positive ageing
The information society might also be called the ageing society, as the population aged over 60 is expanding, in relative and absolute terms, in Spain and throughout Europe. The elderly are —or should be— a group to be taken into account in the design and development of information and communications technologies (ICTs). The two HIGHLIGHTSProfile: Josep Blat, Josep Lluis Arcos and Sergio Sayago
big challenges and goals for R&D are for ICTs to enhance quality of life for this population group and foster the social inclusion of its members. ICTs have the potential to alleviate the social isolation that often accompanies old age, particu­larly so in the context of today’s boom in social networks. On the one hand, they can help maintain and improve physical and mental health, and on the other, they can foster independent living, going beyond the care issues on which R&D efforts have tended to focus to date. However, many older people do not use ICTs, and those that have set out to do so face barriers of access. These obstacles primarily arise because ICTs have largely been designed with productivity in the workplace in mind, without taking into account the fact that the over-60s might be interested in using them in other ways. The elderly —which means all of us eventually— run the risk of being excluded (if they have not already been) from the information society. To avoid this happening, they need to participate actively in how ICTs are defined, designed, developed and evaluated.

Digital games that are worthwhile for older people: some questions
Entertainment is a fundamental part of human life. For children, it is an essential component of their learning. The entertainment industry is one of the largest by volume, to the extent that it is often compared with the film industry.

The WorthPlay project will look at what digital games are worthwhile for the elderly, as we think they have the potential to foster elderly people’s social inclusion and promote active and healthy ageing. By digital games we mean games played on online, using a computer, video console, mobile telephone, and in general, any game enabled by ICTs. What makes a digital game worth playing for older people: the educational component, socialisation, or a combination of the two? What should the game be like: multi­player, individual, serious, or just a pastime? These are some of the main questions the project asks, and as we shall see, their answers call for a focus on research and development of computer games, and ICTs in general, intended for older people, and therefore different from those in use today.

Keeping in touch with the family motivates older people to learn how to use information technologies.

HCI: the ergonomics of social experiences
The WorthPlay project’s research centres primarily on human-computer interaction (HCI), a multidisciplinary area addressing all aspects of the interaction between people and ICTs. One of the key outcomes of research in this field has been improvements to user computer-program interfaces and the use of ICTs.

HCI is a relatively new field, like ICTs in general, and exploring new developments is an important aspect of putting the project in context. Research in recent years can be understood as forming three waves, each with different drivers and addressing different problems.

In the 1980s, ICTs were limited to relatively expensive computers used almost exclusively in laboratories by engin­eers and programmers. In this context, the first wave of HCI focused its research pri­marily on human factors or ergonomics and usability in an effort to make ICTs more efficient (i.e. do more tasks in less time) and so that they represent less of a cognitive burden on individual users. During this wave of development, tests with users took place in laboratories and were of relatively short duration.

In the 1990s, personal computers began to be used widely in offices and the second wave of HCIs began to explore workflows, and collaboration and communication between users, looking for improvements in these areas. A differential trait at this point was the shift from ‘human factors’ to ‘human actors’ and the study of interactions in the real world outside the laboratory introduced the use of ethnographic techniques.

The hallmark of the third and present wave is a concern with the user experience (UX, User eXperience) at a time when ICTs are emerging from the workplace and concepts such as productivity and efficiency make less sense than, for example, identification with a group, enjoyment, etc. as happens in social networks. As well as the form of interaction, it is important to understand the motivations (the ‘why’). This makes it necessary to go beyond short-term laboratory tests and follow users over longer timescales in the real world.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) for the elderly need to be created jointly with them.

A taxonomy of games for the elderly
All aspects of interaction are important, and although WorthPlay is wholeheartedly in the third wave in terms of its focus on entertainment, for example, it will draw upon ethnography and study patterns of collaboration, as was typical of the second wave. It will also explore interactions with devices, which may present difficulties for older users, and cognitive aspects, as the first wave did.

We believe that digital games have the potential to foster socialisation, enhance learning and improve cognitive and motor abilities among the elderly. This thinking goes against the stereotypical view. For example, the statistics published by the Spanish entertainment software producers’ and distributors’ association aDeSe (Asociación Española de Distribuidores y Editores de Software de Entretenimiento) cuts the age range of players at 55 years, rendering this growing group population invisible. In reality, this is one of the reflections of the fact that we know little about what digital games are worthwhile for elderly people. Therefore, the project will conduct extensive ethnographic observation, so as to tell us how and why older people play; and we hope that this can be reflected in a classification or “human” taxonomy of games that are worth playing.

