Byline: DAVID BAUERLEIN
Sam Huston's zest for video games started during a visit with his grandson.
"He challenged grandpa to play and I said 'sure,'" Huston recalled. "We spent the whole afternoon playing. He beat me eight times in a row, and I said 'I've got to get better.' "
The popular image of video gamers might focus first on young people like Huston's grandson. But as more older people become players, it's not just your grandchild's game anymore.
Huston, who lives at the Wyndham Lakes retirement community in Jacksonville, owns a PlayStation2 console and about 20 games. He said the problem-solving and strategy of video games keep his mind and reflexes sharp in a way watching television can't.
"The only thing you can do is change the channels -- what fun is that?" he said.
According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of video game players is 33. Players older than 50 account for 24 percent of all gamers, the industry organization found in a 2007 survey.
The hard-to-find Nintendo Wii, which uses a handheld console with a remote control, has become a success story for Nintendo by appealing to all ages. Game companies previously catered to the "hard-core crowd of teen boys," said Nintendo of America spokeswoman Amber McCollum in an e-mail. The Wii uses an arm motion to control the video game, and the Wii controller isn't loaded with buttons.
But Nintendo showed off the Wii at an AARP conference and advertises in AARP publications. Some retirement communities have started Wii bowling leagues.
"Nintendo marketed Wii to bridge that generation gap," said Darin Broton, a spokesman for the National Institute on Media and Family.
Founded in 1996, the nonprofit National Institute on Media and Family has criticized some aspects of video games on young people -- the couch potato torpor, the computer-animated violence, the diminished school grades when video games squeeze out homework.
Researchers haven't done the same amount of studies on older gamers, said Douglas Gentile, the institute's director of research and an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University.
He said the main concern for older players would be the same as for their younger counterparts -- playing excessively in isolation from other people. On the other hand, video games with multiple players, including social network sites in online games, give seniors a way to stay in touch with others, Gentile said.
Also, games like Wii get players off the couches so they can play video tennis "without the danger of running across the court, falling and breaking a hip," he said.
"It's not a panacea," he said. "But on the whole, I think it's beneficial, if for no other reason than it gives them a shared relationship with the grandkids."
Wii comes with some health warnings. Nintendo advises players to take a 10- to 15-minute break each hour. People with pacemakers or other implanted medical devices should check with their doctors or the manufacturers of the medical devices because the Wii's radio waves can affect nearby electronics.