Barbara St. Hilaire spends about 50 hours a week wielding a machete, dismembering demons and battling a slew of thugs, zombies, and other nasties of the video-gaming world. Having recently nailed a 100% score in Outlaw Golf 2, she's now focused on mastering the top levels in God of War. It's a passion that has earned St. Hilaire, 69, the moniker "Old Grandma Hardcore."
"If you saw her in a grocery store, you would see an old, Midwestern diabetic with thick glasses leaning on a crutch or shopping cart," says her grandson Timothy St. Hilaire, who launched a blog recounting her gaming exploits -- and her colorful expletives. "She's a polite mother of five and grandmother of 12 but get her in front of a game, and she becomes a monster."
St. Hilaire represents the new older face of gaming. Despite the common perception that most gamers are busy coping with acne and adolescent awkwardness, many are instead concerned with getting their Social Security checks on time.
Some 19% of gamers are over 50, up 9% in five years, according to Peter D. Hart Research Associates. And 53% of game players expect to be playing as much, or more, 10 years from now. To the aging gamer, this isn't a fad -- it's a permanent part of their lifestyle. And with total U.S. hardware and software sales nearing $10 billion, it's eating up a growing portion of their entertainment dollar. PricewaterhouseCoopers projects spending on the global video-game market to reach nearly $55 billion by 2009.
Adult gamers have been playing an average of 12 years, says the Entertainment Software Assn., and those who grew up with games continue to play on as they grow older, according to Nielsen Entertainment's Interactive Group.
"A lot of people like us started gaming 20, 30 years ago, and we just stay with it," says 68-year-old Liam Murray. Murray and his wife have been gaming together since Pong, which they played on their first PC: a Pentium 286 with 256K of memory and a 300-baud modem, a system that cost $4,000. They once played so much electronic Mah-Jong that a ghost image of the tiles was burned into their monitor. Liam now plays about 50 hours a week with family and online friends, sometimes until 3 a.m. "Old people don't sleep much," he adds.
BANG FOR THE BUCK.
Old Grandma Hardcore has been firing away since 1975, in the Age of Atari. She started by stopping off at the mall arcade with her kids while shopping. "Then I really got into it when Nintendo came out with Super Mario. I remember playing with my son all night long, competing against each other." Since then, she has played hundreds of titles and worn out a long line of gaming consoles, from Atari to Xbox.
Though some may find it surprising, the senior gaming trend isn't hard to understand. For starters, many folks living on Social Security find they don't have a lot of money for entertainment or travel, and video gaming is a fun and affordable diversion, especially if you rent games or trade titles on the Internet.
"It makes total sense," says Robert Coffey, a gaming industry consultant and former executive editor of Computer Gaming World. "An increasingly large generation looks at gaming as a recreational activity like sports, a commonplace part of their lives. Older players take games for granted, the way younger kids now assume that TiVo and iPods were always around."
Research suggests that "gaming gray" might also have real benefits. A 2002 Harvard University report cited significant increases in reaction time for gamers over 60, while researchers at the University of Rochester reported that video games can help improve vision: Tests on nongamers found that playing just 10 hours of fast-paced video games improved their eyesight.
Gaming can also hone reflexes. Murray says it "keeps your mind alert, because you're forced to constantly think and react, you have to plan your moves and attacksand it's sure good for arthritis!"
For St. Hilaire, gaming also has a social aspect: "It gives you a connection with your kids, something in common with the younger generation." In fact, St. Hilaire is the matriarch of a large gaming family who regularly play against each other online, ranging in age from 5 to 69.
How has the industry responded to the data showing a more diverse market? Not at all, judging by its marketing campaigns. "They obsess on one demographic," says Coffey. "All the magazine ads show these younger guys with their mouths wide-open and eyes bugging out while they play some game."
But Coffey thinks it would be a mistake to design games specifically for seniors. "The appeal of a game depends on your individual tastes, not your age," he adds.
"The worst thing in the world they could do is design for the elderly," agrees St.Hilare. Though some are trying to. The 2005 Game Developer's Conference in Europe offered this challenge: "How to design a game for Granny." One proposal: a game about cats -- because, of course, all old ladies love cats.
But don't expect Old Grandma Hardcore to play the proposed kitty game anytime soon -- unless, perhaps, it's a first-person shooter. As for Liam Murray, the old gamer says his hand will be firmly on the joystick until "the good Lord calls me. It's up to Him when I quit."