Games for grandparents

How the game industry is leaving today’s (and tomorrow’s) seniors behind.

“Hello, grandkids,” Shirley Curry chirps at the top of her latest episode, with the tone and softness you might expect to hear from your grandmother before a hearty Thanksgiving dinner.

The 80-year-old YouTube star, mother of four, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of one is far from fixating on a family meal, though. What started as a simple quest has led her to an underground cavern, miles beneath the soil of Skyrim with naught but a single companion and the lonely echo of a subterranean waterfall.

With 130,000 subscribers and over 200 videos, Curry has become the stuff of incredulous discussion on message boards and culture articles. Called the "Gamer Grandma" by her fans, Curry has made a splash in a community typically dominated by young voices. Multiple articles over the last two years have highlighted Curry’s contributions to the medium, with passionate statements indicating the "once in a lifetime moment" viewers have to watch someone like her play, or describing how she possesses "all the charm of your grandmother if she were a hardcore gamer." Curry is even set to be featured in an upcoming issue of AARP Magazine, pitched to her as an issue that focuses on seniors who’ve "defied common stereotypes about their age."

But despite the massive following, cute nicknames and press interviews, developers and players repeatedly miss an important point.

Curry isn’t as unique as she appears. Not by a long shot. Even she doesn’t think so.

The growing golden age gamers

In fact, there are millions of people like her. These golden-aged gamers are one of the industry’s largest driving forces. Each year, when the Entertainment Software Association releases its Essential Facts About the Computer & Video Game Industry report, one of the most prominent statistics is the average age of gamers: 35 years old as of 2016.

"There is a need for creating games that can be played by a more physically challenged, aging segment of the population."

Despite this fixation, many don’t recognize just how much of the industry is dominated by older gamers. According to the same report, while players ages 18 to 35 account for 29 percent of all people who play games, those over 50 years old account for 26 percent, barely edged out by players under 18, who represent 27 percent.

According to the ESA, elderly players actually outnumbered teenagers in 2015, totaling 35 million that year — more than the entire population of Canada.

These older players are growing in number, too. Bob De Schutter, a professor of applied game design at Ohio’s Miami University, predicts that those 35 million older players will explode into 105 million in the United States alone by the year 2045, if demographic trend data collected by the United Nations proves true.

De Schutter and a number of researchers estimate a large portion of that future demographic will come as a result of younger gamers growing older, but if the game industry has issues accommodating the needs and interests of the elderly now, will it be able to accommodate them if they one day dramatically outnumber the current figure?

Brain Age box

The world senior gamers inhabit often treats them with an overbearing fascination. Article after article displays an amusement with retirement home Wii bowling leagues. "Brain games" like Brain Age often top lists of games recommended to seniors, promising to keep players young.

"There is a need for creating games that can be played by a more physically challenged, aging segment of the population. I have no doubt that creative game designers will respond in time."

Those are the words of Ralph Baer, "The Father of Video Games" and creator of the first commercial home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, in a forward penned for a 2010 AbleGamers study on the need for increased accessibility in games. Before that particular remark, Baer commented on his intention for the Odyssey to be played by "anyone from 5 to 100," with the aid of a knob that would change the difficulty if necessary.

Researchers agree that the misconceptions about older players and ageism formed today will have a significant impact on current generations of gamers when they hit retirement. The question of whether those misconceptions will stop the industry from achieving Baer’s vision remains to be seen, but weighs heavily on the minds of some academics, developers and fans.

Portrait of a senior player

For De Schutter, research on the relationship between video games and elderly audiences was once just an interesting dissertation topic.

In 2008, De Schutter had recently finished work on Blast From the Past, an educational Nintendo Wii game played between younger and older players, teaching each group more about the other’s cultural history. He began to collect like-minded researchers for a panel at Meaningful Play, a yearly academic conference focused on game development. Over the following six years, research on elderly players began to accrue at a steady rate, with rehabilitation companies like SilverFit and Lumos Labs beginning to target older demographics.

However, De Schutter and others found the vast majority of the research up to that point had focused on potential elderly players (such as rehabilitative exercises designed to improve mental or physical faculties) as opposed to active players. Scholarly literature database Google Scholar indicates that, between 1980 and 2000, a total of 14 academic reports on games and aging were published. In the 2000s, that number rose to 43, while 2010 to 2014 saw publications explode to a total of 208.

