Yu-Hao Lee

Yu-Hao Lee is an assistant professor at the University of Florida. His research investigates how people process persuasive information communicated through interactive and immersive media such as digital games, social media, and virtual reality. He has been involved in projects funded by the National Science Foundation, UNHCR, IARPA, and Online News Association that incorporates psychology theories in media designs to promote better decision-making and engagement.

Contact Information:
leeyuhao at jou.ufl.edu

Older adults’ digital gameplay, social capital, social connectedness, and civic participation

by Yu-Hao Lee

Abstract

Social connectedness and civic participation are critical components of successful aging, but older adults are at risk of losing social connectedness and social capital due to a declining ability to participate in social activities. This study investigates the relationship between older adults' digital game-playing behavior with their social capital, social connectedness, and civic participation. An online national survey of 1101 older adults over the age of 60 years old was administered. Results showed that older adults who played alone did not have reduced social capital. Playing with local and distant ties were both associated with more bonding and bridging social capital. Moreover, playing with online friends was associated with bridging social capital. Playing with online friends was also associated with more civic participation. The findings suggest that digital games can be an effective means of promoting social connectedness among older adults depending on how they play and whom they play the games with.

Keywords: Older adult, Video games, Social capital, Social connectedness, Civic participation

 
"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."
- George Bernard Shaw

Older adults are a frequently overlooked population that can benefit from playing digital games, especially in using digital games to connect with existing and new networks of people to facilitate social connectedness. There are more than 47.5 million older adults aged 65 and above in the United States with the number projected to reach 79.7 million by the year 2040, accounting for 21% of the population (Department of Health and Human Services, 2013). In many developed countries, older adults have surpassed the number of children around the year 2000 (United Nations Population Fund, 2002). Older adults experience higher risk of social disconnectedness and isolation due to loss of their professional networks after retirement or to declining mental and physical abilities to participate in social activities (E. Y. Cornwell and Waite, 2009; Cotten, Ford, Ford, & Hale, 2014; Kaufman, Sauvé, Renaud, Sixsmith, & Mortenson, 2016; Wright, 2000).

Playing online digital games may be a practical solution for building and maintaining older adults’ social networks and social connectedness. Previous studies on the effect of games on older adults have mostly focused on maintaining cognitive and physical health. Studies have shown that playing digital games can maintain older adults’ cognitive abilities such as attention span, motor skills, reaction time, and problem-solving skills (Anguera et al., 2013; Belchior et al., 2013; Gamberini et al., 2009; Jung, Li, Janissa, Gladys, & Lee, 2009; Toril, Reales, & Ballesteros, 2014; Zhang and Kaufman, 2016). Some healthcare facilities have incorporated digital games as part of their treatment to improve patient motivation and engagement (Lohse, Shirzad, Verster, Hodges, & Van der Loos, 2013). However, few studies have examined how playing games can promote older adults’ social connectedness, social capital, and civic participation.

Recent studies on general populations have shown that playing video games can lead to development of online and offline social capital with fellow gamers and are associated with more civic participation (Lenhart et al., 2008; Molyneux, Vasudevan, & Gil de Zúñiga, 2015; Skoric and Kwan, 2011; Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006). To our knowledge, no studies have examined the relationship between older adults’ game-playing behaviors to their social connectedness, social capital, and civic participation. Through a national survey of 1101 older adult, this study examines the relationship between older adults’ digital game-playing behaviors, social connectedness, bonding and bridging social capital, and civic participation. More specifically, how do different types of social game-playing behavior among older adults relate to their social capital, perceived social connectedness, and civic participation?

 

Older adults and social connectedness

Social connectedness and civic participation are critical components of successful aging (Bowling and Dieppe, 2005). Social connectedness has been defined as the subjective relationship between the self and society. As described by Lee, Draper, & Lee (2001, p. 310):

People with high connectedness tend to feel very close with other people, easily identify with others, perceive others as friendly and approachable, and participate in social groups and activities… People with low connectedness tend to feel interpersonally distant from other people and from the world at large. They often see themselves as outsiders, feel misunderstood by others, have difficulty relating with the social world, and are uncomfortable in social situations.

