No Longer Just Child's Play

gamer video player games old man boomer computer online generic
Seventeen years ago, I wrote a "My Turn" column for Newsweek about the evils of video and computer games. I felt it was healthier, for example, for kids to play real baseball outdoors with other kids instead of virtual baseball by themselves at their screens. I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Millions of us "baby boomers" had become parents, and we wanted what was best for our kids — and that didn't include their sitting in front of a computer or video screen all day.

You could probably walk down any street and hear a plea coming from inside the houses: "Stop playing that stupid game. You've been playing for hours. I want to talk to you."

Today, the latest age groups that some game companies are focusing on are "boomers and above." The same people who yelled at kids to stop playing are spending more and more of their free time playing digital games. What's next? Are we going to dye our hair blue and refuse to do our homework?

One of the main reasons for the popularity of video and computer games among this age group is because smart marketing people noticed that people are being told that if they can just stay mentally active, they can ward off all kinds of evils. In other words, those of us who are getting older will do anything to avoid getting old — even play video games.

The games specifically designed for this generation are not violent, or sexy, or games that are so complex that only people who are computer experts can play. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the new games for the older players rely on "quick thinking to stimulate brain activity." Some of these games are crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Boggle, etc. But there are also "virtual" re-creations of bowling, tennis, and golf that are popular. In these games, you actually swing your arms, so you do use some physical energy — just not as much as if you were playing "for real."

How popular are these games with boomers and seniors? The New York Times article talked about a community of retired nuns who have gotten hooked on the games. Some retirement communities have installed game consoles. And Norwegian Cruise Line is installing the game systems on all its ships.

Nintendo, the company that I blasted so many years ago for corrupting our youth, is now as much a friend to people my age as fiber. Another company, PopCap, also makes games specifically for a generation older than the games' designers. PopCap's founder, 28-year-old John Vechey, says that he and his colleagues use the "Mom Test." If their mothers like a new game, they're pretty sure they have a winner.

In addition to word games and video versions of sports, I can think of several games that would probably be popular with this new demographic. "When Are My Kids Going To Move Out Already?" would be a big seller. "Movies That I Can Actually Hear" and "Foods That I Used To Be Able To Eat" might be popular. I'd probably buy, "I Forgot Where I Parked My Car." And an update on "Where's Waldo?" that might catch on would be, "Where's My Pension?"

Years ago, when I was first worried about how kids had become so obsessed with video games, I was concerned that these games had become more important to them than reading and being with their family and friends. Guess what? The same thing is happening today with older users.

In a recent survey of people who play computer games, when shown a list of leisure activities and asked to say which ones were important to them, 77 percent of people over 50 chose playing computer games. Seventy-three percent chose reading, and only 65 percent chose "spending time with friends and family."

In the same survey, 74 percent of those under 50 chose "spending time with friends and family." So, according to this survey, spending time with friends and family is actually less important to people over 50 who play these games than it is to younger people who play.

If this trend continues, soon you'll be able to walk down any street and hear, "Stop playing that stupid game. You've been playing for hours. I want to talk to you, Grandma."

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver