Final article can be found at: De Schutter, B. D., Brown, J. A., & Vanden Abeele, V. (2014). The domestication of digital games in the lives of older adults. New Media & Society, 1461444814522945. doi:10.1177/1461444814522945
The domestication of digital games in the lives of older adults
Bob De Schutter
Miami University, USA
Julie A. Brown
University of Kentucky, USA
Vero Vanden Abeele
KU Leuven, Belgium
The current study aims to integrate the findings of previous research on the use of video games by older adults by applying the domestication framework (Silverstone et al., 1992). A qualitative study was performed with 35 participants aged between 49 and 73, who were targeted purposefully from a larger sample of 213. The analysis revealed how older adults appropriated digital games using pre-existing, public and co-constructed meanings, as well as how such meanings influence the incorporation of digital games in their daily routine. The study also reveals how the transformation of personal meanings into the public realm can be obstructed by social factors. Finally, the usefulness of the domestication framework for this topic of study as well as implications for future research are discussed.
Domestication research, older adults, digital games, media adoption, motivation, time
expenditure, display of technology, identification
Corresponding Author: Bob De Schutter, Miami University, 501 E High St, Oxford, OH 45056, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The post-war baby boom, lower fertility rates and an increasing life expectancy have been attributed as reasons for a burgeoning senior population in modern societies. The figures from the UN World Population Prospects (2012) estimate that 21.8% of the world population will be over the age of 60 in 2050; this is approximately double the amount reported in 2010. Such previously inconceivable high numbers of older adults will pose significant socioeconomic challenges to society (e.g., Cutler et al., 1990).
Within a wide range of initiatives that are being taken towards addressing these issues, the cognitive, motivational, emotional and social benefits that have been associated with digital games (e.g., Granic et al., 2013) could play a dual role. On the one hand, digital games could play a part in both preventive or reactive healthcare, for example by providing a venue for cognitive brain training (e.g. Anguera et al., 2013). On the other hand, digital games could provide a cherished and meaningful activity that caters to healthy older adults on a motivational, emotional and social level (e.g., De Schutter and Malliet, 2014). It is therefore not inconceivable that the growth of the older audience of digital games during the last decennium (e.g. Bosmans and Maskell, 2012; ESA, 2011), will not end in the foreseeable future.
Previous Literature on Older Gamers
Despite a demographic evolution within the audience of digital games, the image of ‘gamers’ as adolescents is still a prevalent stereotype. Consequently, academic research is largely focused on younger members of the digital games audience. Few studies focus on older players (age 50+) and these studies can be summarized into three categories.
The first category of studies suggest that digital games can be a catalyst to improving quality of life, such as health- and behavior-related aspects, for non-playing elderly. These studies stress improvements in social interaction, a contribution to enjoyment and emotional wellbeing and various cognitive and motor improvements (e.g., Bell et al., 2011; Bleakley et al., 2013).
The second line of research concerns studies that formulate guidelines for digital game design for non-playing older adults. These studies are often situated within the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and employ a greater emphasis on the varied gaming needs of an older audience. Designers must be aware of normative age-related changes and 1) how such aspects can affect technological interaction (e.g. reduced vision and hearing, slower pace, decreased attention division skills, etc.; e.g. IJsselsteijn et al., 2007), 2) how digital game content can appeal to or motivate potential older players (e.g., De Schutter and Vanden Abeele, 2008) and 3) how gaming practices and preferences of elderly players are different from their younger counterparts (e.g. Nacke et al., 2009).
Although the previous two categories provide ample evidence as to the potential benefit of digital games engagement in old age, there are not nearly as many studies that explicitly examine the characteristics of actively playing elderly. Moreover, these studies have been exploratory in nature: Copier (2002) studied 12 participants between 50 and 76 years of age in a qualitative study, Pearce (2008) applied both quantitative (n = 229; 96 players over the age of 50) and qualitative methods (n = 22) during an online study, Quandt et al. (2009) interviewed 21 players between 35 and 73 (5 players over the age of 50), Nap et al. (2009) described the results of two focus groups and four contextual inquiries with 10 participants aged 64 to 76, and De Schutter (2010) published the results of a quantitative exploration of 124 older adults aged between 45 and 85 years.