Studies in well-being show that social connectedness is equally important as physical and cognitive health in predicting well-being (Bowling and Gabriel, 2004; Gow, Pattie, Whiteman, Whalley, & Deary, 2007). Social connectedness is formed and reinforced through one’s social experiences of interacting with other people and engaging in shared activity, such as participating in civic activities, or playing a game together (Osmanovic and Pecchioni, 2015; Townsend and McWhirter, 2005).

Older adults can gradually lose social connectedness as they age because of exclusion from social roles, limited social activities, and weakening social networks (Hochschild, 1975). Older adults can also lose social connectedness due to limitations in physical and mental abilities, relocations, or the death of social ties (Cotten, Anderson, & McCullough, 2012). While research shows that the relationship between age and social connectedness is complex and not all older adults experience loss of social connectedness (see B. Cornwell, Laumann, & Schumm, 2008 for review), some studies suggest that older adults have smaller network sizes and tend to have people who are similar to them in these networks (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006). Having small, homogeneous networks can be harmful. Longitudinal studies have shown that individuals with smaller network size and diversity are associated with higher risk of heart diseases and higher mortality rates, perhaps due to the lack of social support (Barefoot, Grønbæk, Jensen, Schnohr, & Prescott, 2005; Berkman and Syme, 1979).

 

Digital games and social connectedness

Playing digital games may offer a way for older adults to enhance social connectedness by maintaining connections to existing social ties and facilitating new social interactions with online communities. Leisure activities such as playing games and sports have been shown to promote connectedness and improve wellbeing (Allaire et al., 2013; Toepoel, 2013). Modern digital games can facilitate many forms of social interactions online and offline (Dalisay, Kushin, Yamamoto, Liu, & Skalski, 2015). Steinkuehler and Williams (2006) argued that massively multiplayer online games act as modern third places in which people come to socialize in a casual environment and build connections. Peña and Hancock (2006) examined textual exchanges in an online game and found that most of the exchanges were socioemotional and positively valenced rather than task-oriented. New relationships can form through playing games, and players often perceive playing online games as a social gathering with friends in a social environment (Caplan, Williams, & Yee, 2009; Domahidi, Breuer, Kowert, Festl, & Quandt, 2018; Domahidi, Festl, & Quandt, 2014). The interactions and shared experiences in digital games can create a sense of affiliation with the community and foster meaningful informational and emotional exchanges that can promote social connectedness.

As digital technology becomes more accessible, a growing number of older adults are also using these technologies for leisure, including playing digital games. According to an industry report, 11 to12 percent of all video game players in the United States is above 50 years-old (Entertainment Software Association, 2018). Social motivation is the primary motivation for playing digital games across players of all ages, including older adults (Whitbourne, Ellenberg, & Akimoto, 2013). Through interviews, De Schutter and Vanden Abeele (2010) examined how older adults perceived playing digital games. They found that older adults perceived playing games as a way to connect with their family and friends, as well as a way to stay connected to society. Studies that focused on older adult gamers found that while they prefer to play single-player games, when they play with other people they value social relations and often engage in helping behaviors through gameplay (Pearce, 2008; Quandt, Grueninger, & Wimmer, 2008). Some older adults also report seeking their gaming networks for social support and self-recognition (Delwiche and Henderson, 2013).

Digital games can help older adults overcome their physical or cognitive decline and facilitate shared experiences with existing networks across geographical distance, such as grandparents playing games with their grandchildren far away (Boudreau and Consalvo, 2014; Kennedy, 1992; H. Lin and Sun, 2007). Digital games can also support meaningful new interactions for older adults, especially with people outside of their existing networks, such as interaction between different generations, or co-playing with people of different social-economic status in a massively multiplayer online game (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006; Trepte, Reinecke, & Juechems, 2012; Wright, 2000). This study aims to understand how older adults’ digital game playing behaviors are associated with social connectedness.

 

Digital games, social capital, and civic engagement

Social capital is a construct related to social connectedness. It can be defined as the relationship resources accumulated through interacting with other people (Coleman, 1988). Social capital is often conceptualized as a resource embedded in social ties that can be leveraged for individual needs or collective actions. Unlike financial capital, which is used to exchange for goods and services, social capital offers relational social support and the potential to mobilize for collective actions. Social capital has been studied from a community perspective (Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 2001) and also as an individual resource (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Williams, 2006b). Social capital has also been conceptualized as the network of relations itself and as the outcome of network interactions (Beaudoin and Tao, 2007; Hampton and Wellman, 2003; Williams, 2006b). This study focuses on the individual resource conceptualization of social capital and as an outcome of social interactions. In other words, social capital measures how much social resource does one believe he or she has within their network that is at their disposal.