Little is known about how to design worthwhile games, and based on this taxonomy Worthplay will co-design various types of games, with the participation of a group of 50 elderly people (aged 60 to 75), with the typical problems this age group faces, but living independently) at the Àgora old-people’s centre: ICTs for the elderly have to be created with the elderly.

Dexterity and cognition
It gets harder to use a mouse as you get older. This represents a barrier to access that needs to be taken into account, but older people tend to reject ‘special’ devices purpose-made for them, because (as was found by a three-year ethnographic study at Àgora conducted by a group from the UPF) the aim of social inclusion is one of the most important motivations for the use of ICTs. The project will study the use of more traditional devices, such as the mouse, along with more novel ones such as the MS Kinect and Nintendo Wiimote. It will also examine the use of smartphones and tablets such as the iPad in terms of dexterity and inclusion.

The research cited showed that cognitive decline, another barrier to access, is even more important than dexterity, and for this reason cognitively stimulating games will be an important part of the project in the strategy for independent living. Learning models based on artificial intelligence at the CSIC’s Institute of Artificial Intelligence Research will adapt gaming experience dynamically to stimu­late cognitive abilities.

Socialisation, culture and gender
In Spain, elderly people provide crucial help in caring for young children, exemplifying the importance maintaining relationships for active ageing and with well-being. Keeping in touch with the family motivates older people to learn to use ICTs, sometimes confronting powerful stereotypes within the family to do so. And as the UPF’s research has also found, overcoming these challenges gives older people great satisfaction. In this context, the project will try to answer three questions: how, why and what do older people use social networks for? Can games include socialisation and how, and in particular, can they lower the barriers between generations? It is probably in these social aspects where the biggest cultural differences emerge, such as between the north and south of Europe, for example. The University of Dundee will examine this important issue, along with other differences, such as gender.

Doing and understanding: game prototype
WorthPlay aims to come up with concrete ideas for worthwhile games; it will therefore be necessary to put these into practice to find out if they are good as well as new. The project will therefore develop a number of game prototypes (where a prototype is normally an incomplete version of the game —generally, of a system— that is sufficiently complete to allow the various different dimensions considered of interest to be evaluated from the perspective of this research), and test them over a sufficient length of time, outside the laboratory, to see if the interaction is attractive, if the playability is interesting, if they stimulate cognitive abil­ities and skills, etc. The concept of “good” is insufficiently precise for use in the research context, so a careful evalu­ation will be needed to allow us to understand the specific different dimensions of interest. At the same time, commonly used evaluation techniques, such as questionnaires, are not usually effective with elderly people, for one reason or another (as another UPF study has shown, Likert scales tend to be misunderstood), which is another reason why the evaluation needs to be methodologically innovative.

The WorthPlay project’s research centres primarily on human-computer interaction (HCI), a multidisciplinary area addressing all aspects of the interaction between people and ICTs.

Opening doors together with the industry
Despite their importance, digit­al games are largely excluded from academia, although this is rapidly changing in the communications area. So-called ‘serious games’ are also beginning to make inroads in engineering. However, at present, most of the gaming know-how is to be found —in the form of experience, concepts and criteria— in the industry. This makes the participation of the firm Wake Studios in the WorthPlay project particularly useful as it will be able to make significant contributions to it and help transfer the findings to industry and academia.
Opening doors is an important part of this project, as there are few digital games for the elderly, and fewer still that are ‘worth playing,’ whether from industry or institutions. Although they are important for digital inclusion and to improve well-being, they are needed in abundance, and WorthPlay is committed to disseminating its key findings in a rigorous and transferable way, and as widely as possible, which means, to be consistent with the principles set out here, from the elderly, for the elderly and society as a whole.

From specific questions and answers to the more abstract findings.

As with almost all research projects, the problems and approaches mentioned here are part of the route to obtaining more general findings. For example, the project will help us understand better the role of ethnography and network ethnography, or netnography, in HCI as a way of analysing people’s practices, for use in evaluation outside the laboratory over long periods. We hope WorthPlay will also help us better understand the main dimensions of entertainment experiences (hedonic, social, learning), as this will enable us to improve design strategies and participatory methods for ICTs in real life, and so enhance accessibility of the various different styles of interaction. We also aim to understand the practical articulation of real socialisation and the use of social networks, so as to analyse the mutual impact of ICTs and cultural differences in HCI, and the parameters that can be used to measure this impact. Some of the results will be more specific to the elderly, while we expect others to be more generally applicable.

