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Elderly & Esports: The New Remedy To Fight Dementia?

In Singapore, 1 in 10 people above the age of 60 suffers from dementia, and the patient number is rising. In an innovative approach to keeping the mind active and tackling dementia, we ask: Can esports, or competitive gaming, help preserve mental agility and combat cognitive decline? In our interview with Dennis Ooi, President of the Singapore Cybersports & Online Gaming Association (SCOGA), we explore the Senior GO! Esports program and the idea of getting seniors involved in esports to potentially boost mental stimulation, reduce social isolation, loneliness, and depression.


 
Alex Ng Metis SG

Name: Dennis Ooi

Retirement Experience Specialization: Cybersports & Online Gaming, Seniors GO! Esports Program

Base Country: Singapore






Q: Can you tell us what motivated SCOGA to initiate and advocate for the Senior GO! Esports Program?

Dennis: The Senior GO! Esports Program is a partnership between Lien Foundation and SCOGA. Lien Foundation approached us with the idea of exploring video games as an engaging activity for seniors, citing its fun factor, the involvement of learning, cognitive benefits, and more. SCOGA then took the lead in conducting extensive research and further developing the concept.


Together, we embarked on a journey to design a program utilizing esports (competitive video games). Specifically, we focused on using the competitive video game, Counter-Strike 2, as the main game to train a small group of seniors to play at a more competitive level. We have done a pilot program, and we hope to bring more seniors into this space to introduce them to the world of esports.



Esports - Connecting Different Generations


I believe that at every stage of life, we should do something that keeps us meaningfully engaged. Video games have always been a medium that typically cuts across all age groups. This is attributed to the diversity of video game types, their accessibility (for example, you can play a game on your phone nowadays, and that is very affordable), and the various genres that can appeal to different types of people and their interests. Whether it's competitive or cooperative games, farming, simulations, or city-building type games, there's something for everyone.


Our program is conducted in a structured manner, for a generation that may not have had the opportunity to grow up with the joy of video games. Keeping in mind that the objective is to make this program fun and engaging while promoting happiness and health, we strongly believe that video games will become a mainstream activity in the coming years.


More young seniors are entering the picture, with many seeking better connections with their grandkids, who are all digital natives today.



Q: Were there any hesitations on your end when Lien Foundation first presented this proposal to you?

Dennis: We did have hesitations because we had never conducted video game programs for this age group. Our primary stakeholders, audience, and customers have always been youths. However, at SCOGA and our Esports academy, we fundamentally believe that games are a multigenerational platform. When done correctly, they can foster family bonding.


Moreover, there are many benefits, from cognitive to social, that can be derived from the joy and experience of playing games. The recent pandemic has highlighted the positive aspects of gaming, and there's ample data to show that, when done correctly, video games can bring out a lot of good.


So yes, while the seniors are not a natural audience, today, we are proud to say that we are more open to the idea.



Q: Video games may not be something older generations are familiar with. Can you explain what video games are to an elderly individual in simple terms?

Dennis: I believe it's important to acknowledge that many of the elders have already been exposed to technology due to its rapid global adoption.


Nowadays, those interested in learning about programs like esports for seniors are likely to own smartphones and use them for daily communication. Some may even be tech-savvy and engage in e-commerce. Therefore, I would explain video games to them similarly to how I would to anyone else: a video game is a digitally played game.


It can be any game you find out there—Mahjong (available in digital versions), Candy Crush, Bejeweled—some of which are traditional games types. Even Tetris has gained popularity recently, thanks to news about people taking it very seriously. Some seniors are familiar with these games because they are legacy games from the '80s and '90s when they were working adults. Hence, they might recognize these games, even if they weren't interested in or couldn't afford them back then.


So, I wouldn't explain video games differently to seniors. It is very clear that technology is here to stay and a lot of them have adopted it.



Q: What potential concerns or misconceptions do you anticipate or have already experienced from the Seniors regarding Esports and how would you address them?

Dennis: So far, for the seniors we have engaged, the takeaway is that they love it. We have been very fortunate that there has been no adverse pushback from seniors.


That said, we also acknowledge struggles, such as motion sickness in fast-paced, first-person shooter (FPS) games. Ultimately, it is about overcoming these challenges. If they are committed to it, and we see that commitment, we want to help them overcome it.



A Program Made Specially for Seniors


Of course, we are also mindful of the possibility of pre-existing medical conditions. We work with our partners to assess the suitability of specific game types, taking known pre-existing medical conditions into account.