While these studies provide initial insight into the lives of the older adult players, it must be noted that they do not provide a solid theoretical foundation. Despite various differences among the respective findings in these studies, researchers in this field should seek to find commonalities in an effort to construct a theoretical framework. For example, while Pearce (2008) found that her sample consisted of ‘avid and experienced fans who are highly developer and genre-conscious’, Copier (2002) and Nap et al. (2009) reported that their participants relied on others to find new games and were minimally familiar with digital game jargon. Such differences may be understood better if viewed from a common theoretical perspective. This article proposes the domestication framework (Silverstone and Haddon, 1996a) as a theoretical foundation to study the adoption and use of digital games by an older audience.
The Domestication of Digital Games
The term ‘domestication’ refers to the process of transforming something that is part of the wild into something that is ‘house-trained’. In line with this metaphor, domestication research aims to reveal the various symbolic meanings - and material expressions thereof - that are generated and transformed during the process of integrating technological objects within the daily life of its users. As a result of this emphasis on symbolic meanings and on the context in which a technology is used, the domestication approach is particularly suitable to study digital games and the playful activities that surround them. Games are powerful reflections of our values and identity, which is demonstrated, for example, in how self-identified gamers will furiously debate why one console (or the PC) is superior to another.
In this article, the domestication process will be described using the notions of ‘appropriation’, ‘objectification’, ‘incorporation’ and ‘conversion’, as defined by Silverstone et al. (1992). An object is appropriated as soon as it ‘leaves the world of commodity and the generalized system of equivalence and exchange, and is taken possession of by an individual or household and owned’ (Silverstone et al., 1992: 21). The process of ‘appropriation’ concerns both the socially assigned meaning that is present before users acquire ownership of an object, and the personal meaning that is developed throughout ownership. Before appropriation, commodities are desired (or undesired) for their potential functions, as well as for the possible changes and social meanings they emit. At the end of the appropriation process, the meanings of objects are transformed to fit the self-image of their users.
In the ‘conversion’ phase, the personal meanings that a user has attached to a certain technology are incorporated and then reinforced into an ever-evolving public meaning, as users display their ownership and expertise in a public context. Specifically, this transfer of meaning occurs when ‘the household defines and claims for itself and its members a status in the neighborhood, work and peer groups in the wider society’ (Silverstone et al., 1992: 22). As a result, the owner of an object aids in the construction of the (un)desirability of the object to potential new users. It should be noted that conversion only occurs if the user displays the object (along with the personal meanings that are attached to it) to the public. Correspondingly, the conversion process concerns the material expression of an object as well as the symbolic meanings that are associated with it. Without any form of display, conversion cannot exist.
‘Objectification’ refers to the spatial exhibition of an object within the home, which provides a basis for identification and self-representation of its owner. Silverstone (2005) defines objectification as ‘the location of information and communications technologies in the material, social and cultural spaces of the home’ (Silverstone, 2005: 235). Similar to the previously described dimension of the domestication framework, it is possible for users to never objectify a newly domesticated technology; for example by only using the object outside of their own home (e.g., at work, during classes, at friends).
If objectification occurs, then the spatial display of such objects may reveal the ‘incorporation’ of how they are used, particularly with respect to their integration within the routines of daily life. Thus, this concept integrates the object within a temporal context. While objectification is mainly concerned with ‘spatial aspects…, incorporation focuses on the temporalities’ (Silverstone et al., 1992: 22).
Using these four dimensions, the domestication framework has been applied to analyze, describe and explain the adoption and usage of various technologies. Whereas earlier studies applied a holistic approach by examining all technologies within the household, later studies focused on specific technologies, such as mobile telephony (e.g., Haddon, 2003), television (e.g., Silverstone and Haddon, 1996b), the Internet (e.g., Bergman and van Zoonen, 1999), and digital games (e.g., Helle-Valle and Storm-Mathisen, 2008).
