May 1st, 2014

Research looks at benefits of online game

Age has an impact on the benefits people think they derive from playing the popular online game Bejeweled Blitz.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D., a professor of psychology at UMass Amherst and undergraduate students Stacy Ellenberg and Kyoko Akimoto tracked survey answers from 10,000 adults aged 18 to 80 recruited through the Facebook game’s publisher PopCap games and Whitbourne’s blog.

Results were published in the December 2013 issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking.

Whitbourne notes that five million people play Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook. It is a three-match game with fast changing visual displays and a time element to it.

Individuals age 60 and older were found to be the “very heavy duty players,” according to Whitbourne, with 41 percent playing several times per day for 30 minutes to one hour each session. Overall, about one third of the respondents fell into this heavy user category.

Whitbourne says that it may be surprising to some that older people are not as “technologically backward,” as stereotypes would suggest. Older players also cited “wanting a challenge” more often as their reason for playing, while the youngest group (age 18 to 29) looked to the game as a fun way to compete against family and friends. The respondents in the 30-59 age category cited stress relief as a catalyst more frequently than their younger and older counterparts.

Older adults also reported the game as a means to connect with people, interact with family members and become more socially engaged.

The most frequently cited benefit by all groups was “feeling sharper,” and having the ability to see patterns and play more quickly over time.

Forty-six percent of adults in the two oldest ranges reported that they can perform other timed tasks more quickly as a result of Bejeweled Blitz.

The researcher feels the next step involves evaluating alternative game formats to see if video game training can transfer to real world tasks such as driving ability.

“Bejeweled Blitz may have cognitive benefits by promoting visual search and reaction time,” she says. “But it is marketed as a social networking game that promotes competition, advancement and fun. The question is: can playing games make you better at something else you will care about?”

Respondents to the survey hailed from all over the world including non-English speaking countries, Whitbourne says. A great many of the heavy users were college graduates with high responsibility jobs. The sample was primarily female and demographic information did not include nationality.

She adds that Bejeweled Blitz players receive “positive reinforcement,” for making matches such as a voice praising them by saying, “awesome,” and music getting louder and faster as their performances improve. Respondents offered additional written comments to the questionnaire with one individual in the 60-64 age group noting, “I like the game telling me what a great job I did,” and a 72-year-old writing, “It gives me a feeling of confidence and accomplishment.”

Approximately 15 percent of respondents voluntarily noted that they felt the game had addictive qualities. That reporting is consistent with research that prolonged play can lead to negative outcomes, particularly for certain vulnerable people, according to Whitbourne.

Some individuals said that they continued to see patterns even after they had stopped playing including when they are falling asleep. This experience, known as “game transfer phenomena,” was more typical in younger players, Whitbourne says. One respondent wrote of a friend who saw two cars when she was out and was looking for a third in order to make the match.

By Susan Gonsalves

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