Hey, Grandpa, Pass the Xbox Controller

It's little remarked upon, but there's a thriving culture of video gaming among people who can legitimately join AARP, and intergenerational communication may just be the better for it.
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Things haven't been going so well for Old Grandma Hardcore lately. As chronicled on her grandson's blog, the 71-year-old Cleveland-area video gamer has been in and out of the hospital with a series of health problems, but hopes to resume her 50-hour-a-week gaming addiction soon. Her unique habit and foul-mouthed, highly entertaining reviews have drawn plenty of media attention, from MTV to the game manufacturer Electronic Arts, but for now, as her grandson writes, "she's just waiting for Killzone 2, Resident Evil 5, Fatal Frame 4, Final Fantasy XIII, God of War III, etc., ... She's waiting for the good stuff."

Old Grandma Hardcore might be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but to a trio of German researchers, her penchant for playing video games posed a provocative question: How many others in her age group were gamers?

Their study, "The Gray Haired Gaming Generation: Findings From an Explorative Interview Study on Older Computer Gamers," was published in the December issue of the journal Games & Culture, and is one of the first to find evidence of a thriving video-game population among people "who were born too early to be socialized with video and computer games during their youth." While almost all studies in the field have focused on younger gamers, the German researchers purposely examined the habits, psychology and game-playing mentality of an older age range.

"Personally, I have always wondered: The people that grew up with an Atari VCS and a Commodore 64 — did they stop playing all together?" wrote lead author Thorsten Quandt of the University of Hohenheim in an e-mail interview with Miller-McCune.com. "That sounded very unlikely to me, and statistics on technology and computer use also prove that this is not the case. In absolute numbers, they are the bigger group according to many surveys, at least if you look at the people that just play every once in a while. So there are still a lot of active players in their 20s and 30s, even if many of them reduced the playing time and frequency due to job and family duties. However, nobody seemed to talk about anything else than the stereotypical male adolescent nerd.

"So actually, I think it's just logical and about time to look at adult gamers."

And what he found backed up the industry's own analysis, which has increasingly pinpointed older gamers as a lucrative and growing market. The Entertainment Software Association cites a 2005 study from Peter D. Hart Research Associates that says some 19 percent of gamers are over 50, up 9 percent in the previous five years.

That market preceded the anecdotal adoption of the Nintendo Wii as an activity center for the geriatric and goes beyond sports-oriented Wii fare for racier games — in essence putting the "mature" into the M rating.

As Quandt and colleagues Helmut Grueninger and Jeffrey Wimmer write, this older market "is not subject to a limiting legislation, in contrast to the youth market, which is heavily regulated in many countries. So the gaming industry certainly has a lot of (economic) interest in pushing the adult gaming market."

Using the Allensbach Computer and Technology Analysis, a study of more than 50 million Germans between the ages of 14 and 64, the researchers extracted the number of gamers in different sections of German society. The results surprised them. The biggest group, with more than 4 million users, comprised players between the ages of 30 and 39; the group of 40- to 49-year-olds reported about 3.5 million people who said they used computers for gaming. Even when the researchers asked how many considered themselves "experienced" players, nearly 1 million people in the 50- to 59-year-old group responded in the affirmative.

It became clear to Quandt and his colleagues that they needed to interview some of these older gamers to get a better handle on their hobby, if only to provide a counterbalance to the raft of literature focusing on adolescent gamers.

"Video gaming is still very often connected to being a children's hobby or something for nerds," said Quandt, a professor of communication studies. "And then there are negative, potentially dangerous aspects connected to it, at least in the public discussion — there is a lot of talk about video games and aggressive behavior, and also about gaming addiction. The combination of adolescents and violent or addictive content leads to a mostly negative portrayal.

"However, if it will be accepted more widely that gaming is also a hobby for adults, then the discussion will become more differentiated. That doesn't mean that we should not talk about potentially negative aspects and try to protect adolescents from harmful effects, but we need to acknowledge the social reality — that gaming is not only for kids. This will help us to describe the phenomenon much more precisely and without prejudices."

When approached to discuss their gaming habits, Quandt said, some of the respondents were happy they finally had someone to talk to about their beloved hobby, while others were more reticent, saying their peers or partners often had different ideas about the use of their time. "Many respondents told us about negative reactions when they revealed their gaming hobby to others," Quandt said. "So in a way, that's what makes them reluctant to talk about it in public — they feel somewhat stigmatized. On the other hand, we also had some cases where the respondents told us about adolescents reacting very positively to their gaming hobby."

Indeed, several interviewees noted that their kids or grandchildren were much more enamored of their playing than their spouses, and the hobby helped to build "common ground between generations." As the authors note: "Some (grand)children also see a positive effect on the technological literacy and mental fitness of their (grand)parents."

To that end, the paper features an interview with a 68-year-old named Maria who plays computer games daily: "I am an absolute night person," she says. "When my husband's sleeping, I am sitting in front of the computer. On the weekends, my grandchildren visit me very often, and with them, I am also playing on the afternoons."

But when adolescents and older players mix, especially in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft, the results are not always harmonious. Consider what an older gamer named Marcus told Quandt and his colleagues: "I once landed on a game where I felt like I was in a kindergarten. I shut down the computer and that was it. It should be civilized, and one should deal with each other in a sensible way." Or Frank: "The number of people that are getting on your nerves is higher amongst the young ones."

Part of the problem, Quandt believes, is that there aren't too many obvious cues to another gamers' age in online play; names and genders of characters in the game don't always indicate the identity of a co-player. "That said," he added, "most of the older gamers claimed that it's not important for them whether they play together with adolescents or adult players — for them, it's more a question of whether they interact with intelligent, pleasant people."

Quandt, who is 38, considers himself a member of "Generation Atari," although his first video game console was actually a ColecoVision. Now that he has a family and a demanding job, he doesn't have time for all-night gaming sessions. But to research this paper, he found himself playing World of Warcraft, mostly during the night, to get a deeper understanding of the field and the MMORPG culture.

"I played it for months, much like an ethnographer would do," Quandt said. "That was an interesting experience — and it was very unhealthy, as I missed a lot of sleep! Still, you need to have some critical distance as a researcher; you should not become a fanboy, as you need to be able to do 'neutral' research and keep your scientific perspective. That's crucial, especially with a topic like video games, which is highly controversial."

Quandt has another study on German online gamers in the pipeline, to be published later this year, and he hopes his study of older gamers will spur other researchers to look into the subject. As he points out, with the impact of the Nintendo Wii, and the company's decision to produce family-friendly games for casual players, the number of gamers across the age spectrum will only increase. And so, in turn, will the experience of gaming.

"Your general outlook on life and yourself changes when you grow up, get a job, become more independent, probably build a family — and playing gory games just isn't really that 'cool' anymore in the respective peer groups," Quandt said. "We found many older players that also play in a 'social' way — they meet virtual friends online and enjoy the experience, rather than testing their skills in a competitive way."

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