With regards to digital games, the domestication framework has been applied in the study of gender-related differences. Kerr (2003) demonstrates how the strongly masculine nature of game content, game console design and its representation in the media, were a challenge that her female interviewees had to overcome to appropriate digital games for their own means. Helle-Valle and Storm-Mathisen (2008) use the domestication framework to describe how digital games can be related to gender conflicts within the households of 2 Norwegian families. While the previous studies emphasize the gendered meaning of digital games and its implications for domestication, Hjorth (2011) considers the ongoing role of context in generation of meanings.
“Games extend the existing transformation and diffusion of boundaries between traditional private and public spheres through the ability to move geographically (in the case of mobile devices) as well as psychologically (in the case of online social worlds in which game spaces operate like mini-worlds for the players from different locations)” (Hjorth, 2011, p. 19).
Situated within a context of burgeoning technology use among aging populations, this study seeks to describe the older audience of digital games from the domestication perspective by analyzing semi-structured interviews and observations of 35 Flemish older adults between the ages of 49 and 73. In doing so, this perspective provides a framework that can be applied to future research relating to older adults and games. Two research goals are:
RG1: to describe the meanings older adults attribute to digital games in their daily lives.
RG2: to frame these meanings within a domestication framework.
Participants were recruited through a combination of sampling methods. An online solicitation for respondents was launched through the project site, which was promoted on Flemish online communities targeted at either players of digital games or older adults. A solicitation was also launched through an offline umbrella organization for elderly citizens' communities of interests, as well as a call in two national newspapers, and two leisure magazines for older adults. Finally, the snowball technique (Goodman, 1961) was applied. Inclusion criteria were: 1) potential participants should play any mode of digital games at least once a week over a period of one year, 2) they should be at least 45 years of age, and 3) they should be willing to complete a survey and partake in an interview study. This resulted in 213 respondents (between 50 and 70 years of age) who received access to an online questionnaire on a secure server. These findings have been extensively documented in a previous publication (De Schutter, 2010).
The participant pool reflected a wide variety of respondents regarding education, professional status, marital status, contextual age, and gaming-related variables. None of the respondents reported to live in a retirement center or service flat. In order to improve the sample, 48 facilities for the elderly were contacted. However, this resulted in only one additional respondent.
The age groups of Berk (2004) were used to define the ‘older adults’ when assembling the sample for this qualitative study, from the aforementioned pool. As Eggermont & Vandebosch (1999) argue that individuals transitioning between life phases are more susceptible for external influences, the age group for the study was set between 50 and 70 years of age, which corresponds with the transition between middle and late adulthood according to Berk (2004). In total, 35 respondents were recruited from the pool of respondents, 17 of which were under 60 years old while 18 were over 60 years old. 17 participants were male, while 18 were female.
During the first two phases (see below), purposeful sampling (Patton, 1990) was applied in order to find information-rich cases1. During the third and fourth iterations, the findings of the previous two phases were validated and improved. A combination of random sampling and theoretical sampling (Glaser, 1978) was applied, in order to respectively test the conclusions of previous analyzes and to find respondents who diverted along the variables constructed at that point in the study (i.e., genre preferences, playing time, professional status, and context).
Interviews were held at the respective home of each participant and were preceded by short observations of game playing behavior. During these observations a ‘think aloud’ protocol was applied (Lewis, 1982) to assess how the participants experienced their favorite game. Each interview started with an open question: ‘what is the meaning of playing digital games in your life?’ Participants were invited to interpret the question as they saw fit, which enabled them to address the topics they perceived as most relevant. To ensure accuracy, member checks were employed, six months after the initial data collection. Through the process of sampling and analysis, the researchers explicitly searched for deviating cases.
The data were analyzed using the qualitative software program, QSR nVivo 8. During the analysis Wester’s phased interpretation of Grounded Theory was followed (Wester and Peters, 2004). Essential to Grounded Theory is the principle of constant comparison, according to which a theory in development should be repeatedly adapted, based upon the confrontation with new empirical data. As a result, data collection occurred simultaneously throughout the analysis.
During the ‘exploration’ phase (n = 8), as many codes as possible were extracted using open coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Three themes were identified:
1) preferences with regards to in-game content (e.g., ‘A game has to offer a certain amount of depth and strategy in order for it to be interesting to me.’; Raymond2, 60, male);
2) the relationship between gaming experiences and social context (‘I strictly play games like Diner Dash because my grandchildren love it. I wouldn’t play it by myself’; Yves, 69, m);
3) the relationship between gaming experiences and the general expenditure of time (e.g., ‘I try to make time for it. 1 or 2 hours a day on average, I guess. I also have other things that need to get done.’; Didier, 67, m).