"When I play outside of my home I see people looking at me as if I’m crazy. They think I’m demented."

After becoming an assistant professor at Miami University in Ohio in 2013, De Schutter again collected his peers for another panel at Meaningful Play on October 16, 2014. That weekend, in the Dublin Square Irish Pub near Michigan State University’s Student Union, De Schutter and his colleagues informally founded the Gerontoludic Society, an international association of academics and developers who study, design and create "playful experiences" for older adults.

De Schutter’s research went on to put him on digital playgrounds alongside numerous elderly players. What he found was one of the widest variety of players within any single demographic — players who took pride in defeating him in challenging games of reflexes and strategy but who also exhibited hints of embarrassment or outright shame for enjoying video games. One participant by the name of Bernadette (names changed in De Schutter’s study to protect privacy) even quoted the Bible to justify her time spent with a Game Boy.

"When I play outside of my home I see people looking at me as if I’m crazy. They think I’m demented. But the Bible says ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven,’" Bernadette said in De Schutter’s report, citing Matthew 18:3.

"For me, it was really life changing in the sense that you talk to these people and you learn so much about the outlook they have on life," De Schutter says. "With older adults, it was always about ‘Well, this is what my life is about. This is who I am as a person.’"

De Schutter believes that, as a natural result of the senior demographic’s experience, it becomes not only the most diverse group of gamers but also the most difficult group to develop games for, even outside of general accessibility issues.

Games for grandparents promo shot
Promotional photos featuring elderly players often show exaggerated reactions, as seen here.

"There’s no such thing as the ‘one older player.’ It’s a myth," De Schutter says, referring to the stereotypical imagery of senior gamers flinging Wii remotes and holding controllers like radioactive babies. "If you’re 18, your parents might have different jobs and different socioeconomic status, but for older adults, that’s their starting point and then they carve their own path in life."

De Schutter, like most scientists, still has an interest in determining where to best categorize all of his variables. What he’s found is that elderly gamers fit into roughly five categories:

  • Time wasters: Those who play only when starved for something to do as long as more important matters aren’t arising
  • Freedom fighters: Those who develop a sense of thrill from commanding their own destinies, often after decades working for "the boss"
  • Compensators: Those who play to make up for something they either never developed or lost as a result of their age, such as relationships and a sense of community
  • Value seekers: Those who play specifically to get something "valuable" or educational out of the experience and for whom games serve more as gateways to other topics than isolated experiences
  • Ludophiles: The grandparents who just have an inherent love for playing any kind of gamified experience, video or otherwise

But the research doesn’t end at these categorizations. The work of De Schutter and others is rife with personal commentary from players who break apart from simple classifications.

"I’m home alone a lot. I see very few people each day and to be honest, I’m not the type of person who enjoys being alone," the 66-year-old Georgette said in De Schutter’s report. "That’s why these games are so important to me. I play all the time, literally. It really is a kind of therapy."

As with many issues in the gaming and tech industries, the problem stems from both the creator and consumer side.

Fixing the future

In the 1980s, David Mullich found himself in the comfortable position of being vice president of software development at Edu-Ware, one of the first educational entertainment software publishers. Mullich was 23 years old, and the vast majority of his colleagues were in their early 20s as well. One day, an older gentleman visited the office to interview for an open programmer position, his resume touting extensive programming experience in the aerospace industry, perfect for the needs of the company.

Mullich went on to thank the man for his time and declined to offer him the position.

Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

In 2014, roughly 30 years later, Mullich found himself on the other end of that proverbial interview for a modest producer position at a major studio. His career had taken him through leading roles at Activision, 3DO and his own successful consulting business. Empire Magazine had just named Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, one of Mullich’s crowning achievements, as one of the best PC games of all time. For all intents and purposes, Mullich’s resume exceeded any requirement the company could ask of him.

Mullich never even got the phone interview, receiving only a simple rejection email. It wasn’t the first he’d received in five years of job hunting, and it wouldn’t be the last.

"Really, what colored my perception [as a 23-year-old] was, ‘How well did he fit in with the rest of us young, single guys?’" Mullich says. "You know, I practiced ageism back then because I was immature. The whole industry was immature and I wasn’t really thinking about the bigger picture."