There are two general types of social capital: bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital is usually found among strong ties such as family and close friends (Ellison, et al., 2007; Gittell and Vidal, 1998; Putnam, 2001). From a network perspective, bonding social capital is often shared among networks with little diversity that interact more frequently (Granovetter, 1973). Bonding social capital provides emotional or substantial support to the individual. By contrast, bridging social capital is usually found among weak ties such as friends afar or from one’s past. Bridging social capital is shared by people from different backgrounds and across heterogeneous networks. Bridging social capital is less likely to translate into substantial support but bridging social capital can provide valuable information that is outside of one’s immediate networks. According to Putnam (2001), bonding and bridging social capital are not mutually exclusive; they are related but not equivalent.

Studies on the relationship between gaming and social capital have found mixed results. Some studies found that playing digital games may displace time spent with other people, reducing bonding social capital (Shah, Kwak, & Holbert, 2001; Williams, 2006a). Other studies suggest that playing digital games can strengthen existing close ties and build bonding social capital (Domahidi, et al., 2018; Huvila, Holmberg, Ek, & Widén-Wulff, 2010). Moreover, playing online digital games can build bridging social capital by expanding one’s connection to other networks of people (Huvila, et al., 2010; Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006; Williams et al., 2006). Trepte, et al. (2012) examined whether physical or social proximity between gamers affected their social capital from playing online games. They found that depending on the interactions, playing online games together could predict both bonding and bridging social capital. Our second general aim for this study examines the relationship between older adults’ gaming behavior, and bonding and bridging social capital.

Earlier studies on technology use are often concerned with the displacement effects of technology, that time spent on media technology is displacing time spent with one’s friends and families (Kraut et al., 1998). In fact, according to media statistics (Nielsen, 2016) older adult above the age of 50 spend the most time with media across all age groups. However, further examination of media technology use suggests that we should not treat any specific media use as a monolithic experience, instead, different usage patterns and relationship can lead to different outcomes (Kraut et al., 2002). For example, Blais, Craig, Pepler, & Connolly (2008) examined the relationship between different Internet activities and adolescents’ relationships. Their study showed that instant messaging was associated with improved perceived friendship quality, while playing video game and general entertainment lowered perceived friendship quality. Few studies have examined the relationship between older adults’ gaming behavior and relationship or well-being. A study by Kowert, Vogelgesang, Festl, & Quandt (2015) found no relationship between older gamers’ (defined as ages 40 and above) online gaming behavior and their well-being. We posit that different gaming contexts will be associated with different social outcomes. Based on the displacement hypothesis, since playing alone does not help sustain offline relationships or facilitate new online relationships, but can displace time spent with one’s social networks, we hypothesize that playing games alone may reduce bonding social capital and social connectedness.

H1. Playing games alone will be negatively associated with a) bonding social capital, and b) social connectedness.

Playing games with one’s local ties who share physical proximity may strengthen bonding social capital (Allaire, et al., 2013; Kennedy, 1992; Osmanovic and Pecchioni, 2015). While less is known about older adults’ gaming context, surveys on general populations show that a large proportion of the general game players’ game time is spent playing with friends and family members (Ferguson and Olson, 2013; Lenhart, et al., 2008). Studies on younger players also found that playing games with one’s family is associated with higher family cohesion (Durkin and Barber, 2002). Another study found that older adults who played games regularly or occasionally reported higher well-being and social functions than non-gaming older adults (Allaire, et al., 2013), but the study did not separate the context of gaming and the types of games played. Osmanovic and Pecchioni (2015) used qualitative interviews to examine the co-playing experience between younger and older family members. The study found that for both the younger and older participants, bonding through playing games together was associated with positive emotions of feeling closer.

H2. Playing digital games with close friends and family members (local ties) will be positively associated with a) bonding social capital, and b) social connectedness.