Each of these themes was also evaluated in terms of continuity and change, which served as an overarching (and fourth) theme.
During the ‘specification’ phase (n = 8 from the previous phase and 10 new), codes were developed into concepts. Data (from both previous and new interviews) were coded axially (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Text fragments within each code were compared, sorted and ranked in order to develop a tree structure. This tree structure started with the three themes outlined above, and further expanded the themes into subcodes. For example, the theme ‘expenditure of time’ would expand into subcodes such as ‘making time to play’, ‘playing when there is nothing else to do’, ‘specific moments of play’, etc. ‘Making time to play’ would subsequently expand into its own subcodes, and so on.
During the ‘reduction’ phase (n = 18 from the previous phases, 8 new) one core category was sought after, relating to all central concepts in the framework in progress. To establish relationships between categories and concepts, reduction matrices were used, based on selective coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), in which all respondents were positioned.
Finally, during the ‘integration’ phase (n = 26 from the previous phases, 9 new) the developed framework was applied to all respondents, and the established relationships and categories were re-evaluated in order to formulate answers to each of the research questions. Following Wester's interpretation of Grounded Theory (Wester & Peters, 2004), the framework was systematically compared to, and integrated with the domestication framework due to the overlap of key concepts and major themes within the analysis. The following section of this article provides a thorough description of the findings using the domestication perspective.
As indicated above, the appropriation phase is concerned with various symbolic meanings that are derived from the ownership and the initial learning phase that accompanies the adoption of a technology. For the respondents of this study, digital games were introduced to their homes through a couple of different channels. Many of the respondents were motivated to begin playing digital games because of a specific interest that was meaningful to them. In particular, satisfying a curiosity to discover or keep abreast of novel modes of technologies, and fulfilling a passion to explore new or a diverse array of digital games, were two often recurring interests that drove the appropriation of digital games. For example, Dirk (49, m) explained how technology was a passion for him and how digital games came into his life through his passion for technology:
“When the first computers came out, I immediately bought one, a TS-80. It came with a few games that worked with this tape recorder. It was actually a bit pathetic in comparison to today’s technology. … I also loved to write my own code in Basic. Afterwards I bought my first IBM PC and as games became more technologically impressive, I started to play more and more of them.”
In contrast to Dirk, Jacques (51, m) was less passionate about keeping up with technological advances, instead referred to himself as game fanatic:
“I have always played everything. Cards, pool, pinball machines, board games, air hockey… you name it. Everything that I could play, I would play. So when I learned about games on a computer, I immediately bought some.”
Although the discovery and exploration of digital games and related technologies lead to appropriation for some, other motivations were revealed by participants that provided richer insight into personal characteristics, preferences, and history. For these respondents, digital games support meaningful topics such as a passion for aviation, history, military, sports, or even being a fan of certain television game shows. In these cases, the content of digital games tended to be a reflection of activities and topics that were already a meaningful part of life. Roger (72, m) was one of the respondents that expressed a passion for aviation. He worked his way up from simplistic 2D monochrome airplane games to advanced Flight Simulators:
“I always wanted to be a pilot, an airline pilot. That never happened, of course, but it remained a dream. So when I learned about computers, I got myself an old laptop. The monitor showed 4 or 5 stripes. That was all the graphics it could manage. But those stripes became a plane and it even made a simmering engine sound. The plane actually took off in my mind! And that was DOS. I played that for hours on end. And of course, then came Microsoft Flight Simulator and so on.”
Like other respondents, Roger often referred to nostalgic feelings, such as a youthful dream as a catalyst for digital games being introduced to their home.
For respondents who started to play digital games as a result of pre-existing interests, the in-game content corresponded well with pre-existing symbolic meanings of their own (such as the ones described above) and did not seem to change all that much during appropriation. However, this was not necessarily the case for respondents who were introduced to digital games through public meanings. These respondents relied either on 1) marketing messages that were designed by the gaming industry, or on 2) meanings that were co-constructed by family members, friends and colleagues.
