At a nursing home in suburban Tokyo, 88-year-old Saburo Sakamoto darts his fingers energetically to catch characters that appear on a touch screen in front of him.
Peals of laughter erupt from the other side of the room full of octogenarians as they wallop plastic alligators that appear from little holes or wield foam hammers to crush frogs as they pop up.
“The ladies here are very agile, so it’s almost impossible for me to beat them,” says Sakamoto as he catches his breath and watches several women easily outscore him on the game he is playing. The nursing home is run by an offshoot of Namco Bandai, the company behind 1980s arcade phenomenon PacMan, whose pill-popping escapades helped bring video games to a mass youth market.
Now the firm is part of a small, but growing band of groups developing video games and home computer entertainment for the so-called “silver generation” — Japan’s burgeoning army of elderly people, who are living longer and healthier lives than ever before.
Japan’s population has been declining since 2007 and the country is greying, with one of the world’s lowest birth rates and highest life expectancies.
“We offer entertainment so that elderly people spend the whole day playing, having fun, and getting really exhausted before returning to their home,” said Yoshiaki Kawamura, President of Kaikaya Ltd, the wholly-owned unit of Namco Bandai Holdings.
Day visitors, whose average age is 85, have a choice of activities at this government approved center, including assisted bathing, physiotherapy, lunch and a series of arcade and video games.
“The video games are very much extra-curricular, voluntary activities ... but clients look very animated when they are playing,” Kawamura said.
GAMES FOR THE SOUL
Facility staff try to motivate the elderly, tapping into their competitive spirits by posting leader boards on the walls and running competitions to see who is the “most vigorous” every few months.
Among the titles on offer is Dokidoki Hebi Taiji II (Thrilling Snakebuster II), a game developed by Namco Bandai in cooperation with Kyushu University Hospital in western Japan.
Like a life-size version of Whack-a-Mole, a seated player stamps on cartoon-like snakes that pop up at random around him.
Developers say the motion strengthens legs and hip muscles, something doctors say is important to help prevent falls.
It also increases cerebral blood flows especially to the frontal lobe, which may help to slow the progress of cognitive impairment, says Kyushu University doctor Shinichiro Takasugi.
In practice, “it is hard to get scientific proof of a particular game’s positive effect because of factors from other exercises,” said Kaikaya’s musculoskeletal nurse Miyuki Takahashi.
“But the psychological effect is unarguable — people’s faces light up when they play it.”
Takasugi agrees that there are clearly mood-enhancing benefits to be had.
“The game is an effective tool to lighten up the souls of elderly people who tend to stay at home, withdrawing from social life,” he said.
“It can also help keep them engaged with what can be boring rehab exercises.”
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
Where video games have historically been sedentary and solitary, improving technology means controlling characters on a screen no longer needs to be done just by hitting keys or wobbling a joystick.