This 85-year-old gamer can outplay you

Jo Anne de Rosa is an octogenarian great-grandmother whose love of video
games has helped her remain connected-even through the pandemic.

For millions of seniors, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, not just because of the risk of serious illness, but because of the emotional toll that months of isolation have taken. A quarter of older Americans report they’ve been grappling with anxiety and depression. Many say they feel lonelier.

But Jo Anne de Rosa, an 85-year-old mother, grandmother and great-grandmother from Milpitas, California, has a secret to beating the quarantine blues: video gaming.

De Rosa is an avid gamer who says that daily playing has kept her mentally sharp and socially engaged — even during an unprecedented global health crisis. She is a woman who raised six children, studied journalism when there were few females in the field, and has always believed herself capable of anything. No part of her wants to spend her later years isolated or understimulated.

“Playing provides connection. I’m playing with real human beings,” said de Rosa, who lives with her 90-year-old husband and one of their adult sons. (“He helps us with our old age infirmities,” she said with a laugh.)

“Without gaming,” de Rosa added, “I think my mind would have deteriorated long ago.”

Level 1

The new wave of gamers

In recent years, gaming has grown from a niche form of entertainment to a diverse, multi-billion dollar industry. Yet certain outdated stereotypes have hung on; namely, the idea that most gamers are cis men in their teens and 20s who spend hours playing shooter games.

But ample evidence shows that is not true.

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For example: more than 40% of gamers in the United States are women. There are 33 million gamers with disabilities in this country alone, and within the next 10 years, people of color are likely to make up the majority of young video game players in the U.S.

But younger players aren’t the only ones shattering gamer stereotypes. Nearly half of Americans age 50 and up now play video games at least once a month. Older women are more likely than men their age to self-identify as daily “gamers.”

“We need to broaden our understanding of who plays games [and] we also need to broaden our perspective of what a game is,” urged Alayna Cole, managing director of the non-profit Represent Me.

“Most of us have games on our smartphones, which we carry around in our pockets, and these games are just as ‘real’ as games on computers and consoles,” she said. “Games are more accessible now than ever before and it's not just the stereotypical ‘gamer’ who is playing them.”

De Rosa in front of her shared gaming station.

Jo Anne de Rosa
Without gaming, I think my mind would have deteriorated long ago.

Level 2

Exploring new worlds

For de Rosa, gaming has allowed her to tap back into a kind of wonder she hasn’t felt since childhood, when her father gave her and her sister a handheld film strip viewer. The two girls spent hours rolling tape through it, getting lost in images that let them imagine realities different than their own.

De Rosa hadn’t felt that particular kind of magic much in adulthood — until the early 2000s, when her son invited her to play a video game. She has always been naturally good with numbers and technology (a high school aptitude test suggested she would be an excellent technical writer, and she was an early adopter of personal computers in the 1980s), but she hesitated when her son first asked her to join in. De Rosa thought she was “just” a 60-something stay-at-home mom. She was worried she would have no idea what to do.

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Her son persisted. “He said ‘Mother, you can play this,” she recalled.

And from the moment she took the controls in her hands, she felt the same thrill she’d felt as a child clicking through film strips. Once again, she was being transported to new and fantastic worlds.

“I was fascinated,” de Rosa said. “I took up the challenge, and I’ve been playing ever since.”

De Rosa and her son playing games together.

Jo Anne de Rosa
Playing provides connection. I.m playing with real human beings.

Level 3

The family that
games together

From then on, de Rosa has been all-in on gaming. In the early years of her gaming hobby, she gravitated toward visually complex, multiplayer role-playing games — drawn in by the intricacy and challenge of navigating those other worlds.

“You can leap buildings, you can fly, you can dress your characters in any kind of conceivable way,” she said. “It is just really fun.”

Using her first computer setup — a “real outdated, old computer thing” — de Rosa discovered that most of her fellow gamers were younger kids who had no idea the virtual opponent they were battling was a grandmother.

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These days, she tends to play by herself or with her son and 27-year-old grandson, who helped her upgrade her computer setup. They’re currently teaming up to try to get to the top level of a popular fantasy-themed action game.

“It's very technical because you have to build your characters with armament that’s strong and can resist [enemies],” she said.

A close-up of de Rosa as she is gaming.

Jo Anne de Rosa
Gaming really makes your mind do mental gymnastics, and that.s what it needs - exercise.

Final Stage

Getting more
grandparents
into gaming

For seniors, video games can deliver more than just a sense of community and entertainment; they’ve been shown to confer cognitive benefits as well. A September 2020 study by the National Institute on Aging found that two weeks of video gameplay boosted recognition memory in elderly participants. 3D-platform games can also improve cognitive functions in seniors and increase grey matter in the hippocampus, according to a 2017 Canadian study.

“Gaming really makes your mind do mental gymnastics, and that’s what it needs — exercise,” de Rosa said, joking that the video game companies should hire her to be an evangelist for fellow seniors.

While the numbers on the shifting demographics of gamers certainly show that de Rosa is in good company among older players, she worries that many of her peers will perceive too many barriers to entry — too much technology to buy and too many rules to learn. She fears they will be unsure of themselves and whether there is any space for them in video game culture.

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“Many people my age don’t have the luxury of having grandsons and sons who are gaming and who will encourage them to try it too,” she said. “I'd like to see games for [seniors] that don’t demean them, that are not watered down and childlike.

”As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on and seniors continue to need new ways to join together while staying apart, de Rosa recommends her peers purchase a game that appeals to them and dive right in.

“Don’t be afraid. You can do it!” she urged. “You just have to open your mind and use it in different ways.”

And as far as what she’d like everyone to know about senior gamers?

“We like to pwn as much as the younger generation.”