Older adults are usually overlooked in the online entertainment world; by and large, online gaming and entertainment is marketed to the adolescent and young adult populations. An online study of older adults’ Web communities finds that they are actively creating their own online play, whether through formally designed games, improvised word games, or cracking off-color jokes in forums.
The study, an online ethnography of six older adult online communities, used a full year of data from Web forums on playful topics. The researcher found that these communities were a powerful source of what play researchers call “casual leisure,” or informal enjoyment that requires minimal expertise or investment but offers entertainment, relaxation, sociability, or other pleasure. Researchers have found all kinds of tangible, measurable health benefits to casual leisure, but let’s focus on the fun: online participants came up with social games, jokes, and funny stories about sex, aging, politics, alcohol, and religion. Many of these topics are considered off-limits in face-to-face, daily communication, so the author hypothesized that these online communities offer participants a distance from their offline social expectations and status roles (what anthropologists have called a “liminal space”), enabling them to cope with stresses of aging and develop creative ways to attribute positive emotions to aging.
For researchers, the author provided a strong theoretical framework that analyzed the content types and different ways of participating. This will enable researchers to systematically examine online communities as a potential area of successful aging. For a more general audience, the research highlights some of the creative opportunities and new kinds of socializing for which older adults can use the Internet.