Gamapea: the video game that could change the lives of the elderly

A team of researchers has designed a video game to help with active aging: the prevention of depression, cognitive stimulation and the promotion of healthy lifestyle habits

Different moments of the video game Gamapea.
Different moments of the video game Gamapea.

“I feel stuck, and more and more overcome by circumstances, by the world,” admits Jacobo, a virtual pilgrim who has just entered a hostel in Roncesvalles, northern Spain. This is Gamapea, a video game developed by a team of researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela to promote an active lifestyle, in mind and body, among its elderly users. “There are data indicating that aging is associated with a higher prevalence of physical and mental health problems, such as dementia and depression. These changes, coupled with health problems and dependence, mean years lived with suffering and stress, and jeopardize the sustainability of society and the health system,” explains Fernando Lino Vázquez, the lead investigator of the project.

Jacobo begins the journey with the hope that it will help him rediscover his own path. Everything in Gamapea is designed to appeal to the demographic of its players. It’s a role-play adventure because this is the format preferred by adults, and based on the Camino de Santiago (or Way of Saint James as it is known in English) pilgrimage through northern Spain. It includes real scenarios from the route because “it is something that is very much ours,” says Vázquez. “It’s full of beautiful locations, history, culture and human experiences of overcoming challenges.”

The people who played the game showed significant improvements in their perceived general health, physical functioning, social functioning and mental health
Fernando Lino Vázquez, lead investigator of the project

From the beginning, players are masters of their own adventure: they choose how to interact with the other characters and face new challenges at each stage. “The plot integrates the player into a narrative with interactions arising with historical characters, elements of the environment, symbols and legends, and microgames. The aim is for them to acquire the necessary psychological tools to make changes that promote their well-being and quality of life, and train their cognitive capacity for memory, attention and concentration,” explains Vázquez.

The challenges include memory exercises and puzzles that increase in difficulty as the player progresses, while practical guides propose relaxation exercises and other strategies applicable to their life. Each day concludes with several tasks that users must integrate into their routines during the week between one game session and the next: making a list of pleasant activities, detecting negative thoughts, recording daily meals... In the first, for example, they are invited to write down their mood each day. “The app is synchronized with progress in the video game and allows the user to review what they have already done, to consult the various stages, review their progress and record the tasks between sessions,” explains the researcher. Players will also receive notifications on their cell phones to remind them of the tasks they have pending.

Gamapea’s goal is that those who follow the eight-week program proposed by the game will see the teachings Jacobo is receiving reflected in their own lives. And the results of the preliminary study are promising, says Vázquez: “The people who played the game showed significant improvements in their perceived general health, physical functioning, social functioning and mental health. In addition, they were highly satisfied,” he adds.

Scientifically proven

Can a video game really achieve such profound changes in the lives of its players? “Each puzzle and task is designed based on scientific evidence and clinical experience,” says Vázquez, whose team also has extensive experience in the different areas explored by Gamapea. “The biggest challenge was to adapt psychological techniques that we normally teach live to the video game format. To overcome this difficulty, we relied on the company Imatia Innovation, which did the programming and software development work.”

Because of its digital format, the game avoids the demands that complicate the follow-up of face-to-face programs, which, the researcher explains, can be a barrier for people living in rural areas or with limited mobility or resources. It is not lost on them how useful a format like this is when there are social restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Who is it intended for? Although the positive effects of the video game are aimed at the elderly, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that active aging programs be implemented throughout one’s adult life. “It is not only about living longer, but also about taking care of ourselves and nurturing our abilities to keep us in the best possible health over the years,” says Vázquez, adding that Gamapea is designed for players aged 45 and older.

Right now, Vázquez and his team are polishing some details of the game with the aim of rolling it out free of charge to the public starting in September. “The goal is to replicate its effectiveness and the usefulness found in the previous study,” he says. They are counting on funding from Spain’s Ministry of Science and Innovation. Testing Gamapea will then require meeting three requirements: being over 45 years of age, having an internet connection and an Android phone. “People who are interested in participating can contact our team.”

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