Game Changer

How can one get the elderly folk to stay active and have fun at the same time? WKWSCI Professor Theng Yin Leng has the answer.

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An old lady stands excitedly in front of a television screen — with her arms raised above her head. As she focuses on the animation on the screen with steely concentration, a virtual bowling ball appears, and she energetically swings her arms to roll the ball forward.


She knocks down all the bowling pins, earning her a huge ‘Strike!’ that pops up across the television screen. The crowd behind her roars with cheer and applause, and as her game ends, she returns to her seat, sweaty but satisfied. The next elderly player steps up, her eyes affixed on the gold trophy that sits atop the winner’s table as she starts her game.

“It helps work our body and mind because we need to concentrate on waving our hands to cut the fruit and watch them carefully so that they don’t hit the ground, if not we lose the game.”

Ms Tay Kah Moi

Next month (6 May), top players from such training sessions at various elderly care and activity centres will meet for a final face off at the inaugural Singapore Intergenerational National Games (SING) held at Nanyang Technological University.

Aptly named “Exergames,” this activity is a combination between exercising and playing Kinect video games. The players engage in basic upper body movements that involve simple and repetitive actions. The games are part of a research programme that aims to study what motivates elderly people to start exercising and what keeps them exercising regularly.

Spearheaded by Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information Professor Theng Yin Leng, the study on “Exergames” started after Theng noticed an increasing number of elderly folk living sedentary lifestyles in Singapore. Singapore also has an ageing population. Last year, statistics showed that the number of local citizens aged 65 and above has doubled to 440,000 over the past 15 years.

“It’s quite sad sometimes, seeing the old people just watch the days pass by without anything to look forward to. They’re lonely, and it’s not healthy for them to not socialise and keep fit,” said Theng, who has written over 200 research papers that have been published in renowned international journals and conferences.

“Singapore is ageing — our elderly population is growing and they have a longer lifespan these days. But having a longer lifespan does not equate to having a quality lifestyle,” she added.

Theng, who is spearheading the Exergames initiative - aimed at encouraging healthier lifestyles among the elderly in Singapore - has been researching in the field of Human-Computer interaction for 18 years. PHOTO: LU YAWEN

Professor Theng, who is spearheading the “Exergames” initiative has been researching in the field of Human-Computer interaction for 18 years. PHOTO: LU YAWEN

With the idea of ‘fun’ in mind, Theng launched this research programme this year at elderly care centres such as the TOUCH Senior Activity Centre (SAC) in a bid to see if games could get these elderly folk to start mingling with others, as well as motivate them to exercise regularly.

Over at the six senior activity centres that are participating in this study, the elderly enjoy games like Kinect Bowling and Fruit Ninja as they are fun and easy to follow. Game sessions are conducted thrice a week.

At each session, at least six student volunteers are on site at these centres to guide the participants along as they play the video games for the first time. This is a good way to bridge the intergenerational gap and foster the bond between elderly and youth, Theng said.

“The use of technology is something that is totally new for our seniors, but response has been good and they are actually looking forward to more of such games in the future,” said Mr Neo Aik Xin, manager of TOUCH SAC, one of the participating centres located at Geylang Bahru.

VIDEO: OLIVIA POH

Neo added that the centre is always packed to the brim whenever the training sessions are conducted, and new faces appear every week. The place is a melting pot of dialects, with the seniors gamely cheering their friends on in friendly matches as each participant strive to beat their personal best scores.

“It helps work our body and mind because we need to concentrate on waving our hands to cut the fruit and watch them carefully so that they don’t hit the ground, if not we lose the game,” said Ms Tay Kah Moi in Hokkien. She is a 70-year-old woman who shared that her favourite game was Fruit Ninja.

“Singapore is aging — our elderly population is growing and they have a longer lifespan these days. But having a longer lifespan does not equate to having a quality lifestyle.”

Professor Theng Yin Leng

Theng said that her research team found a positive relationship between these games and the fitness levels of the elderly. Essentially, continuous participation in the “Exergames” is a form of regular exercise for them. SING was thus organised to motivate the elderly folk to come back regularly to the centres to train for the tournament.

In the long run, Theng hopes that these games will become part of the elderly’s lifestyle, and keep them active.

Looking ahead, there has also been talk of bringing SING to an international level. Theng said that her research team and NTU are currently discussing with Finnish representatives about plans to introduce “Exergames” to the West.

Despite the promising results of “Exergames", Theng revealed that such a research model is “labour intensive.” “The elderly require one-on-one coaching from our students,” said Theng, adding that “it’s expensive on manpower.”

“But we plan to turn this research into a social programme. We’re always talking about building an inclusive society, and here’s our chance. There are students and members of the public who wish to contribute to volunteer work but are not sure where to begin — this could be it,” Theng added.

The research team is also in the midst of designing their own games, so as to better suit the cultural context of Singapore. For example, one of the games in the making is Paddy Rice, a game that transports players into paddy fields to collect rice. Theng shared that to familiarise the elderly with the game, the team has chosen to include the background of Chinatown.

“We have to put up games that the seniors feel familiar to, and can relate with, if not we will be facing resistance from them. Having places that these elderly frequent as the game’s backdrop is a good start,” Theng said.

There are also plans for these games to be part of the rehabilitation process at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where doctors will let patients immerse themselves in the game while exercising their body, instead of letting them execute the same movements repeatedly without context. This gamifies boring routines and injects an element of fun into the recovery process, Theng shared.

She added that such research on elderly well-being with the use of “Exergames” is something special. “There is a sense of satisfaction — if you can bring joy to somebody, even a little, it’s great.”

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