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Video games: not just for kids anymore

The last time Barbara St. Hillaire of Mantua, Ohio, was in New York City, she didn’t come to see the Statue of Liberty, ground zero or even a Broadway musical. She came to compete in September 2006’s Nintendo World “Coolest Grandparent of the Year” tournament.

And she blew the competition away.

“I’ve got the trophy sitting here,” St. Hillaire, 71, said recently.

Not only have video games won St. Hillaire awards, she believes they also help keep her mind and body sharp.

St. Hillaire is the star of a Web site, Old Grandma Hardcore (oghc.blogspot.com), produced by her grandson, Timothy. She plays with Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox, among other gaming systems, for hours every day.

“Today, I’m sitting here playing Luxor on Xbox,” she said. “And I’m trying to get somewhere with Guitar Hero II” on PlayStation.

Video games, commonly thought of as a teenager's pastime, have gained growing popularity as the baby boomer generation moves into retirement. More and more seniors are turning to games to keep their memories and mental skills sharp.

According to some estimates, nearly 30 percent of the online viewership of sites such as Pogo.com consists of people 50 and older.

St. Hillaire says playing video games helps her with her short-term memory and has physical benefits as well.

“For one thing, I’ve got arthritis in my hands, and it helps because I’m getting exercise,” she said.

In 2005, Nintendo released a game called Brain Age for its handheld DS, or dual screen, system. It is a game intended for senior citizens that consists of several memory— and logic—based puzzles. Brain Age was the game that won St. Hillaire her title last year.

Brain Age was inspired by the work of Ryuta Kawashima, a Japanese neuroscientist, said Amber McCollom, senior manager of public relations for Nintendo of America. “The tests were designed to keep the brain active while people have fun, much as Sudoku games or crossword puzzles do.”

Nintendo is finding that games such as Brain Age, Brain Boost and Big Brain are popular among the elderly, but are being used by people of all ages.

McCollom said that in Japan, where Brain Age was developed, the game “is a huge hit among seniors. Some kids use it to get their heads ready for school or an exam, while some seniors make it part of their morning routine.”

As the next generation gets older, more and more seniors have become comfortable exercising their minds using video games.

Erickson Retirement Communities, based in Baltimore, is installing Nintendo Wii consoles at each of its 18 locations across the country, according to its Web site.

Video games are popular among aging baby boomers, who are now in their 50s and 60s, but have less appeal to older people who were not raised playing video games or using computers.

“I don’t know about computers,” said Bill Neeck, 77, a resident at the Isabella nursing home in Upper Manhattan. “I need a lot of practice. I only know the keyboard.”

Still, nursing homes in New York are doing what they can to ease their residents into new technologies. Lisa Hoxie is the director of recreation at a nursing home in Flushing, Queens, which houses about 300 residents. She said the home will likely install gaming consoles soon. “We try to keep things very up-to-date,” she said.

The home in Flushing encourages its residents to use computers and play memory and trivia games, which also promote socialization.

No long-term studies of the effect of video games on the elderly have been conducted, and experts are still unsure if these games will be an effective tool in battling Alzheimer’s disease.

“I’ve heard from experts that doing things that are really challenging to your brain, learning a whole new skill, for example, appear to be somewhat healthy," said Dr. Jed Levine of the Alzheimer's Association in New York. "But then again, there are cases of Alzheimer’s among those who are completely sharp.”

Until researchers can find out more information on the disease, those interested in video games can at least hear testimony from gamers such as St. Hillaire, who said video games have had a positive effect on her memory skills. She believes more and more seniors will take up video games as time goes on.

“There’re so many different kinds of games out there,” St. Hillaire said. “Somebody’s going to find something that they like.”

email: amm2188@columbia.edu