Sales of video games -- an $8 billion industry once thought recession-proof -- have plummeted in 2009. May alone showed a 23 percent drop from the same month last year. And the horizon looks bleak, since disposable income tends to tighten in an uncertain economy. The industry, therefore, would be smart to look to a new, seemingly unlikely, audience: the 80 million Baby Boomers entering old age.
In fact, the Greatest Generation is already interested. Many local newspapers in the past year have shown how nursing homes are using Nintendo Wii consoles to entertain their residents. When I first came across an article on the subject in a small Connecticut paper last March, I assumed it was an engaging but inconsequential human-interest story. But when I stumbled upon a similar piece from South Dakota just a week later, it became clear that was a significant trend. I decided to find out why nursing homes are so interested in video games, and the Wii in particular.
Launched in late 2006, the Wii immediately outpaced its rivals -- Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's Playstation 3 -- and it continues to do so today. The Wii represented a revolutionary step for gaming, mostly for its motion-sensor remote, or "Wiimote," that creates a cordless, three-dimensional experience. However, at the same time, the Wii reversed the decades-long trend toward vivid graphics and complex narratives, focusing instead on simple visuals, intuitive game play, and group interaction -- all embodied in the Wii Sports collection, which came standard. Nintendo's unconventional move toward simplicity (and thus affordability) was its way of courting casual players and nongamers. And it worked.
So it's not surprising that many older Americans have taken to the Wii; its simplicity provides an easy entry point for those who miss the Sega of the '90s, the Atari of the '80s, or the arcades of the '70s -- or who had no prior experience with video games at all. Also, multiplayer games such as Wii Tennis provide a great opportunity to meet new people and bond over some friendly competition. One elder-care company, Erickson Communities, recently coordinated a series of Wii Bowling matches among several of its retirement homes. For seniors whose glory days on the baseball diamond or tennis court are far behind them, even simulated sports can bring back fond memories. And what better way to get to the grandkids to visit than by offering video games? In fact, as game consoles and the Internet increasingly merge, loved ones will be able to play games with one another from across the globe.
But the Wii is not just good for seniors in the social sense; it holds a surprising number of health benefits, too. The exertion required by Wii Sports is relatively light, but any exercise is crucial for seniors stuck in a sedentary lifestyle. Wii Sports can be played day or night, rain or shine, and without all the costs and risks associated with a bowling alley, tennis court, or golf course. Wii Bowling, for example, simulates the motion of the sport without the heavy ball or slippery lane. And the limited use of buttons on the Wiimote is ideal for the arthritic (although Microsoft is actually poised to do away with controllers altogether (check out this stunning demo for Project Natal, released last month.) Even people confined to a bed or wheelchair can use the Wii.
Physical therapists have developed "Wiihabilitiaton" regimens to motivate patients recovering from strokes, broken bones, or other injuries affecting balance, coordination, or circulation. For instance, therapists utilize the subtle movements of the Wiimote to help patients relearn simple skills like brushing their teeth and combing their hair. And video games can be preventative as well recuperative: scientists are discovering that the increased brain stimulation can help stave off dementia or Alzheimer's. One recent study by the University of Illinois observed that participants in their 60s and 70s improved their cognitive ability after playing the game Rise of Nations, which emphasizes resource management and planning.
The Wii's cultural breakthrough thus far is just a taste of things to come. The Boomers now edging into their golden years are far more likely than their predecessors to embrace video games. Surely the first company to develop games that cater to their interests will find itself sitting on a gold mine. Who knows? Before long, video games could become the card games of the 21st century. Watch out, grandkids.