In real life, Sandra Newton is a small, bespectacled woman who's about to turn 62. But in the online role-playing game Guild Wars, she becomes the much younger and significantly more buxom Dydia Fayrefire, who gallantly fights off evil centaurs, harpies and demons.
Newton, who lives in Austin, Texas, chats on an Internet phone line nearly every day with fellow senior Irene Bruce Smith, of Australia. They've never met in real life, but they consider themselves close friends.
Newton, a retired English teacher, says she enjoys the game's rich graphics and likes creating her own characters in this Tolkein-esque world.
"And I really do like the interaction with people, although I'm not one for chat rooms," Newton says. "Chat rooms are, to me, pointless. The game has a purpose."
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 25 percent of all gamers are 50 years or older, and game makers are looking for ways to market to that age group.
Seniors play games differently than the industry's key 18- to 34-year-old demographic, says Nintendo's George Harrison. He says some seniors haven't played video games in years, and many spent much of their life in the pre-computer era.
"We believe the way you interface with the games had to be made simpler and more intuitive," Harrison says. "The game controllers have evolved to the point where they have many buttons on them and multiple joysticks, and it became too complex for many gamers."
Barbara St. Hilaire, 70, is a grandmother of 13. The Mantua, Ohio, resident plays Final Fantasy 12 with her grandson and says the games help her feel connected to the modern world. She also thinks they sharpen her reflexes.
"I believe it keeps the mind active, too," St. Hilaire says. "I think if you don't use your mind, it starts going stale on you."
She may be right. A neuroscientist in Japan has developed a series of computer games called Brain Age. His research indicates that playing such games on a regular basis helps keep the brain from deteriorating.
At the University of Texas at Dallas, Mihai Nadin is testing a game that simulates walking through a city. Gamers walk on a sensor, following directions on a screen and avoiding obstacles.
Nadin says the game improves the ability of the mind and body to work.
"If the aging are to maintain their independence, it's going to be through living, through action, through doing things," Nadin says.
Nadin envisions a day when video games will be used as tools for rehabilitation at nursing homes. But he says that day may be a long way away if game makers view the elderly simply as a lucrative demographic.
"I would prefer that companies raise… their ethical standards and start thinking: Don't we have the responsibility to produce the games that reflect their needs, that will make their life better?"