The game industry seemed to target the first group by presenting digital games as something useful, more specifically as a technology leading to improved health or self-cultivation. Starting to play digital games for such benefits led to mixed meanings. On the one hand, this promise of mental fitness through digital gaming left many participants feeling dissatisfied. For example, Isabella (56, f) shared with us how the advertising for Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training (Nintendo DS), featuring Nicole Kidman, led to her initial purchase of the handheld console and the game:
“I bought a Nintendo DS as a result of the Nicole Kidman commercial. For the brain training. Unfortunately, the game didn’t work all that well. It didn’t register my voice nor my writing well, and that was the end of it. I brought it back to the store and traded it for a Mahjong game and something else. But in the end, I always play Mahjong on it.”
As evidenced by Isabella’s quote, the meaning she initially attributed to the Nintendo’s Brain Training as a potential device for cognitive training, dissipated after she encountered difficulties in her attempts to play. On the other hand, a group of participants indicated how they played digital games as a form of mental training. For example, Isabella continued her interview by sharing how she felt that Mahjong was ‘somewhat of a mental workout’, while Georgette (66, f) felt that playing games might be quite good for older adults:
“The things I have to do with the controller… I’m sure it has to be good for my fingers. I think that games on my PC are good for my brain, while the Playstation is good for my fingers. And yes, that’s important to me. I’m doing something useful while I’m playing.”
While Georgette is discussing both action-adventure games such as Tomb Raider (on her Playstation) as well as card and puzzle games (on her PC), it is interesting to note that these games were not originally designed or promoted as training tools for older adults. While marketers and designers do promote and develop certain games for cognitive and motor training, the participants of this study seemed to play other games with such purposes in mind.
Even though marketing strategies seemed to have influenced a portion of the sample, the influence of family members, friends and colleagues was prevalent among a larger group of respondents. In particular, younger generations were a significant factor for the initiation of gameplay within the home of many respondents. Myriam (56, f) described how this was the case for her and her husband:
“We originally started with what we bought for the kids: a Nintendo Entertainment System. But then we got curious and started playing when they were in bed at night. Incredible! The first game was Mario Bros. and then we got into the Zelda games.”
Even though Myriam started to become an experienced player over the years (as she had playing games since the Eighties), she originally considered digital games to be a technology for children. During the appropriation process, this changed as digital games became an interesting evening activity for her and her husband (and later on even a daytime relaxation activity for herself). For other respondents who started to play in function of their children, the meaning of digital games evolved into one of ‘a shared activity with my children’. For example, Jacques (51, m) often played online with his son, who had left the elderly home:
“We play online a lot. I even invited a colleague who has a PS3 and he joins us as well. I just make a game room and we play. It is a lot easier than just meeting up every day.”
While younger generations often initiate the introduction of these games to the respondents, there are situations where some respondents were introduced to games by their game-playing spouse, friends or peers. For example, female players were often enticed by their husbands to start playing. In this case, couples who played the same games together could become quite competitive with one another, such as Jeannine (72, f) and her husband:
“We don’t really play together, but we do check our high scores a couple of times during the day. And yes, I beat his scores and then he’ll try to beat mine. I guess we can get a bit competitive.”
This threefold division of pre-existing meanings, co-constructed meanings and public meanings during the appropriation of digital games also carried over to learning styles that were used by the respondents to master the new technology. On the one hand, respondents who started playing games as an extension of pre-existing, meaningful interests often relied upon themselves to learn and develop their skills for this new technology. On the other hand, respondents who were introduced to digital games by others often developed new game-based relationships in order to learn about and eventually master the new technology. While there are exceptions – for example, when grandparents help their toddler-aged grandchildren to play a game – the younger persons tend to take on the role of teacher. This includes aiding them in the instruction of the game, to troubleshooting computer issues. Some respondents even admitted that they would use the games as a way to get their adult children to spend more time with them, yet there are times when this would backfire, as evidenced by the following quote by Bernadette (62, f):
“By now my son feels that I shouldn’t bother him anymore when something does not work. It’s okay. I learn a lot that way but sometimes I end up cursing. … Currently, the image on my screen is completely messed up. It might break.”