Asides from maintaining bonding social capital with one’s close family and existing friends, digital games can also facilitate social connectedness and bridging social capital with distant ties. While few studies have examined whether older adults can build bridging social capital through video games, qualitative studies suggest that older adults are often motivated to play digital games as a means to maintain relationships with distant relatives (Allaire, et al., 2013; Wollersheim et al., 2010). Through interviews, De Schutter and Vanden Abeele (2010) identified several key reasons that older adults play video games. Many of the reasons were social, including: (1) to meet new people and to stay in touch with young people. (2) to stay connected with children and grandchildren. (3) to relax with work colleagues. (4) to learn from and teach grandchildren. (5) to compete with children/partner. Another study examined family game-playing among Chinese families and found that the virtual space in the game allowed distant family members to interact and infer how their family members are doing (Wen, Kow, & Chen, 2011). For example, asynchronous support in the games are viewed as an expression of care for family members, and visiting each other’s virtual farm was perceived as another form of “coming home.” Our third hypothesis states:

H3. Playing digital games with geographically distant friends or family (distant ties) will be positively associated with a) bridging social capital, and b) social connectedness.

Playing video games can also expand one’s bridging social capital by facilitating interaction with diverse networks of people outside of one’s close networks (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006; Trepte, et al., 2012). Online games allow players to interact and build shared experiences with a broad range of people who are likely more diverse than one’s offline ties in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and education (H. Lin and Sun, 2007; Williams, et al., 2006). Kobayashi (2010) conducted a three-wave panel survey of online game players and found that players are exposed to heterogeneous networks through online games, and this exposure leads to more tolerance towards different people, both online and offline. Williams, et al. (2006) examined online game World of Warcraft and found that many players (roughly between one-third to a half) use online games to build bridging social capital but rarely any bonding social capital. Based on these findings, we pose the following hypothesis:

H4. Playing digital games with online friends whom one met through digital games (online friends) will be positively associated with a) bridging social capital, and b) social connectedness.

Finally, civic participation is both a precursor and an outcome of social connectedness and social capital. Civic participation is a key component of World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of active aging which involves participation in “social, economic, cultural, spiritual, and civic affairs" (World Health Organization, 2002, p. 12). Studies have suggested that playing digital games with other people are associated with more civic participation (Ferguson and Garza, 2011; Lenhart, et al., 2008; Molyneux, et al., 2015), but playing digital games alone may displace social interactions and civic participation (Williams, 2006a). It is possible that playing digital games can help older adults stay connected to issues that they care about and expose them to new networks and issues. We propose an exploratory research question:

RQ1. Will the different types of social gaming relationships be associated with a) civic engagement, and b) political engagement?
 

Methods

Sample and data collection

The sample was recruited from a national survey panel hosted by Instantly, a national market research company in the United States. The data was collected using an online survey administered via Qualtrics, a web-based survey software. A total of 1101 valid participants were included in the analyses. The participants ranged from 60 to 89 years old (M=66.11, SD=5.04). There was an equal number of males and females in the survey (n=551 each, 50%). As for education level, 23 percent received high school degree, 31.4 percent holds bachelor’s degree, 22.3 percent technical or vocational training, and 18.8 percent with a master’s degree or higher. Most of the participants identified their race as white (87.9%), followed by black (5.6%), Hispanic/Latino (1.9%), Asian (1.5%), Native American (1.0%), and eight missing data (2.1%). Most of the participants were retired (65.6%) and 17.2 percent are employed or self-employed. Overall, compared to national demographics in the United States Census Bureau, the sample in this study is similar but slightly Whiter and more educated.

 

Main measurements

Independent variables

Digital game usage. Digital game usage was measured using a single item that asked the participants “on an average day, how long do you play digital games? (including all platforms such as computer, console, and mobile).” On a six-point ordinal scale with 1=I do not play digital games to 5=more than seven hours. See Table 1 for the distribution.

 

Table 1. Distribution of digital game usage

Frequency (percent)
I do not play digital games 453 (39.5%)
Up to 1 hour 333 (30.2%)
1 to 3 hours 238 (21.6%)
3 to 5 hours 73 (6.6%)
5 to 7 hours 16 (1.5%)
More than 7 hours 6 (.5%)
 

Game-playing relationships. We measured game-playing relationships using six items that asked the frequency in which the participants played digital games: 1) Alone, 2) with family members who live together, 2) with family members who live afar, 3) with friends close-by, 4) with friends who live afar, and 5) friends whom I met online but do not know offline. With 1=never, to 5=all the time. We further grouped family and friends who live close-by into a category called local ties, and we grouped family and friends who live afar into a category called distant ties. In other words, we separated local ties from distant ties in this study by geographical proximity and not as a subjective perception. Thus, we differentiate between playing alone, existing local ties, existing distant ties, and playing with online friends.

