Grandma Gets Her Game On

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 3, 2005

Grandma won't let go of the controller.

For more than a week, Barbara St. Hilaire has been logging heavy leather recliner time, snacking on a big Tupperware bowl of jalapeno-flavored popcorn, yelling grossly unprintable words at her 35-inch TV -- all the while trying to kill ghosts in the horror video game Fatal Frame 3. The 69-year-old grandmother is a gamer, no joke.

Like many gamers, she owns a PlayStation 2, a GameCube and an Xbox, and subscribes to Electronic Gaming Monthly, Computer Gaming World and Game Informer. She drives her red 1997 Pontiac Grand Am to a nearby GameStop, where she buys and exchanges her games, and also to Hollywood Video, where she rents them. But unlike many gamers, she's been gaming since the early 1970s. Even with her hearing aids, she turns up the volume on games so loud that, one of her grandkids says, "her room literally starts to shake." Her treasured strategy guides -- the Cliffs Notes of tough-to-beat games -- are tucked next to her equally treasured cookbooks.

"I was a little frustrated last night. I was a having a real hard time with one ghost. Kuze Family Head. That's spelled K-U-Z-E. He'd throw stuff at you. I'm on Chapter 8 and there are -- let me check -- 12 chapters. It's a tough game. It was two in the morning so I said the heck with it and I shut it off and I went to bed," St. Hilaire says from her home in Mantua, about 25 miles southeast of Cleveland.

There is an AARP generation of gamers, a group that logs on to Gamegeezers.com and would qualify for a senior citizen discount if game stores offered them. In fact 19 percent of all computer and console gamers are over the age of 50, says the Entertainment Software Association, the industry's trade group. They play a variety of games -- from laid-back, relaxing fare such as solitaire and mah-jongg, to first-person shooters (military-themed titles are hits). Dorothy Rosencrans, a 73-year-old bridge player from Boca Raton, Fla., last year authored "Playing Around: My Adventures on the Zone.com," referring to the popular site for casual gamers, especially women.

Still, a 69-year-old who spends a Saturday afternoon in Wal-Mart test-playing Xbox 360s is no ordinary gamer. "I'd kill for one of those," St. Hilaire says.

"She's done this gaming thing all these years," says Jean Breznai, 74, a friend of St. Hilaire's for more than 25 years. "We'd go to bingo then she'd go home to get on the Nintendo."

St. Hilaire lives with her daughter, Linda, 44, an office manager, and Linda's four kids, ages 12 to 22. The eldest, Tim, started a blog last June, chronicling the goings-on in a one-story, five-bedroom abode where everyone is a gamer -- there are no fewer than 17 game consoles in the house, from a Nintendo 64 to a GameBoy SP to a Dreamcast -- and Grandma, the matriarch of the family, the one on Social Security, is the most addicted of them all. On a recent post, written after Grandma finished Growlanser Generations, a two-disc strategy game of magic, weapons and kingdoms, he wrote: "Last night, Grandma did it. Final time on Growlanser III: 64hrs 45 min. Final time on Growlanser II: 31hrs 10 min. Total combined time on Growlanser Generations: just under 96 hours. Solid. Total bags of popcorn consumed: 37. Total cans, 12oz Diet Coke consumed: 54."

Tim calls the blog OGHC -- "Old Grandma Hard Core."

"My friends know Grandma, and I was writing the blog for them. It was more of an Adam Sandler humor kind of thing -- look at grandma, look at what she's doing. But then other people began reading it, and I had a hard time convincing people that it's not a hoax. People wanted proof -- show us some photos, some videos. Grandma thought it was all so hilarious," says Tim, who updates the blog at least once a day.

Then things got out of hand. The blog has gotten more than 52,000 page loads a week. In the past few weeks, St. Hilaire has been featured on Web sites in Norway and Germany. Alex Porter, a senior editor at MTV.com, was so taken by her that he has hired her to review games for the channel. She accepted. "She's what we're calling a senior correspondent," Porter says with a chuckle.

In August, Michael Novak, 14, of Ashtabula -- only an hour from Mantua -- read Tim's blog, watched the video feeds and told his dad, Jeff, about it. "She reminded me of my grandma," says Michael, whose grandmother Gayle -- he called her Mima -- passed away in 1996. "The way she talks, the way she laughs. If my grandma were around right now, she'd be playing video games with me," Michael continues. Jeff contacted Tim through e-mail, and Tim asked Grandma to call Michael, which she did. "They talked about video games for 20 minutes," says Jeff, "and Michael was in heaven."

She's been playing since the early years of Pogo, Asteroids and Space Invaders, when she was a member of a bowling league and spent countless coins hitting the arcade games in the bowling alleys. She'd play games before and after work; she was first a bookkeeper at a bank, then a machinist at Black & Decker. "I remember us being the first one to have an Atari on our block," says her daughter Linda.

"It's fun that Grandma is really into video games, but she yells at us like she yells at video games sometimes, and that's not as fun," says Kenny, 14. "She yells at me if I don't clean my room, or if I'm not done with my homework and I'm just playing video games."

Last week, after whipping together a hearty Thanksgiving feast -- turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, pumpkin pie, the works -- St. Hilaire, true to form, was ensconced in her leather recliner, trying to beat Fatal Frame 3.

Two very good things have come out of all this gaming, her family says: One, she's always busy. Two, they always know what to get her for Christmas and her birthday. She'll be 70 in February.

Hear Barbara St. Hilaire's thoughts on video gaming in an audio report athttp://washingtonpost.com/technology.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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