‘Why don’t you get out of my way? Oops, there’s somebody gone for a burton!’ With these words, 86-year-old Hilda Knott became an internet sensation in early 2013, as BBC News showed her playing the ultra-violent video game Grand Theft Auto IV on her 65-inch TV screen.
In the 18-rated title, you play a troubled Eastern European refugee called Niko Bellic who is trying to make a new life in fictional Liberty City in America, but gets inexorably sucked back into the underworld. You also get to shoot dozens of people, cruise around in a selection of very fast cars, and hang out with an unintelligible Rasta as he smokes bucketloads of cannabis.
Gaming for fun
None of which sounds very much like something Hilda Knott – ensconced on a big cream sofa, a vase of fresh chrysanthemums on the table – would enjoy. The novelty of seeing an 86-year-old revelling in a medium we instinctively associate with teenage boys captivated the internet: Hilda was offered interviews with all the tabloids, her own column in a video games magazine and a meeting with the head of PlayStation. All of which she turned down (presumably, they’d take up too much of her gaming time).
But Hilda Knott is far from alone. Across Britain, there are thousands of older people enjoying computer games and not just to humour their children or grandchildren, or as some kind of grudgingly undertaken mental-exercise routine. They are playing games because they like them. I’ve spoken to a 66-year-old man who plays iPad games against a stranger in Norway, a 60-year-old who stays in touch with her children on World of Warcraft and a 74-year-old woman with two dozen games of Facebook Scrabble on the go at once.
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The statistics back up this anecdotal evidence: mature women, in particular, are flocking to games. Four out of ten women over 55 told a survey by YouGov for Lady Geek (the agency that campaigns to make technology more accessible to women) that they were gamers; the same age group is also the fastest-growing sector on Facebook, which is full of free puzzles.
Older men, by contrast, are more likely to enjoy fast-paced action titles – although there are plenty of exceptions. ‘I play Call of Duty: Black Ops when I come home from work,’ says Trace Goodhew, a 52-year-old NHS manager from London. ‘I do it to switch off – I deal with a lot of facts and figures, going to meetings, so I find that coming home and playing a game means I don’t have to talk to anybody.’
Goodhew says that she feels as though games manufacturers don’t have people like her in mind when they are making and promoting their wares. ‘I think a lot of the games industry is pitched either at young children or young males. I find myself pretending I’m buying a game for my son or my nephew, because there’s a bit of a stigma.’
Another problem that many face in a market aimed at teenagers is that action games, such as shooters, driving simulators or football titles, often demand twitchy reflexes. Games designer Steve Ince, who has worked on critical and commercial successes such as the Broken Sword series, says that manufacturers need to be more inclusive. ‘Many of us older people don’t have the reactions we used to have, or simply don’t like the button-mashing challenge of many hardcore games,’ he tells me. ‘Many mature players prefer games they can take their time over, or ones that offer a cerebral challenge instead of a reactive one. I play action games on an ‘easy’ setting these days, partly because I want the fun without a difficult level of challenge.’
Ince says that the rise of ‘casual gaming’ – on touchscreen devices and through social networks such as Facebook – has meant that the audience has grown dramatically. The big problem is that story-based games don’t reflect older people’s experiences, but that is changing.
‘I’m developing a game in which a man in his mid-50s comes to terms with the loss of his wife and the secret she leaves behind,’ he says. ‘While it won’t be aimed specifically at over-50s, I suspect people in that age group will find things with which they identify.’
Behind the technological times
Making friends gaming
As welcome as that break from endless space marines and gun-toting steroid cases will be, games don’t have to tell a story. Some of the most successful titles of the past decade are the simplest: online Scrabble or the smartphone hit Draw Something, where you are matched with a stranger and have to guess what they’re doodling.
Many people play these games either to stay in touch with their loved ones or to make new friends. ‘I have one close friend I play Scrabble with through Facebook,’ says 74-year-old Anne Collins. ‘But I also play with other people I met on the internet – one of whom lives within five miles of where I did in the late Fifties!’ Elaine Lekisolish, 60, says that, to her, the online multiplayer fantasy game World of Warcraft is ‘like another family’. She adds: ‘All of my five grown-up children play, or have played, and as some of them live too far away to visit often, it’s like being with them in another dimension.’
Fred Werner, a 66-year-old retired builder, says that he loves playing online games because he can’t bear to sit at home watching television. ‘I play Words with Friends with my son Richard in New York, and I’ve got 25 games on the go,’ he tells me. ‘I’ve played 400 games with one guy in Norway and we have a nice banter on the side.’
A mental workout
The idea of a ‘mental workout’ comes up often when you talk to older people about games, largely thanks to the intensive advertising campaigns to promote titles such as Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS. But although several people I spoke to said they felt patronised by such ads, there is truth behind the marketing hype. A study at North Carolina State University earlier this year found that adults over 65 who played any type of game were happier, and their previous research found that playing World of Warcraft improved cognitive function too.
Dr Jason Allaire, who led the study, said he first became interested in the topic after convincing his 75-year-old grandmother to try playing World of Warcraft with him.
‘She didn’t want to play, she complained – then three hours later she couldn’t stop playing. In our research, we found that gamers scored better on measures of wellbeing – they were happier, they experienced more positive emotions during the day. They tended to have lower levels of depression compared with people who didn’t play games.’
He despairs of manufacturers who are missing the opportunity that silver gamers represent for the industry. ‘They’re fixated on that 12- to 25-year-old demographic, but in years to come, there will be more people over 60 than under 20, and that’s a lot of games you could sell. The baby-boomers have the money.’
Allaire wonders if manufacturers just don’t want to make ‘old-people games’. But if Hilda Knott has taught us anything, surely it’s this – you’re never too old to shoot a rival gang member with an Uzi.
10 essential smartphone apps
Five video games to try: from simple games of skill to fantasy worlds
There’s a reason this physics-based game has spawned dozens of spin-offs and a movie. Just fire the birds at the pigs. (Smartphone/tablet/Mac/PC)
Simple yet addictive puzzle game – perfect for timewasting. Its maker, Popcap, is the master of this style of game: also try Plants vs Zombies and Peggle. (Smartphones/tablets/Mac/PC/Nintendo DS/Xbox 360/Facebook).
Words with Friends
Play this Scrabble-inspired game with friends on Facebook or get matched with word-loving strangers in this free version found via Facebook Messenger.
World of Warcraft
Immersive fantasy game where you can smite elves and orcs with your impressive weaponry, or chill out with a bit of smithing. You can play it for hundreds of hours, so it’s good value. (Mac/PC).
Grand Theft Auto
A violent, profane, satirical portrait of the American dream gone sour. Soothe away the stresses of everyday life by mowing down some pedestrians. (Xbox 360/PC/PlayStation).
Watch Hilda Knott in action in this short BBC clip.
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