MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca.

For some grandparents, being befuddled by technology means they can't set the clock on their VCRs. But another group of senior citizens just can't master the Pillar of Autumn, level one in Halo on the Xbox.

A new survey by Harris Interactive, finds that nearly a third of the baby boomers polled, would like to find a video game system underneath the tree this year. I'm thinking it's for resale value, but apparently not.

As NPR's Alex Cohen reports, there are more and more gray gamers causing game makers to take notice.

ALEX COHEN: 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(ph), who gallantly fights off evil centaurs, harpies, and demons.

Ms. SANDRA NEWTON (62-year-old Gamer, Austin, Texas): We have to kill the sea monster. That's him, isn't it, the impossible sea monster?

Ms. IRENE BRUCE SMITH (Gamer, Perth, Australia): Yeah.

Ms. NEWTON: Okay. Although there's a chest there.

COHEN: Nearly every day, Sandra, who lives in Austin, Texas, chats via an Internet phone line with fellow senior Irene Bruce Smith, who resides near Perth, Australia. Though the two have never met in real life, they consider themselves close friends.

Ms. NEWTON: Okay, I'm going to open the chest.

Ms. SMITH: You've got the key?

Ms. NEWTON: I hope I do. No. I don't have the key. Do you have the key?

Ms. SMITH: No. I don't. No.

Ms. NEWTON: You don't either.

COHEN: Sandra, a retired English teacher, says she enjoys the game's rich graphics and likes creating her own characters in this Tolkienesque world.

Ms. NEWTON: And I really do like the interaction with people, although I'm not one for chat rooms. Chat rooms are, to me, pointless. The game has a purpose.

COHEN: How long have you been playing this game for?

Ms. NEWTON: I can tell you that by typing: age. Across all characters, you've played for 1,027 hours, 31 minutes, over the past six months. So I've been playing…

COHEN: That's a lot of hours, Sandra.

Ms. NEWTON: I know, in six months, yes, it is.

COHEN: According to the Entertainment Software Association, 25 percent of all gamers are 50 years or older. And so it's little surprise that game makers are looking for ways to market to elderly.

But that means understanding that seniors play games differently than the industry's key 18-year-old 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 lives in the pre-computer era.

Mr. GEORGE HARRISON (Nintendo): We believed that the way you interface with the games had to be made simpler and more intuitive. 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.

(Soundbite of computer game, Guitar Hero)

COHEN: Test the game Guitar Hero, in which players try to shred rock music

(Soundbite of computer game, Guitar Hero)

Ms. BARBARA ST. HILAIRE (Resident, Mantua, Ohio): Of course, I stink at it because I can't stretch my fingers that far to play it.

(Soundbite of computer game, Guitar Hero)

COHEN: That's 70-year-old Barbara St. Hilaire. She says arthritis prevents her from excelling at games like Guitar Hero, but at many others, this grandmother of 13 rocks.

Ms. ST. HILAIRE: See what happens here, they wiped my buttocks.

COHEN: At her home in Mantua, Ohio, Barbara played Final Fantasy 12 with her grandson. She says video games help her feel connected to the modern world. And she adds, playing them helps keep her reflexes sharp.

Ms. ST. HILAIRE: I believe it keeps the mind active, too. I think if you don't use your mind, it starts - going stale on you.

COHEN: She may be right. A neuroscientist in Japan has developed a series of computer games called Brain Age. His research indicates playing such games on a regular basis will help prevent the brain from deteriorating.

And some are looking to take games with the elderly a step further. At the University of Texas at Dallas, one of Mihai Nadin's students demonstrates a game where he walks and hops on a sensor pad following directions projected on a screen. By simulating, walking through a city and avoiding obstacles, Nadin says, the game helps improve the ability of the mind and body to work together.

Professor MIHAI NADIN (University of Texas at Dallas): If the aging are to maintain their independence, it's going to be through living, through action, through doing things.

COHEN: Nadin envisions a day when such video games will be used as tools for rehabilitation at nursing homes. But that day may be a long way away if game makers view the elderly simply as a lucrative demographic.

Professor NADIN: I would prefer that companies would raise a little of 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?

COHEN: Nadin adds if older people are able to stay independent longer, that could relieve a huge burden on the U.S. economy, especially considering there will likely be 115 million people age 50 or older by the year 2020.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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