Nevertheless, digital games were generally seen as an interesting pastime to partake with younger generations.
Conversion refers to how the personal meanings attributed to an adopted technology (during appropriation) influences and transforms the socially assigned meaning of that technology. While the process of appropriation was clearly noticeable among the entire sample, the process of conversion was less evident. Playing digital games seemed to be an activity that the majority of participants preferred to keep to themselves. One reason for this finding could be that digital games are not that important in the lives of older adults, as evidenced by the following quote by Georgette (66, f):
“I do not feel a need to discuss my games with others. … At our age, there are much more important topics to discuss. People passing away, people becoming ill, how the grandchildren are doing, and so on.”
Another reason for why conversion was less apparent seemed to be related to a notion that playing digital games might not always be considered age appropriate. While everyone in the sample would agree that cleverly designed puzzle games or digital versions of well-known games such as Sudoku or Chess were a socially acceptable way for older adults to spend an evening, the participants seemed to be divided when they discussed the age appropriateness of console games and handheld games. For example, Guido (70, m) discussed his views on such games as follows:
“People are allowed to know that I play digital games. I do not have a problem with that. But then again, I do not play those games the teens play. Never. I’m not interested. I only play games that require a brain to play. I’ve seen them, though. My son played one, and that game was only about murdering people in a regular city environment. … And warfare games as well. I am not convinced that you can learn anything worthwhile from those games.”
Interestingly enough, the participants who actually played shooting games had attained a completely different perspective on the matter. They still condemned excessive violence, but also discussed how they would defend their hobbies and the games they played to their non-playing peers, for example by using some of the following arguments: 1) playing games is a much better pastime then frequenting the pub on a daily basis, 2) playing real-life sports or participating in some physical activities in later life is encouraged, but is not as physically feasible, as compared to a digital game version, and 3) such digital games are amazing works of fiction. Bernadette (62, f) even quoted the Bible (Matthew 18:3) in her defense:
“When I play my Gameboy outside of my home I see people looking at me as if I’m crazy. They think I’m demented. But the bible says… I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Therefore, it seemed that only this small but fanatic group of players was eager to change the public meanings that are attributed to them playing digital games.
The objectification of a technology or medium is evidenced by the way it is put on display, which in turn provides a basis for projected personal identification and self-representation of its owner and its household. Digital games had been reported by some of the participants to have become a part of their identity as it became an important hobby in their lives. For Rose (55, f) this was the case for the Zelda franchise and Second Life:
“I originally started playing because I was bored. … But now I am completely fascinated by the Zelda games or Second Life. If I could I would spend all my free time playing games.”
Nonetheless, even for such enthusiastic participants, it was still difficult to spot specific spatial or “public display” elements. For example, some of the avid playing participants store their console games in a cupboard while not in use; the games are rarely put on display. Additionally, gaming consoles were neatly stored below or next to the television set (which is arguably the typical location for a gaming console), while PCs tended to be in a hobby or office room. Some participants reported playing games on a mobile device, such as a laptop or handheld console, which affords the ability to play in various locations throughout the house or even in environments outside of the home (e.g. on vacation or while watching something on television). Nonetheless, the display of these games and their hardware tended to be minimal.
Similar to the conversion phase, the reason for a lack of objectification could be related to the idea that playing digital games may not be viewed as age-appropriate for older adults. Bernadette (62, f) explained how she would hide her games and Gameboy whenever acquaintances would visit her. She reported doing this because she once received uncomfortable remarks from a visitor who saw her Gameboy (a handheld game) resting among the magazines she kept near her toilet. Hence, it seems that older adult players may be hesitant to display games within their home, as they do not consider them to be a source for self-representation. Very few participants saw themselves as being “gamers”, and even then François (55, m) noted how he felt that being a real gamer (within the online community) demands much more dedication:
“I am a gamer, sure, but I’m just an occasional one. People like me go to work and do other things aside from gaming. Real gamers wake up, turn on their games, play, turn them off, and go to sleep. … You recognize them immediately. They are always ‘in gear’ and they have everything related to their games.”
