When I play video games with my son Jim, I’m generally at a tremendous disadvantage. Most of the time, Jim has had more experience with the particular game we’re playing, but even when we try a brand-new game, he just seems to get his bearings more quickly than I do. He doesn’t have more experience with games or computers than me — I played just as many games as he did when I was his age, and I’ve had an extra 25 years to hone my skills.
At age 39, I don’t consider myself “old,” and since I work with computers for 8 or more hours a day, I’m certainly not intimidated by the games or the interface. Could it be that younger people simply have more aptitude for the games? Many studies support the notion that younger people are better than older people at learning about spatial arrangement of their environment. Typically these studies compare college students and senior citizens, but they may also explain why Jim can find his way around the world of Metroid Prime quicker than his dad.
So as three-dimensional virtual environments become more prevalent, will older people be forever at a disadvantage? A team led by Marie Sjölinder recently conducted a study to learn if improving the interface could help older adults navigate virtual environments. They designed a 3-D virtual store, using realistic photos of the store shelves and an intuitive layout to replicate a real store as accurately as possible. They gave 12 older adults (average age 67) and 12 young adults (average age 26) a shopping list and monitored their progress as they moved through the store.
As expected, the younger adults were considerably faster than older adults, averaging about one and a half minutes to find each item, while older adults took nearly four minutes each.
A new group of participants did the same task, but this time, the virtual environment also included an overview map which gave the layout of the store and the shopper’s current location and orientation. Although older participants reported that they felt “more comfortable” using the map, there was no improvement in the time it took them to locate the items. There was a nonsignificant trend towards their being more accurate in locating the items on a paper map of the store compared to people who didn’t have an overview map interface, but otherwise, there was no difference in the two conditions — and none of this compensated for the very large difference in performance between older and younger participants.
I have a couple of comments on this study. First, while I think it’s important that this sort of research be done, clearly the results depend entirely on the specific environment being studied. At some level of complexity, users are always going to need a map in order to be able to navigate: the more complex the environment, the more important a map will be as an aid to navigation. Second, the interface and controls for the environment also make a huge difference. At this level of research, there are so many possible differences between systems that making general statements about age differences or anything else becomes complicated.
That said, it’s critical that interface designers take into account the fact that spatial orientation and navigation is more difficult for users as they get older. It’s doubtful that a single interface design will work for the infinite variety of possible 3-D virtual environments, so each environment will need to be tested with a wide age range of users.
Sjölinder, M., Höök, K., Nilsson, L., & Andersson, G. (2005). Age differences and the acquisition of spatial knowledge in a three-dimensional environment: Evaluating the use of an overview map as a navigation aid. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 63, 537-564.