POMPTON PLAINS, N.J., Jan. 14, 2008 — -- The stereotype of the modern gamer has been of the glassy-eyed teenager, remote in hand, sitting in front of the screen for hours on end.
The stereotype was never completely accurate, and now, according to the Entertainment Software Association, it's completely changed. The fastest-growing audience for video games is casual players -- many of them over age 50.
"I say, God bless the baby boomers!" laughed Tom Ziegler, a 57-year-old man who tries out video games for a market research firm in New York. He was playing "Guitar Hero III" when we caught up with him. "I mean, we have the time, we have the money, why not?"
Back in 1999, the industry said fewer than 10 percent of America's video-game players were over 50. But since then, the percentage has more than doubled. Today more than one in four players are that age -- a quarter of a $30 billion market.
We dropped in on happy hour at Cedar Crest, a modern retirement community in Pompton Plains, N.J. There was music, pool and an open bar, but the center of attention was a round of Wii Bowling.
"I never thought I'd be playing video games," said Bob Smith, age 74, a former engineer who lives at Cedar Crest with his wife. "This thing here has been a great social draw for people."
"It's like putting a drop of honey out there and watching the bees swarm," he said.
Part of the growth in boomer-gamers has been pushed along by the industry itself; it's been accused repeatedly of marketing violent games that corrupt young minds, and is eager to change its image.
Nintendo, the developer of the Wii, has been particularly aggressive. The Wii's motion-sensitive controller is designed with a minimum of buttons for players to memorize. Instead of pressing buttons, players move the controller in the air, to mimic the motions they would make playing tennis, golf or bowling.
Last year, after a newspaper story ran about a Wii becoming a big hit at a retirement home outside Chicago, Nintendo's public relations people sent consoles to communities around the country.
"It was meant for kids," said Flow Lawrence, an 85-year-old resident of Riderwood, a retirement community in Silver Spring, Md. "How come we got it?" She began to chortle. "We're in our second childhood? Maybe."
Sales people aren't surprised that the audience for video games has aged. A generation has gone by since the first crude games, such as Atari's Pong, first appeared. Mattel's Intellivision appeared in the 1980s.
"With each generation that comes through, you have people who grew up on video games," said Wade Tinney, a game designer in New York. "They have fond memories of video games, and in many cases it was the predominant form of entertainment for them growing up into their young adulthood."
"So as you get older and older," said Chuck O'Donnell, a manager for Best Buy in northern New Jersey, "you're familiar with the system, and it's not like learning something new."
We tried a round of Wii tennis with Hal Wehner, a retiree at Cedar Crest.
"Would you have imagined yourself doing this a few years ago?" we asked.
"Not at all," he said. He and some friends have formed an informal gaming league. "We have an enormous amount of fun. We laugh all night long, and we look forward to it every Sunday night."
He's also developed a wicked backhand. He won our match.