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Boomers shy away from new technology

Barbara St. Hilaire craves interactive entertainment. She subscribes to several gaming magazines, owns three gaming consoles, and regularly visits the EB Games store near her suburban home in Mantura, Ohio. Immersed in a game, she unleashes torrents of profanity that would make George Carlin blush. In all of these respects, she is a typical hardcore gamer. However, there is one thing that sets her apart.

Barbara is 69 years old.

Six months ago, Barbara’s grandson began documenting her activities in a web log entitled “Old Grandma Hardcore.” The site features video clips of Barbara playing her favorite games, and it has become a cult favorite among net geeks. In recent months, she has been profiled by The Washington Post, Associated Press, CNN, and Slashdot. As a result of this media attention, Barbara was recently hired by MTV as a senior game correspondent on the program G-hole.

It is difficult to avoid chuckling when watching Barbara scream at her games, but there is something disconcerting about the nature of the joke. “Video gaming granny goes postal,” shouts a headline in a U.K. tabloid. “Forget pies, grandma is into gaming,” announces the Akron Beacon Journal. “Grandma, let me play that video game,” begs the Chilicothe Gazette.

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One wonders why reporters are so surprised by Barbara’s hobby. Are we laughing with Grandma, or are we laughing at her? What, exactly, is so funny? Is it the fact that she is swearing? Is it the fact that an older woman is emotionally caught up in a video-game? The answers to these questions reveal much about our cultural assumptions regarding aging and technology.

Although gaming is widely perceived as an activity for adolescents, the hobby is making inroads among older Americans. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average game player is 30 years old and 19 percent of all console gamers are over the age of 50.

These figures highlight the growing popularity of games among older Americans, but they also demonstrate that older baby boomers are much less likely to play video games than are their children and grandchildren. Although women between the ages of 35 and 65 are the most common players of on-line card and puzzle games, older boomers tend to shy away from recently developed genres such as role-playing games, first-person shooters, and real-time strategy games.

During the plenary session at a recent conference on media literacy, three of the nation’s leading media experts (all older boomers) acknowledged that they were mystified by video games, instant messaging, and other manifestations of internet culture. Rather than diving into the implication of these new technologies, they threw up their hands and yielded the digital realm to “the younger generation.” They are not just avoiding certain gaming genres based on philosophical objections; they are refusing to investigate an entire entertainment medium.

It would be unfair to suggest that all older boomers share this view, but there is anecdotal and statistical support for the claim that a significant number of people between the ages of 46 and 62 avoid video games.

Boomers were the first generation to grow up with the new medium of television. They marched for civil rights and feminism, and investigated the limits of psychedelic consciousness. They fought in (and against) the Vietnam War, witnessed the moon landing, and helped create the personal-computer industry. Yet, on the whole, they have been hesitant to explore the interactive digital environments that capture the attention of their children and grandchildren.

Why the hesitation to embrace these new technologies? Some shy away from games because they believe they are childish pastimes. Others mistakenly assume that all games are characterized by explicit violence. More than a few might agree with the film critic Roger Ebert that “video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic.”

However, deep-seated technological insecurities may be the most common root of resistance to video games. Older Americans might fear that they are unable to master the skills required to play video games.

In a recent forum hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, games researcher James Gee suggested that the cognitive patterns demanded by video games can be a significant barrier to entry. “Games force older people to confront new ways of learning and thinking,” he explained. “We middle-age people ride our experiences and skills for all they are worth, but often don’t have to learn really new things in new ways. But the world is changing and everyone is going to need to learn new things in new ways.”

Mastering the art of gaming is difficult at first, but the payoff is worth it. “I found learning to play games brought back the sort of excitement I had in graduate school when I was learning syntactic theory,” says Gee. “In both cases, you really feel new mental muscles growing.”

In addition to cognitive benefits, gaming provides an arena in which older adults can interact with their children and grandchildren. In the magic circle created by video games, players of all ages discover a sort of parity. Of course, this means that older adults might have to admit that they don’t always have all the answers. It also suggests that they must be open to learning new things from someone a half-century younger.

Ultimately, people of any age can master and enjoy video games. With enough practice, they can even learn to “school” their children and grandchildren. Just ask Old Grandma Hardcore.

By Aaron Delwiche


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