For example, we won’t get seniors to play horror games, especially if they have an existing heart condition. We have been very responsible in our offerings, maintaining a calculated approach. Likewise, we make sure that anyone not feeling well highlights it early so that they can take a break at the side and rejoin the class later.



Responsible & Balanced Gaming


Some concerns about addition to video games exist, but we advocate for structured programming to address this. Emphasizing the importance of having a balanced lifestyle, we support the idea of gaming as a hobby with responsible time allocation.


We also acknowledge that there are always concerns about violence in video games, although it has not yet been expressed by the seniors we work with. Nevertheless, studies indicate that video games do not contribute significantly to violent behavior, with underlying causes requiring better understanding to address potential negative effects.


Seniors are adults who make informed choices. We provide explanations and hands-on experiences to help them understand. We respect their decisions and are mindful of any concerns but remain focused on delivering a great program that is able to help seniors stay happy and healthy throughout the process. If they find friends and meaning in what they’re doing, especially at an age where meaning is so important in life, this is the priority for us.



Q: What are the short-term and/or long-term benefits of Esports?

Dennis: Whether the benefits are long or short term really depends on how engaged the individual is. From our observations of the pilot program we recently ran, one of the major benefits is the social bonding experience.


Video games and esports programs are just like brisk walking club, bonsai club or any other interest groups or activities. When people enjoy and do it together, it can deliver that social bonding experience.



Lifelong Friendships through Esports


The seniors who participated in the pilot program did not know each other when they first started. The game required an immense amount of teamwork and communication, and through the process of learning and training to be better at the game, they formed a bond.


After the program, the S-team, or these seniors from the pilot program, play Counter-Strike 2 regularly at home, go out for makan (eating) sessions at night, and are even planning a trip to Johor Bahru.

 


Satisfaction & Validation from Improvements


One aspect of video games, specifically esports games, is the learning curve. It is meant to provide a challenge and to push individuals to be better than when they first started. Progression is facilitated through various means such as tutorials, bots/AI opponents, and incorporating different difficulty levels, allowing them to feel satisfaction and validation from improvements.


Apart from enjoyment of progress, there should also be a desire to eventually play with others of the same skill level, or even try and compete with others within the same age group. The ultimate goal is for us to try and build this interest in esports and its ecosystem.



Building an Ecosystem around Shared Interest


Chess, whether international or Chinese, and possibly Mahjong, are good examples of popular activities among seniors that have a strong ecosystem. These games involve a lot of critical thinking and strategy. In Chinatown on weekends, you can find many seniors playing these games in groups at a pavilion, attracting sizable spectators.


This is a perfect example of how communities naturally form around their shared interest, through the medium of chess. In our case at SCOGA, we identify video games as our medium. While we recognize the short-term challenges, we also recognize the long-term effects.



Changing Needs of the Upcoming Elders


Currently, it is about having the infrastructure and programs in place so that any seniors can access gaming and esports. This could potentially get more younger seniors involved - a thought that affects me personally, considering that I qualify to be a senior in about 20 years.


I thought about whether I would want to go to an activity center and join the activities currently available today. The simple answer is no. I prefer to do the activities that I enjoyed while growing up, and those are the activities that I want to see available.


It is essential to prepare for the upcoming generation of elders. Instead of waiting for the challenges to arise, we should ease into this transition now, reach out to more seniors, and expose them to these opportunities. Through this approach, we can anticipate the social benefits in the long-term.



 

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Q: Why should seniors consider trying Esports over joining a traditional interest group to form a community?

Dennis: If you enjoy Mahjong or chess for their critical thinking aspects, esports offer a similar depth of challenge. While esports may involve more instantaneous fast-paced action, as long as you enjoy challenges, you can always give esports a try.


There are many different kinds of games out there where the challenge varies - it may not even be competitive but more cooperative in nature. However, for now, our program focuses on esports because that’s where we see the long-term benefits, and we want to reach out to that specific audience of seniors who don’t mind being challenged.



Q: Why did you pick Counter-Strike 2, a first-person shooter (FPS) game, among all the other different types and genres of games out there?

Dennis: Counter-strike 2 is one of the most traditional and oldest shooting game recognized as an esports game for over 20 years. While it may not be the most popular game among Singaporean youths right now, what matters most to us is that, in our opinion, it has a manageable learning curve that we can scaffold, and still achieve the outcome that we seek, such as cognitive benefits, critical thinking, and social experience.


