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Nintendo’s next market: Old people

Mario says: "Get off my lawn."  (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

Trampling on hopes that Nintendo may finally be releasing its games on smartphones and tablets, company president Satoru Iwata announced Thursday that, instead, it wants to step into the health market by 2015.

It's no surprise that Nintendo is looking for new markets after a brutal year that saw profits take a 30 percent dive. But, Dr. Mario jokes aside, does health even make sense for Nintendo? In a weird way, it absolutely does. Just  think about it like this: Nintendo's next target market is old people.

It's a very smart market to be going into, particularly in Nintendo's home country of Japan. If Americans are nervous that nearly one-fifth of the population will be over age 65 by 2030, imagine Japan's panic -- it passed that landmark in 2005. As a result, the country has been on the leading edge of discussions about how to use technology to help older people get more preventative care, stay active and age at home, so they don't have to go to nursing homes. From a consumer technology angle, that means there's a lot of money to be made by getting seniors to use gadgets that do things like measure their weight, test their strength and balance, and allow family members and physicians to keep an eye on trends in their health.

And Nintendo, wouldn't you know, already has a pretty successful gadget that does that: the Wii Balance Board.

As an added benefit, older people are already loving those games. While Mario and Pikachu may be the faces that leap to mind when you think about Nintendo, some of Nintendo's best-selling games are actually fitness titles such as Wii Sports and Wii Fit. Likewise, the company's had good success with the Brain Age games, based on research by physician Ryuta Kawashima, which aim to improve mental agility. There's actually a whole movement, documented after the Wii launched in 2006, of this thing called "Wiihabilitation" -- rehabilitating patients, particularly older ones, by using Wii games to make physical therapy less torturous. (Fun is probably never a word to apply to physical therapy.)

All that paints a rosy picture for Nintendo, which could really use a new market to play in -- something that hasn't escaped Iwata's notice.

With health, Nintendo is looking to find its next "blue ocean," a term Iwata uses to describe a an untapped market for its products. The company found its first such market with the Wii, which convinced a whole lot of people who didn't think they were gamers to pick up a game console. That gave them a sales boom, but it didn't last -- perhaps because people who aren't hard-core gamers don't feel the need to upgrade or buy new games as frequently.

The health market, however, relies on constant use, and Iwata said that the company is already looking into how to make hardware that goes beyond "Wii Fit" and gaming in general.

The company isn't looking to specifically make games for the health space, but it is looking to tap into its knowledge of games to make working out, entering stats and doing body maintenance into something that's actually fun. Iwata said Nintendo's "new business domain would be providing preventive measures which would require us to enable people to monitor their health and offer them appropriate propositions," to improve overall quality of life. In other words, it's looking to make things that are going to be indispensable, regular habits.

None of this is to say that Nintendo should abandon games; that would only be a recipe for heartbreak. But if it can balance its gaming business with this new venture, it has a shot at truly getting lifelong customers.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.



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