As has been discussed earlier, digital games are not a common topic of discussion for many of the participants, and being good at playing them is not related to a positive social status for the participants (even if they were sometimes very proud about their own achievements in-game). While being an expert in using the computer was considered a positive status symbol for older adults, being an expert in digital games seems to be worth far less and this was evidenced by how digital games were not put on display.
Incorporation refers to the way digital games are used; in particular, this includes their temporal integration into the routines of daily life. With respect to the older adults in the study sample, this proved to be an essential component for successful domestication of digital games. Two groups were identified with regards to the incorporation process. First, there were participants who purposely took time to play digital games. For them, digital games needed to fit in an already activity-filled daily life. For example, Didier (67, m) described how he had to find time to play each day:
“I try to play for 1 to 2 hours each day. Mostly, I play when my girlfriend isn’t home. Then I have some time for myself and I get to play.”
For participants like Didier, playing games is a preferred activity that is regarded as worthwhile and therefore, merits his time. On the other hand, the second group of participants purposely play digital games, but as a means of filling otherwise unoccupied time. Due to her handicap, Georgette (66, f) reported that she has a lot of empty time, which she filled by playing games:
“I feel as if I’m imprisoned and alone. I don’t see a lot of people and I can’t stand being alone. That’s why games are very important to me. I almost play all day. It’s a kind of therapy. … When I’m behind my PC, I forget how alone I can be.”
Georgette is somewhat of an extreme case when compared to other participants within this second category, due to her life-altering disability. A less extreme example of a respondent who plays to fill unoccupied time would be Guido (70, m), who explained how he only plays when he waits for his son to appear for an online chat session, or when he does not care for a television show that his wife is watching. To pass these intermittent periods of boredom, Guido likes to play Tetris on an old Gameboy.
In essence, the participants of this study could be positioned on a scale between “having many other activities and making time to play” to “having nothing else to do (temporarily or permanently) and simply filling time by playing”. Considering how games became integrated within the daily lives of the study participants, four specific playing moments were identified. First, digital games may be played in sequence with other activities, like before going to bed. Second, digital games may be played in tandem with other activities, such as cooking, watching a television show, or while chatting online. Third, digital games may be used as a substitute for other activities that are no longer feasible, which is often attributed to issues related to age- related impairment. For example, Pierre (66, m) described how he liked to play digital soccer games, because he no longer had the physical ability to play it in real life. Finally, digital games may be used as a means of avoidance. These circumstances may include undesired activities, such as daily chores or an uninteresting television show that is being watched by a spouse. Equally, if not more important, these games can also be a means to avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Finally, it is worth noting that numerous participants mentioned the topic of game addiction in relation to the incorporation of digital games in their daily routines. Game addiction was viewed in two ways. First, the term was used to reflect the extent to which the participant derived pleasure and enjoyment from playing, similar to how Rose (55, f) refers to addiction in the following quote:
“I love Second Life. I can do everything I want in there. I know so many people in there. I could very well say I’m addicted to it.”
The second perspective reflected a more temporal stance, as the term was used to describe how they would spend more time on games then they originally planned, even to the point where they would experience minor physical ailments as a consequence. Isabelle (56, f) illustrates this in the following quote:
“It’s so addictive. I play it every day. I don’t have serious problems with it, but my husband can complain from time to time. But then I’ll just go do something with him. … It is bad for my neck, playing that much. Sometimes I think that I should be more careful for a while.”
While many participants referred to addiction within the general context of gaming taking up too much time, none of the participants reported experiences that fully meet the criteria specified for an addiction disorder, as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR) (American Psychiatric Association, 1994: 192). Participants who wanted to reduce their playing time did not report having much trouble doing so. For example, this was accomplished by adhering to pre-determined time parameters of their playing sessions, by letting their partners police them, or by deleting/avoiding games that they have trouble putting down.
Discussion and Conclusion
The domestication framework proved to be helpful in analyzing the meanings that were attributed to digital games by a heterogeneous older audience. During the appropriation phase, pre-existing, public or co-constructed meanings could be identified that were sometimes but not always transformed into new meanings. In particular, pre-existing and co-constructed meanings seemed to be more stable than public meanings. The analysis of the incorporation of digital games in the daily routine of older adults led to an improved understanding of how pre-existing time schedules influenced the meanings that were ascribed to digital games and a classification of the different ways in which digital games and other activities managed to co-exist.
