The science behind training older workers with video games: An intervention based on the ACT-R architecture

It is well known that several mental abilities decline with age, particularly those related to the prefrontal cortex and the temporal lobe-hippocampus complex. Among these abilities are speed of processing, working memory, long-term episodic memory and executive functions. This is important because the decline of these abilities predicts difficulties at work in the older workers and limitations in the performance of daily living activities. Research has shown that serious video games might be useful tools to maintain the abilities that decline in the elders, as they integrate effortful cognitive tasks into a fun and engaging video game, especially when video games are developed according to the preferences and special needs of this specific population and designed to challenge the cognitive processes that are more sensible to these declines.

The assessment of the cognitive functions that underlie a specific video game must be conducted within a theoretical framework that incorporates how the human cognitive system works. An appropriate theoretical framework imposes conditions to the flow of information and the structures and processes involved when the trainee performs a specific cognitive task or plays certain video games. The cognitive training approach with video games used in sustAGE is based on the ACT-R (Adaptive Control of Thought—Rational) architecture.

The ACT-R considers human cognition as the results of the interaction of several independent modules that perform different computations:

  • A perceptual module that represents the incoming information from the environment.
  • A problem state module that characterizes the information about the task.
  • A control module that keeps up the participant´s goal at any moment.
  • A declarative memory module that retrieves information from memory.
  • A motor module that performs the physical actions (e.g.: press a keyword, move the mouse).
  • A production module consisting of a communication structure between the other modules of the system.

These modules work in parallel to achieve its specific objectives, but they are limited as they only allow to hold a chunk of information (a single visual object, problem state, goal, memory item, program for movement…) at a time.

The design, parameters and specifications of the serious games are based on the ACT-R framework. So, it would be possible to attain a better knowledge of the cognitive processes engaged by the player comparing the operations performed by the participant and the processing modules stressed by the task. This is crucial to ensure that the cognitive intervention with video games is effective in improving and/or maintaining the mental abilities that decline in the older worker.