 

Dependent variables

Gaming social capital. Bonding and bridging social capital were measured using an adapted scale by Williams (2006b) and Ellison, et al. (2007). We specifically measured social capital among one’s gaming network (i.e., gaming social capital). Bonding social capital was measured with nine five-point Likert-type scale items that asked participants how much do they agree or disagree with statements such as: “When I am feeling down, there is someone I can turn to through the game who can offer me support,” and “There are several people whom I play games with that I trust to solve my problems.” The items have internal consistency with Cronbach’s α=.79 for bonding social capital, M=2.50, SD=.79. Similarly, bridging social capital was measured with ten five-point Likert-type items such as: “I have friends through the game who can help me connect to important people in my field or job,” and “If something new happened, I know I can find out the information from my friends that I play games with that I can’t get from other places.” The items have internal consistency with α= .88 for bridging social capital, M=2.59, SD=.83.

Social connectedness. Social connectedness was measured using the social connectedness scale developed by Lee and Robbins (1995) which includes ten seven-point Likert-type items such as “I feel disconnected from the world around me [reversed item],” and “I feel close to people.” The items have internal consistency with Cronbach’s α=.88, M=2.63, SD=1.30.

Civic and political engagement. Civic engagement was measured using five items adapted from Gil de Zúñniga, Jung, & Valenzuela (2012) which asked participants how frequently they participated in activities such as volunteering for a non-political group, attend community meetings, or purchased a product to support a cause on a five-point scale. Cronbach’s α=.79, M=2.05, SD=.77. Similarly, political engagement was measured using five items that asked participants how frequently they participated in activities such as signing a political petition, attending a political protest, and volunteer for a political group: Cronbach’s α=.82, M=2.36, SD=.86

 

Results

To investigate how the different game-playing relationships are associated with different social capital and social connectedness, we compared between playing alone, playing with one’s local ties, playing with one’s distant ties, and playing with online-only friends. Hypothesis 1 posited that playing alone would negatively predict bonding social capital and social connectedness due to time displacement. Hypothesis 2 posits that playing games with one’s local ties would be positively associated with bonding social capital and social connectedness. Hypothesis 3 posited that playing digital games with one’s distant ties will be positively associated with bridging social capital and social connectedness. Hypothesis 4 posited that playing digital games with online friends will be positively associated with bridging social capital and social connectedness. We examine the four hypotheses together by conducting three hierarchical regression analyses with the four gameplay conditions as IV and social connectedness, bonding social capital, and bridging social capital as DVs. Demographics (gender, income, and education) and digital game usage were entered as control variables as these factors have been identified by previous studies to be significantly correlated with social capital and civic engagement behaviors (Gil de Zúñiga, et al., 2012; Kim, Hsu, & de Zuniga, 2013; N. Lin, 2000).

For social connectedness the overall model was significant, F (9, 634) =5.96, p < .001, adj. R^2=.07, �"R^2=.01. Only playing with distant-ties predicted social connectedness, β=.11, t=2.05, p=.041). None of the other types of game-playing predicted social connectedness (playing alone: β=.02, t=.48, p=.634. Local ties: β=.01, t=.17, p=.862. Online friends: β=-.01, t=-.25, p=.801). The result was consistent with H3b, but not H1b, H2b, nor H4b. Older adults who play digital games with distant ties reported higher sense of social connectedness.

For bonding social capital. The overall model was significant, F (9, 635) =52.65, p < .001, adj. R^2=.42, �"R^2=.37. Playing with local ties (β=.37, t=9.46, p < .001) and distant ties (β=.35, t=8.25, p < .001) are both associated with bonding social capital. But playing alone (β=-.04, t=-1.27, p=.205) and playing with online friends (β=-.02, t=-.43, p=.671) was not associated with bonding social capital. The results were consistent with hypothesis H2a, but not H1a. Playing digital games with one’s local ties was associated with stronger bonding social capital. However, playing alone did not displace bonding social capital, and playing digital games with distant ties is also associated with stronger bonding social capital.

