Think video games are just for the young? Think again
Thursday, January 5, 2006
By Jose Antonio Vargas
The Washington Post
Barbara St. Hilaire, 69, is known in the video-game world as "grandma gamerGrandma won't let go of the controller.
For more than a week, Barbara St. Hilaire has been logging heavy leather recliner time, snacking from a big Tupperware bowl of jalapeno-flavored popcorn, yelling unprintable words at her 35-inch TV - all the while trying to kill ghosts in the horror video game Fatal Frame 3. St. Hilaire, 69, 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 games, and also to Hollywood Video, where she rents them. Unlike many gamers, she's been gaming since the early 1970s. Even with her hearing aids, she turns up the volume on games until, 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 2 in the morning so I said the heck with it and I shut it off and I went to bed," St. Hilaire said from her home in Mantua, Ohio.
There is an AARP generation of gamers, a group that logs on to Gamegeezers.com and would qualify for senior-citizen discounts if game stores offered them. In fact, 19 percent of computer and console gamers are older than 50, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry's trade group. They play a variety of games - from laid-back 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 wrote Playing Around: My Adventures on the Zone.com, referring to a 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 said.
"She's done this gaming thing all these years," said Jean Breznai, 74, a longtime friend of St. Hilaire's. "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 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: 64 hrs 45 min. Final time on Growlanser II: 31 hrs 10 min. Total combined time on Growlanser Generations: just under 96 hours. Solid. Total bags of popcorn consumed: 37. Total cans, 12 oz 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," Tim said.
Then things got out of hand. The blog has gotten more than 52,000 page loads a week. In the past month or so, St. Hilaire has been featured on Web sites in Norway and Germany.
In August, Michael Novak, 14, of Ashtabula, Ohio read Tim's blog, watched the video feeds and told his dad, Jeff, about it. "She reminded me of my grandma," said Michael, whose grandmother Gayle 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." Jeff contacted Tim through e-mail, and Tim asked Grandma to call Michael, which she did. "They talked about video games for 20 minutes," said Jeff, "and Michael was in heaven."
She's been playing since the early years of Pogo, Asteroids and Space Invaders, when she was in a bowling league and spent countless coins hitting arcade games in the bowling alleys. She'd play games before and after work; she was 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," said her daughter Linda.
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.