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Video games all the rage among retired US seniors

By Virginie Montet  /  AFP , SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND

Jeanne Gildea,right, 81, reacts to a shot as she plays in a bowling tournament against fellow community members, including Elaine Fowler, 82, left, on the Nintendo Wii game system at the Riderwood Retirement Community in Silver Spring, Maryland, on Jan. 16.

PHOTO:AFP

Amid rousing applause and cheers, seniors in a retirement complex in the Washington suburbs have hopped onto the videogame craze, belatedly but with a vengeance, swinging their arms in a virtual game of bowling.

While video games are aimed more usually at younger audiences, Nintendo's Wii, the mega-popular, new generation home console, has become all the rage in 3,000-resident Riderwood, one of the largest retirement communities in the US, located in a Washington suburb.

Its popularity is largely due to a wireless handheld controller that requires players to replicate athletic movement, albeit minimal, but easily within the capabilities of more elderly players.

Erickson Retirement Communities, which runs the complex, has installed 25 Wii machines around Riderwood to encourage social interaction and exercising among the seniors.

"I love it," said Elaine Fowler, 82, a fiercely competitive player who gets around in a motorized wheelchair. "I'm here since day one. I feel really good when I get a strike and a spare."

Every week, some 20 retirees gather to play one of Wii's sports games, in which players holding a wireless controller swing their arms to simulate a volleyball return, a virtual boxing punch, or a baseball bat swing.

At a recent battle for bowling supremacy, opposing teams gathered around two screens set up side by side as team members took turns "rolling" the bowling ball down a virtual lane to knock down as many pins as possible.

While bowling is the most popular virtual sport among Riderwood residents, golf and baseball are also strong, as are fishing and boxing competitions.

"We had a group of ladies who did a boxing session, and a 90-year-old lady got a knock out!" said Earl Davis, 73, a complex resident who comes out to cheer on competitors.

"It's the first time older people are embracing video games," Nintendo spokeswoman Eileen Tanner said. "It's pretty big."

She said players over the age of 30 make up about 27 percent of the buyers of what has become the world's best-selling "next-generation" games console -- outselling rival Sony's PlayStation 3 three-fold in Japan and North America last year, according to a survey by magazine publisher Enterbrain and games analyst Hiroshi Kamide at KBC Security, both in Tokyo.

A recent study in the British Medical Journal found that although those hoping to get fit and lose weight should probably try more strenuous activities, the console's design did prompt the use of basic motor control and fundamental movement skills.

"It's an exercise but minimal exercise, the type of exercise those people need, because they are not used to it," said Earl Davis, a retired navy officer who teaches Wii movements to novices at Riderwood.

Octogenarian Flo Lawrence, an avid fan, agreed.

"It's physical, but without the effort, and you get satisfaction out of it," she said. It "gets you out of your apartment and you are with people."

Wheelchair-bound Marie Tsucalas, 93, is a newcomer to the games.

"I like to do something new," she said, as she aligned the keys on the motion sensitive hand controller. "I'm pretty busy with my cooking shows on the residence's TV network and my cards game, poker included."

Among the bowling participants, the five in wheelchairs were the most enthusiastic.

The video game system "is good for a variety of things," Davis said. "People who don't know each other are laughing, teasing each other. It brings back a competitive spirit too."

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