Considering the conversion and objectification of digital games however, the study revealed how the conveying of personal meanings into the public realm could be obstructed. On the one hand, participants who did not mind discussing their digital gaming experiences with others felt that digital games were not a very interesting topic to talk about. On the other hand, participants who had become fanatic players had to deal with the notion that playing digital games after the age of 50 is not considered to be age appropriate by everyone.
Considering the findings of this study, it is concluded that the domestication framework provides a modern and applicable theoretical approach to describe the adoption of digital games among older adults. Although the study was not originally designed to incorporate the domestication framework, the potential for its application organically emerged within the study’s grounded theory process. The concepts of ‘appropriation’ and ‘incorporation’ provided a sound theoretical basis to describe many of the meanings that older adults attributed to digital games. While ‘conversion’ and ‘objectification’ were less pronounced in the meanings that were mentioned during the interviews, the concepts were nevertheless found to be useful in order to emphasize critical parts of the integration of digital games in the lives of older adults.
It should be noted that a number of technical and methodological problems were encountered. This study is exclusively based on the perceptions of a group of Flemish players. Cultural differences could arise when applying the findings to other countries. Furthermore, the sample did not account for players of tangible or exergames (e.g., the Nintendo Wii), even though these players were specifically targeted during the later sampling phases. Nevertheless, the study was largely consistent with previous research on the gaming behavior of older adults (e.g., Copier, 2002; De Schutter, 2010; Nap et al., 2009; Pearce, 2008; Quandt et al., 2009). This is an interesting finding in its own right as the previous research features participants from different countries and cultures. Further research into the differences between older adults who actively play digital games in different countries and cultures is therefore appropriate.
The study was able to replicate some of the findings that are commonly found in relation to gender discussions, which has been a dominant topic in previous research with regards to the domestication of digital games. Digital games contributed to a separation between a feminine and male domain in the household. This was evidenced by how male players played in a private room, while female players rather played in a social space (e.g., using a mobile device, or by placing a PC in the living room). The male participants also mentioned how digital games had to be balanced with family life. Nonetheless, age concerns were much more prevalent in the stories that were shared by the respondents than gender-related issues. Therefore, further study of gendered play in middle and late adulthood would be advised.
The conversion and objectification of digital games also raises questions for future research. It seems that older adults who have become avid and fanatic players are currently restricted in their domestication process, as social constraints make it difficult to fully ‘convert’ and ‘objectify’ digital games. This finding calls for both comparative research between older adults and younger players, as well as a study that evaluates both concepts for the older adults of the future (who grew up with digital games).
The domestication framework is also a valuable tool in framing the sometimes conflicting findings of previous literature on the older audience of digital games. For example, Pearce (2008) found that her sample consisted of knowledge and genre-conscious players, while Copier (2002) and Nap et al. (2009) reported that their participants were depending on others to help them find new games and were hardly knowledgeable about digital game jargon. This study managed to find both types of participants, and through the domestication framework it could be explained how meanings were formed differently for both groups. For example, it appears that knowledgeable players started playing through pre-existing meanings and were more inclined to learn about digital games themselves, while less knowledgeable players stay reliant on others while learning about the technology during appropriation. Thus, although the application of the domestication framework will not automatically provide answers to all empirical variety found in previous and future literature on this topic, it will provide a better understanding of this innovative, socially relevant and emerging topic of study, and consequently lead to better academic research.
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1 The sample included 1 respondent aged 49 and 5 respondents aged 71 to 73. These respondents were considered as information-rich cases during the purposeful sampling and were therefore added to the sample.
2 This article uses fictional names to guarantee the anonymity of respondents.
Bob De Schutter is C. Michael Armstrong Professor at the School of Education, Health & Society and the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies of Miami University (Oxford, OH).
Julie A. Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky's Graduate Center for Gerontology.
Vero Vanden Abeele is an assistant professor at the KU Leuven, teaching on the interaction between technology, human and society.
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