Positive ICTs
Today, when you mention research on ICTs and the elderly the usual reaction is to associate it with eHealth (and telemedicine), with reactive assistive technologies, beyond accessible technologies, and rehabilitation. These aspects are very important and research on them is extremely valuable. However, this project’s approach could be classed as “prevention is better than cure”: promoting an active healthy lifestyle, in which individuals are entertained, stimulated, social, independent; encouraging mutual support between the elderly, capitalising on their life experience, etc. as a means of improving health when their capabilities begin to decline; reducing the cost of maintaining health in the best possible human envir­onment, aided by technologies, rather than sophisticated means of remote care for people whose health has already started to deteriorate.

This tendency to identify ICTs and the elderly with eHealth arises out of a stereotypical view of old people that focuses basically on negative aspects, such as loss of manual dexterity, visual acuity, fluid intelligence, inability to learn to use ICTs, etc. and offers them props to help them with these issues. Although these may be useful, this project focuses instead on using ICTs to strengthen older people’s capabilities: their life experience, contribution to maintaining family relations, helping look after their grandchildren, etc. as this stimulates their active ageing, in short, their inclusion rather than the exclusion that “negative” stereotypes can lead to.

A multi-talented team
Instituto de Investigación en Inteligencia Artificial (IIIA-CSIC)
The group of researchers at the CSIC’s Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (IIIA-CSIC) is primarily contributing its skills in automated learning, the design of algorithms that learn from experience, which it has applied across a broad range of fields such as musical expression, service personalisation, recommendation systems and social networks. The games used in WorthPlay will be modified dynamically to adapt to the cognitive needs and requirements of each player and util­ise the experience of the more expert players to give beginners a more interesting gaming experience.

Digital Media Access Group (DMAG)
The DMAG at the School of Computing, University of Dundee (Scotland) conducts research and offers advice on ICT accessibility and inclusive design for the disabled and elderly, and will organise the involvement of elderly people learning and using ICTs at the Dundee User Centre to study the impact of cultural differences on styles of interaction and playability.

Association of participtants: Àgora
Àgora is an association belonging to the Escuela de Adultos La Verneda-St. Martí adult-education centre in Barcelona which arose as a public association to promote education and participation among people who are socially excluded or at risk of being so. Its participation in the project will give a voice to adults and the elderly from different nationalities and with different levels of educational attainment who learn about ICTs and use them in the Òmnia point.

Wake Studios
Wake Studios is a Barcelona-based start-up specialising in downloadable games (Insunity, Galaxy Scraper), interested in serious games, such as those developed for mental conditions such as hyper­activity or depression for the Televisió de Catalunya “Marató 2008.” Its experience in the sector, and the accessibility of its other products, will make it easier for the project to produce new games.

GTI. Universitat Pompeu Fabra
The interactive technologies research group at UPF will study how to make technology more human in various important areas of the project: HCI, particularly as applied to the elderly; 3D graphics for communications and games; educational technologies, facilitating leadership of the project integrating computing and human areas.

Profile: Josep Blat, Josep Lluis Arcos and Sergio Sayago

Josep Blat
Josep Blat has been Professor of Computer Science at the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), Barcelona, since 1998, where he heads a research group on interactive technologies for human-computer interaction, e-learning and 3D graphics ( He has coordinated a number of European R&D projects. At the UPF he has been director of the Information and Communications Technologies Department, and the Higher Technical School, being a founder of both. He has an advanced degree in Mathematics from the Universitat de València (1979), a PhD from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, in 1985, a post-doc form the Université Paris-Dauphine, and was director of the Department of Mathematics and Computing at the Universitat de les Illes Balears from 1988 to 1994.

Josep Lluis Arcos
Josep Lluis Arcos is a Scientific Researcher at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research (IIIA-CSIC). He has a PhD in Computing from the Catalonia Polytechnic University and a Master in Sound Technology and Musical Creation from the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF). He has co-authored over 100 scientific articles and has been a joint-recipient of several prizes at international conferences. His career has included contributions to areas including automatic learning systems and case-based reasoning, self-organising and self-adapting systems, and their applications in fields such as computer assisted music, biomedicine, customisation, recommendation, or industrial design.

Sergio Sayago
Sergio Sayago is a post-doctoral researcher (Beatriu de Pinós) at the School of Computing of the University of Dundee (Scotland, United Kingdom). Since 2005 he has been doing research in the area of human-computer interaction (HCI) with elderly people in various cultural contexts, with a strong ethnographic component. In 2009 he received the Best Paper Award at the International Cross-Disciplinary Conference on Web Accessibility de la ACM and has published in international journals with a high IPO impact index. He obtained an advanced degree in Computer Engineering from the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in 2004 and a PhD from the same university in 2009.

Published in No. 08

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