Additionally, the game is very clear with a small number of objectives. This makes it a good starting point for any kind of introduction to competitive esports.


I am not saying that other types of games don’t deliver similar benefits. However, the complexities of, for example, MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games such as Dota, League of Legends, and Mobile Legends are much higher. One notable aspect of FPS games is that they are very easy to pick up and finish in a reasonable amount of time. Additionally, shooter games generally require less time, while MOBA games can drag on for hours.



Q: Do you have plans to introduce other games in the future?

Dennis: We are taking it one step at a time. For now, the most important thing is for more seniors to be willing to give video games and esports a try. Honestly, the game does not matter.


Down the road, if there is an opportunity to run other types of esports games, we will. At this juncture, we will stick with Counter-strike 2 unless we receive demand and feedback to introduce another game, such as Valorant, a currently well-known FPS game.


We remain very open minded and adaptable. We are mindful that the ultimate goal for all of this is for our seniors to stay happy and healthy, and build more social experiences with others through the medium of video games.



Q: What are some unexpected challenges faced that prompted further customization to your program to align better with the feedback and interests of the elderly participants?

Dennis: One of the most interesting challenges we faced was the unexpected difficulty in teaching a senior how to use both a mouse and a keyboard simultaneously. While most of them can operate a mouse and a keyboard individually, in a game like Counter-Strike 2, you need to use both simultaneously. Getting their motor skills and reflexes in order took more time than we expected.


Now, with that learning experience in mind, we are going to spend a lot more time helping them understand that.



A Patient & Flexible Esports Training Program for Elders


Another challenge was the different learning speeds of the seniors. As the pilot program was a smaller group, there was more personalized learning and flexibility in how we curated the class; so we repurposed some of the sessions because everybody either wanted or didn’t mind recapping some of the topics that they struggled with.


Moving forward, now that it is going to be a public program, we anticipate people with differing skill levels. We hope to involve some of our pioneer batch to come down and be part of the training program to exchange pointers. I think that it is easier for the seniors to relate to someone of similar age group and help them have a better experience picking the game up.


We try to remain flexible for the Senior GO! Esports Program. If we feel that a class needs to recap on certain topics, we will spend more time on that before moving on to the next lesson plan.



Q: Are there adjustments done to the tech gadgets, such as the gaming set-up, to better suit the seniors?

Dennis: The hardware itself is all standard. We did not have to adjust any equipment; therefore, seniors can continue to pick-up the game at home as long as they have a gaming PC or laptop.


This reminded me of an interesting situation during the pilot where the participating seniors were asking for solutions to allow them to continue practicing at home within the first 5 sessions. Since it was a pilot, we loaned the seniors our gaming set.


For seniors in future classes, we can consider opening the facilities for them outside of lesson time to practice. If not, they can consider sharing their grandkids gaming setup. It is a good bonding moment and opportunity. Either way, it is a happy problem if the seniors ask for solutions to continue practicing at home, and we will deal with it when the time comes.



Q: How would you advise seniors who are contemplating participation in the Senior GO! Esports Program?

Dennis: I would encourage them to come with an open mind. Video games are not something to be afraid of; in fact, it could really add a lot of value to your life. We see gaming as a very natural activity that could end up being part of your hobbies, and you might even end up excelling in it, especially if you have a bit more drive for competition.


SCOGA is in the process of learning as well, having only embarked on this journey with seniors for six months or less. I acknowledge that there is much for us to comprehend in terms of understanding seniors’ perspectives.


We don’t know what the future holds and who the next batch of trainees will be, but we’re excited to meet them and provide a good experience. We hope they remain lifelong friends, and if they have the capacity to compete, we will support them in that endeavor.



This interview has been edited for length.






 


FAQs

What are some challenges that elders may face when attempting esports?

Some challenges seniors may encounter include taking time to get their motor skills and reflexes in order, and experiencing motion sickness when starting out. The instructors from the Senior GO! Esports program will spend time guiding seniors on areas which they find more challenging.


Why should elders play video games and/or participate in esports?

There are many benefits that elders can gain from playing video games and participating in esports. Improving mental agility, forming a community, and connecting better with the younger generations are just some examples.


A video game is simply a game played digitally. With the acknowledgement that many elders have already been exposed to technology due to its rapid global adoption, elders are encouraged to give esports a try, especially if they enjoy 'traditional' games such as Mahjong or chess for their critical thinking aspects, as esports offers a similar depth of challenge.



 

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