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Granny Got Game
Wii's Move-Around Style Appeals to a New Demographic

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Earl Davis is hoping there's truth to a rumor he's heard about an upcoming version of the game Dance Dance Revolution. He's heard that it will feature the golden oldies he knows and loves, instead of all the latest pop hits.

Davis, 73, a retired Marine sergeant major, said he plays for at least a few minutes on a Nintendo Wii video game console every day. When he and his wife have friends over to their apartment, at the Riderwood retirement community in Silver Spring, the Wii helps get the party started. It loosens the joints, stirs the brain waves and breaks the ice.

"We had no interest in video games until the Wii came along," Davis said. "Now I think we're addicted."

On the retirement community scene, bingo is looking a little like last year's thing, as video games have recently grabbed a spot as the hot new activity. More specifically, retirees are enthusiastically taking to games on the Wii, which has been under-supplied and over-demanded at retail stores all year, thanks largely to the system's appeal to a range of consumers.

Davis likes that the Wii emulates the motion of real sports. Playing a Wii tennis game involves swinging the controller as if it were an actual racket. If you slice in your real-world golf game, you'll slice on the Wii, he said.

"The advantage is, I haven't lost any balls yet," he jokes.

(But, alas: The maker of the DDR dance game said yesterday that it doesn't have plans for an oldies version of its hit game franchise.)

The Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry trade group, has long maintained that video games are a pastime for grown-ups as well as kids. The age of the average gamer has been creeping north over the years, according to ESA research, and now stands at 33. In 2007, 24 percent of Americans over age 50 played video games, an increase from 9 percent in 1999.

Nintendo says the average age of the Wii player is 29, but the company expects to see that number surge upward as the supply of the system starts meeting demand. So far, most of the people able to procure one have been younger fans with the will and stamina to stand in line at stores.

Riderwood has three Wiis available to its residents -- the first two were provided by Nintendo's PR firm, and the community just bought a third. Some residents have been tickled enough by the device to acquire one for themselves.

"When I announced we were getting a Wii last year, most people in the community didn't know what one was," said Daniel Dunne, director of public relations for Riderwood, a community for people age 62 and over.

A study by the Mayo Clinic released this year showed that playing physical games was beneficial in fighting obesity, at least in children. On the other end of the age spectrum, studies have shown that regular mental activity can stave off conditions such as senile dementia.

And while bingo still attracts a larger audience at Riderwood, over the past several months, a weekly Wii bowling event has been drawing a growing number of players. Next year, organizers intend to put together a more-formal bowling league. This week, Riderwood kicked off a three-day event called the "Wii Holiday Sports Extravaganza," featuring Wii versions of hockey, bowling, shooting, fishing and billiards.

"Some people haven't done anything since they got here, except sit there and watch television," said one Riderwood resident, Brooks Mahoney,, after playing a round of the Wii fishing game. "This really brings people out."

"A lot of people around here would buy one for Christmas," Mahoney added, "if they could find one."

Nintendo increased production levels twice this year but still can't keep store shelves stocked. Some analysts have said the company could sell twice as many as it is making available today, even as it puts out 1.8 million units a month.

To respond to complaints about thin supply, Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, yesterday announced a "rain check" program for Wii shoppers. If a store doesn't have one in stock, it might be able to sell the hopeful Wii shopper an IOU for a system in January.

Fils-Aime said that a shipment of Wii systems will be available this weekend at Best Buy, Kmart, Sears, Target, Toys R Us and Circuit City. Wal-Mart will get "massive amounts into their stores all week long," he said.

Nintendo had always wanted to appeal to a large consumer base with the Wii, Fils-Aime said. The idea to specifically reach out to retirement homes came after Nintendo employees took early versions of the system home -- and found that their grandparents often got as much of a kick out of using the system as the rest of the family did.

Andrew Carle, an assistant professor at George Mason University, said Riderwood isn't the only retirement home with a Wii affinity. Among retirement communities, he said, the Wii is "the hottest thing out there."

"We've been looking for 20 years for something that goes beyond bingo in terms of activities for seniors," said Carle, an expert in elder care who had an earlier career in the retirement-home industry.

Though Riderwood just bought a third Wii system, Dunne said he already wants a fourth. "Getting another system is just going to prompt more interest, and we're going to end up needing another one," he said.

A half-mile away, a video game store can neither support nor debunk the story, when a reporter shows up and mentions the video game fans in the retirement community.

"We get a lot of elderly people, yes," said the 20-something clerk behind the counter. "They always say they're buying stuff for their grandchildren" -- he shrugs -- "Now, whether that's the case. . . ."

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