Had the games industry improved in making itself accessible to older developers since Mullich’s youth? Comments from hiring managers indicated Mullich seemed "too arrogant" thanks to his resume, so he decided to act humble, which he says earned him accusations of being burnt out.

According to the International Game Developers Association’s 2015 survey, only one percent of all game developers are over the age of 50.

"When they go to interview someone who’s older, they think, 'Well this person is not the kind of guy who’s going to go out for a beer with us after work.'"

In an industry where more than a quarter of all players are ostensibly no fewer than five to 10 years from retirement (or already well within it), this lack of an elderly perspective can help cause development studios to miss what actually appeals to older players.

"It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hire people who exactly match that audience, but you need to be aware that there is that audience," Mullich says. "I actually think the real problem with ageism comes through the type of culture that’s formed within the game development company."

In the IGDA’s survey, respondents ranged in age between 18 and 81 years old. Twenty-six percent of respondents were between the ages of 25 and 29 years old. The percentages steadily drop as age increases began to freefall after 40-year-olds, older developers simply being too small statistically to be included in the IGDA’s report. The report itself states that the data presents the "prototypical game industry worker as being a 32-year-old white male with a university degree and no children."

"A lot of studios are fairly small and tight knit, and kind of have a family-oriented atmosphere, so they’re looking for people that ‘fit in,’" Mullich says. "And when you bring in young people, especially younger people who may be able to work longer hours, or because they’re just entering the industry, you hire them at a lower salary. When they go to interview someone who’s older, they think, ‘Well this person is not the kind of guy who’s going to go out for a beer with us after work or play games during lunch hour.’ They’re not going to fit in socially versus technically."

The problem persists in a marketing scheme that sells products to seniors attempting to convince them that these kinds of games will negate the effects of their age, rather than embrace it, De Schutter says. Brain games like Lumosity and BrainHQ try to sell a chance at improving mental faculties with "fun" math puzzles, despite the scientific community agreeing it does no such thing.

"Brain games have of course been successful at selling copies, but then again you’re selling copies based on the idea that old people are scared of growing old and developing Alzheimer's," De Schutter says. "That’s so terrifying that you’d buy anything. The message these kinds of games are telling you is that, as an older adult, you should care about being young again, because you’re not really a contributing member to society if you’re not young. How messed up is that?"


Celia Pearce, co-founder of Indiecade and game design consultant, released a study on baby boomer players shortly before the release of the Nintendo Wii in 2006. Pearce also noticed Nintendo’s unique presence at the AARP convention that year.

"It was very clear they were targeting that audience, and a lot of this is fascinating to look at from a cultural perspective," Pearce says. "If you look at Japan, China, Korea, there is a sense of respect for older people in those countries that we really lack here. The Japanese in particular were the first to study the impact of brain games with respect to things like Alzheimer’s. We basically go ‘Oh, you’re either too old to work, or you don’t look good, and we’re just going to lock you up in a holding tank somewhere.’"

And when the industry isn’t actively dogging older players or developers for their age, it's simply not even aware of them. The same issues that drive females from gaming, like harassment and rampant sexism, also stifle senior players from integrating into certain communities.

"This isn’t a utopian dream; it’s a business opportunity."

"The reality is that they’re just not on the radar of the video game industry," Pearce says. "They don’t ever think about it, and they don’t research it. I was working for a company that had an online social component to their business. Their own players called it a ‘sexual harassment simulator.’ I said I had some ideas, things you could do to protect players’ personal spaces. Their response was fairly simple: ‘Well, we don’t have enough women to bother with that,’ and I was like ‘That’s why you don’t have women,’ and it’s the same thing with older players. Game companies understand why people are playing their game, but they don’t understand why people are not."

After a number of years of its absence, Pearce played a role in rebooting the IGDA’s developer satisfaction survey in 2014, the first of the series to include indie developers, students and academic researchers. The results of that study determined that ageism was the second most cited form of discrimination behind sexism.

"We already know we have a gender problem," Pearce says. "That’s obvious, but I don’t really think we understood the extent of the age problem until that came out. This isn’t a utopian dream; it’s a business opportunity."

It’s a business opportunity the AARP is beginning to capitalize on. Receiving 1.1 million unique users per month, the AARP’s online game platform expanded its collection of free games from 25 to to over 100 regularly rotated games. The expansion comes at least partially as a result of the organization’s #DisruptAging campaign and its own recently released study on older video game players.