For bridging social capital. The overall model was significant, F (9, 630) =41.16, p < .001, adj. R^2=.36, �"R^2=.32. Playing with local ties (β=.33, t=8.14, p < .001) and distant ties (β=.19, t=4.16, p < .001), and playing with online friends (β=.23, t=6.23, p < .001) were all associated with higher bridging social capital. Playing alone was the only condition that was not associated with bridging social capital (β=.02, t=.61, p < .546). The results were consistent with H3a and H4a. See Table 2 for a summary of the results.

 

Table 2. Summary of hypotheses testing results

Social connectedness Bonding social capital Bridging social capital
Playing alone .02(1.13) -.02 *(1.14) .02 (1.14)
Local ties .01 (1.79) .37*** (1.78) .33*** (1.81)
Distant ties .11* (1.95) .35*** (1.75) .19*** (1.98)
Online friends -.01 (1.36) -.04 (1.36) .23*** (1.37)
Numbers in boxes indicate β coefficients. Numbers in parentheses indicate VIF. *= p < .05, **= p < .01, ***= p < .001
 

Finally, to examine whether different social gaming behaviors are associated with civic and political engagement. We conducted two separate hierarchical regressions with the same IV as above and civic engagement and political engagement as DVs. For civic engagement, the overall model was significant, F (9, 628) =7.18, p < .001, adj. R^2=.07. Of the four types of social gaming relations, playing alone (β=.08, t=1.91, p=.028) and playing with local ties (β=.10, t=1.90, p=.029) were significantly associated with civic engagement, but playing with distant ties (β=.08, t=1.64, p=.050) and playing with online friends (β=.05, t=1.36, p=.088) were not. For political engagement, the overall model was significant, F (9, 630)=4.71, p < .001, adj. R^2=.04. Playing with online friends was the only significant factor associated with political engagement (β=.11, t=2.55, p=.005). None of the other types of social gaming behaviors, including playing alone (β=.05, t=1.31, p=.085), playing with local ties (β=.06, t=1.22, p=.111), and playing with distant ties (β=.04, t=.80, p=.212) were associated with political engagement. The findings suggest that playing video games with one’s social ties was associated with increased civic participation including volunteering and supporting a social cause, but not political participation.

 

Discussion

General discussion and conclusion

The goal of this study was to examine the effects of older adults’ digital gaming behavior on social capital, social connectedness, and civic participation. We examined the relationship between playing alone, playing with local ties, playing with distant ties, and playing with online friends on one’s social capital. We hypothesized that playing digital games alone would displace time spent on other social activities and would reduce social capital and social connectedness. Our results did not find any negative correlations between playing games alone and social connectedness or social capital. However, we did find that different types of social gaming relations predicted different types of social capital and social connectedness. Playing games with either local ties or distant ties predicted both bonding and bridging social capital. This finding was consistent with literature that found local ties predicted bonding social capital, and distant ties predicted bridging social capital (Trepte, et al., 2012). Our results suggest that playing with both local and distant ties predicted both bonding and bridging social capital. This finding may be an artifact of the way we used physical proximity to define local ties and distant ties. Previous literature suggests that older adults can use digital games as a mean to stay connected with their family who live far away (Kennedy, 1992). In this case, the physically distant ties may be perceived by the older adult as a strong tie even if the actors are physically distant. Therefore the social capital outcome is more similar to what Ellison, et al. (2007) coined as “maintained social capital,” which are social ties that are maintained through the technology. Future studies need to differentiate tie strength based on physical proximity and social proximity. Only playing with distant ties predicted general social connectedness. This finding suggests that older adults who play games with family and friends who live afar report a stronger sense of connectedness to society, which supports online games’ potential to maintain older adults’ social connectedness. We hypothesized that playing with online friends would also be associated with more social connectedness since it exposes older adults to a larger and more heterogeneous network. However, the data did not support this hypothesis.

We examined whether playing with online friends contributed to social connectedness and social capital. The results indicate that playing with online friends is associated with higher bridging social capital, but not bonding social capital nor social connectedness. This finding supports the potential for older adults to acquire bridging social capital through playing digital games online with other people. Bridging social capital is especially beneficial for informational support and can provide diverse viewpoints that can be valuable in helping older adults make important decisions in their stages of life.

