In computer games, the young at heart catch up with the merely young

Posted: Friday, September 27, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- When the computer gamers get excited in her household, Lisa Ackerman's husband sometimes has to tell them to keep their voices down so he can watch television. Never mind that the gamers are Lisa, 55, and her 13-year-old son.

Their game of choice is ''Half-Life: Counter-Strike,'' where they take the roles of commandos gunning down terrorists. Sometimes the mother-and-son commandos cooperate, and sometimes they compete -- not that mom is much of a challenge yet.

''He thinks I stink! I'll kill some people, and I'll be (saying) 'Yay!' -- while others have killed 25,'' Lisa said.

It might seem unusual for a middle-age woman to play ''Counter-Strike,'' but baby boomer computer gamers aren't -- 40 percent of the most frequent PC game players are 35 or older, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association, a game industry group.

One reason the gaming population is now older is simply that the gamers are aging, said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the IDSA. Computer games have been around for about 25 years, and many younger baby boomers encountered them during their formative teen years.

''As people who grew up in their teens playing games have moved into adulthood, they have continued to play games, and have integrated these games into their entertainment diet,'' Lowenstein said.

Gary Colburn, 57, started playing ''Pong'' with his children on an Atari console in the 1970s, and now plays games about two hours a day.

''I don't play with the kids anymore -- now it's the grandkids,'' said Colburn, of West Covina, Calif.

The another factor behind the aging of the gaming population is that the games are maturing as well.

''The games are now so sophisticated that they appeal to people much older,'' Lowenstein said. ''If you see the extraordinary graphics capabilities and the artificial intelligence now built into games, the level of interactivity is far beyond what it's been before.''

While many games sold today are action-oriented, some slower, more thoughtful games are succeeding in part because of their appeal to older gamers. Strategy games like ''Civilization III'' and ''Black & White'' are doing very well, and the popularity of social-engineering game ''The Sims'' transcends both age and gender.

The increasing complexity and richness of games might be pulling in some older players, but it can also alienate the less computer-savvy. The biggest successes among baby boomers might be relatively simple versions of card games and bingo available at many Web sites.

Of the 46 million people ages 35 to 54 in the United States that used the Internet in July, 11 million visited one of the top five gaming sites, according to comScore Networks Inc. The company measures Web audiences by tracking the surfing of 60,000 computer users in North America.

The 11 million baby boomer that visited the top five sites spent an average of 313 minutes there during the month, a high rating for any kind of Web site.

However, few games are designed specifically with older gamers in mind, unless ''older'' is taken to mean ''older than 18.''

''I don't think anyone's ever told me they have a game directed towards 40-year-old players,'' said Schelley Olhava, gaming analyst at research company IDC.

One of the few niches that seem specific to older players is World War II simulations.

Colburn devotes a lot of time to ''Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord,'' a WWII war-game. He finds opponents through a Web site, and fights out the battles via e-mail, in a system reminiscent of the way distant chess players used to mail each other the moves.

''If I can get my grandson over, and he's about 15 years, we'll play. I can't get anybody else interested in it that's younger,'' he said.

The nature of the Internet makes it easy for generations to meet online, but older players often seek out their peers.

Ackerman is part of ''The Devil Stomper Battalion,'' an online ''clan'' of older players. The clan trains together and takes on other clans in online matches.

Still, games can bridge the generational gap. Lisa got into playing ''Counter-Strike'' as a way of staying connected with her son.

''It's one of those ages where you have to try to find something to do with them, or you lose them,'' she said.

She got hooked herself, and now either plays or is active in the clan every day. Most of her friends don't know how involved she is, she said.

As for her son's friends: ''Some of them think it's cool, and some of them say 'Your mother plays 'Counter-Strike?' That just not right!''' she chuckles.


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