"You used to hear people say ‘50 is the new 30.’ No, 50 is the new 50. People should own their age and not be limited by that number," says AARP chief digital officer Sami Hassanyeh. The organization’s own research reinforces much of De Schutter and Pearce’s findings, stating that over 50 percent of gamers cite "fun" as their primary motivator as opposed to rehabilitative exercises.

"One of the reasons we did this study with the ESA is to say to game developers that you’re missing out on a big chunk of the audience that has trillions of dollars in net worth."

To that end, the AARP recently co-sponsored its first Social Connection GameJam at E3 2016 in Los Angeles, awarding $10,000 to a single team of three student game developers out of 28 entries. The event challenged participants to create a game for adults over 50 years old that expands and improves the nature of their social networks, a strategy Hassanyeh says is taken from the AARP’s inter-generational STEM workshops. Students were judged by industry icons like Civilization developer Sid Meier, funomena head Robin Hunicke, YouTube star Freddie Wong and actor John Ratzenberger.

"We are absolutely looking at how things like virtual reality can really help people, whether it’s to live a better life, be more connected with the world or reduce isolation," Hassanyeh says. "One of the reasons we did this study with the ESA is to say to game developers that you’re missing out on a big chunk of the audience that has trillions of dollars in net worth, and developing games for them, being connected with your audience, is critical for any industry to be successful."

The shaming that afflicts older gamers isn’t unique to the industry, though.

"[Older adults] don’t consider themselves a gamer," Hassanyeh says. "We see this in our other research. When we ask people if they’re a caregiver, they don’t identify with that, but they actually are taking care of a spouse, grandkids, uncles, aunts. We tend to want to quickly put them in that box, and I don’t think people spend time labeling themselves that way."

Another barrier senior players face lies outside of game development and in gamer culture. Shirley Curry, the 80-year-old YouTube star, receives her own share of heated comments from viewers.

"I love to get into conversations with [viewers] that are there every day. You get to know them as people," Curry says. "The reason I was forward about my own age and identity was because I want them to know me, but it’s mostly young people that make nasty remarks like 'get off, you don’t belong here. You’re too old.' And I think the gaming industry is at fault because they don’t recognize older gamers. I’ve talked to a lot of older players about that. They don’t mention their age. They hide behind anonymity because of the same comments I get. They say to me that they’re grateful I’m as open about it as I am, because they feel they can’t be."

We all grow old

De Schutter feels 2016 is the year the game industry will finally begin to properly address these issues.

"This GDC was the first time I actually went to any conference and actually felt like I was at home," he says. "I always felt like people didn’t really know what to do with this. From talking to companies in the past, it’s typically me reaching out to them. It’s not like it was flat-out rejected, but more like ‘Yeah, this is interesting, Bob. We’ll talk in the future. Not today.' With my talk at this year’s GDC, all of a sudden you have a 400-seat room filled to capacity with people that care about it from either a social perspective — we’re all going to be old one day — or they cared about it from a business perspective. One of the things many people told me is that they love the combo of entering a ‘new’ business market, making more money and doing some good at the same time."

"The companies that manage to market their games to older adults are going to be just as successful as companies that market toward younger audiences 10 years from now, or five years, or tomorrow."

From noon to night, De Schutter found himself booked with industry figures wanting to discuss the future of games designed for elderly audiences. Asked if he thought these issues — a distinct lack of motivation to play, a hostile culture or even basic accessibility — would be negated by the oncoming wave of elderly players who grew up with the medium, De Schutter is confident that some things, like deteriorating health and an expanding worldview, remain universal.

For as much as gamers like to think of gaming’s future as a bright venue for all, companies will have to make a call on just how wide an audience they develop for and market to.

"You’re actually looking at a huge societal phenomenon that will actually have impact on the companies that will be out there," De Schutter says. "The companies that manage to market their games to older adults are going to be just as successful as companies that market toward younger audiences 10 years from now, or five years, or tomorrow."

Ralph Baer had faith in the game community to open its arms to players who had been there all along — and who would only continue to grow in numbers. It remains to be seen what kinds of experiences the next generation of elderly gamers will flock to and just how many of them will persist, despite universal challenges. Industry innovators and leaders can no longer ask the "Father of Video Games" what he thinks, but we all grow old. Babykayak

Photos: Shutterstock