Finally, we examined whether different social gaming behaviors were associated with participation in civic and political activities. The findings are similar to national surveys of general or younger populations which showed that game-playing behavior is associated with more civic and political engagement (Ferguson and Garza, 2011; Lenhart, et al., 2008). The results revealed that playing alone and with local ties was associated with higher frequency of civic engagement. Whereas playing with online friends was associated with higher frequency of political engagement. Perhaps older adults who play games with local ties have stronger networks in local communities and are more likely to participate in civic activities. As for why playing with online friends was associated with political engagement, one possible explanation is that older adults who played with online friends have personality traits that are more open to interacting with other people or are more active in social activities in general. Previous studies that examined the relationship between social media use and civic participation has pointed out that personality traits as moderators that influences how people interact via these communication technologies (Kim, et al., 2013). Another possible explanation is that older adults who play games with online friends may have more extensive and diverse networks which keep them informed about political events and activities. More in-depth examination using panel data, experimental data, or qualitative data are needed to understand how gaming relationships are associated with civic and political engagement.

The effect size (adj. R^2) were low with regards to social connectedness (.01) and civic engagement (.07) but were moderate for bonding social capital (.37) and bridging social capital (.32). The low effect sizes are comparable to previous studies that specifically examined the relationship between gaming behavior, connectedness, and civic engagement such as Domahidi, et al. (2014), but moderate effect sizes for social capital was much higher than previous studies that examined the relationship between digital games and social capital (e.g., Trepte, et al., 2012). The current study corresponds with previous studies by showing that mere game playing may not be associated with positive outcomes such as social connectedness, social capital, and civic engagements. However, by examining the different social ties that older adults are playing digital games with, the current study supports the relationship between certain game playing behaviors with the positive outcomes.

 

Limitations

Several limitations of this study should be noted when interpreting the findings. First, as with any cross-sectional survey, the results are correlational and should not be interpreted as causal relationships. While different types of gaming relationships are associated with different social capital, it could as well be the other way around: older adults who hold certain types of social capital are more likely to play digital games with different networks. Second, since the survey was distributed online, the sample should only be generalized to older adults who have internet access. A recent national survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that over half (59%) of older adults have access to the internet and is growing each year (Smith, 2014). Third, the race of the sample consisted of more White than other race/ethnicity, which limited our ability to examine differences between ethnic groups. Third, we did not differentiate between the types of games that were played in the different social relationships or whether the games were played collaboratively or competitively; it is possible that different kinds of games involve different amount of interaction and involvement, which can lead to different social outcomes. Finally, our focus for this study was to examine the potential relationship between digital game playing and positive outcomes such as social capital and connectedness. This is not suggesting that excessive digital game playing does not have negative outcomes. As the findings suggest, playing digital games alone was not associated with social connectedness and bonding or bridging social capital. While we did not measure negative factors such as loneliness or depression, previous studies have found that excessive media use can be associated with these negative traits (Mentzoni et al., 2011). Also, while older adults are less likely display problematic game use compared to younger populations (Festl, Scharkow, & Quandt, 2013), a small percentage of older adults can still suffer negative experiences from excessive game playing behaviors. Nevertheless, this study is an important first step to understanding whether digital game playing among older adults is associated with social capital and social connectedness, more importantly, which types of gaming relationships may be associated with older adults’ active aging.

 

Conclusion

Overall, this study fills the gap in our understanding of older adults’ gaming behavior by examining a national sample of older adults. While studies have shown that digital games can improve or maintain older adults’ cognitive abilities (e.g., Anguera, et al., 2013), few studies have examined the effects of digital game playing on social outcomes, especially among older adults. The findings showed that different gaming relationships are associated with different types of social capital, and different levels of social connectedness and civic engagements. These findings suggest that social game-playing can be a potential solution to increased loneliness and loss of social connectedness common among older adults (B. Cornwell, et al., 2008). Playing digital games can be used to maintain existing connections with friends and family afar who have relocated or is less accessible due to older adult’s physical conditions. Digital games can also be used to expand older adults’ social network by interacting with online friends to build new bridging social capital. Future studies can take a more in-depth look at these relationships to identify the underlying mechanisms.

 

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