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The NL issue 893 - Veterans Edition

Author: Laura Parker
Wednesday, 23 January 2008
You get home one night and hear screaming coming from the living room. In a panic you rush inside, bracing yourself for the worst. But what you discover is a scene so bizarre that it renders you sleepless for the next week: your parents, together, wild-eyed and breathless… playing Doom 3 on your Xbox.

If you think nothing like this could ever happen to you then think again. Blasting away polygons of alien scum may not sound like a typical 50-year-old’s favourite pastime, but the long-held belief that video games are just low-value time wasters for the young is gone. These days, they’re low-value time wasters for adults, too.

In a 2006 Entertainment Software Association (ESA) survey of parents in 1700 households with video games in the United States, 35 per cent admitted to playing games regularly, 80 per cent said they played with their kids and 66 per cent felt that playing games brought their families closer together.

The annual expenditure on video games per household increased by 44 per cent in the 15 years to 2004, according to an Australian Bureau of Statistics individual household survey. Meanwhile spending on movie tickets increased by only 16 per cent. The 2005 Gameplay Australia Survey by the Interactive Entertainment Association found that 54 per cent of adults in over-2000 households polled had played a computer or video game in the past year.

These figures shouldn’t be baffling for someone like 41-year-old journalist Alvin Stone from Mount Annan, whose idea of fatherly bonding is resisting adversaries in Dynasty Warriors with his nine-year-old son Addam before dinner.

“When we march off to save the world for the 100th time, it builds a real connection between us and when we go out and play a game like basketball in the real world, it’s much more fun and less competitive,” he says.

Stone, who describes himself as a ‘games slut’, can still remember playing Pong in his teens before his passion for gaming took a serious turn with more intensive shooters such as Doom. For him, playing provides an escape and a way to wind down, even though some of the games require a lot of patience and thought.

“First-person shooters, sports games, strategy-based and character- and adventure-based games are all on the top of my list – it just depends on my mood,” Stone says. “It’s also good to play online. Pitting your skills against complete strangers is a real buzz, even when you get annihilated.”

Stone plays a few times a week with his son (when his wife isn’t home, because “she doesn’t get it”) and doesn’t see age as a determining factor where video games are concerned. In fact, he recommends it.

“As we all know, the older you get, the less you give a damn what other people think. Are there computer games in the afterlife- If I rock up to the pearly gates and there’s no Xbox, then it can’t be heaven.”

This rising trend of older gamers is a relatively new area of research, according to psychologist Rebecca Tews, from Concordia University in Wisconsin, who says the early studies that defined gaming as purely a youth phenomenon were wrong.

Tews, in an essay on gaming in The Medium of the Video Game (University of Texas Press), says there is now enough evidence to prove that playing games, while peaking in adolescence, continues into adulthood. She suggests that adults like to share their experiences with their children, making gaming a tradition for some families.

Noel Wilson, a 36-year-old digital media producer from Sydney, is living proof that Tews is on the right track.

“I’m looking forward to playing games, both virtual and real ones, with my kids,” he says. “Maybe I’ll give up when I get thrashed by them. But I don’t think you can ever be too old to play games.

“I think it’s more the circumstances of your life or other people’s perceptions that leads people to give it up.”

Wilson plays his Xbox 360 and PSP two to three times a week, more when he’s away on business trips or when home alone. Again, the reason for his passion isn’t that much of a surprise - he has fun playing. In fact, Wilson says he’d love to see more oldies give it a try.

“It’d be interesting to see older people getting into games,” Wilson says.

“I remember evenings playing games like Sensible Soccer on the Amiga with my mates and it was just great entertainment; lots of excitement and laughing and competitiveness.

“Now I’m older, getting absorbed in a game is also a really good way to take my mind off work, and great for killing time on journeys.”

So if video games are the perfect refuge from reality after a hard day’s work, then why aren’t more oldies jumping on the bandwagon- Surely any negative connotations attached to the medium disappeared long ago, when society found new things to blame children’s aberrant behaviour on, such as heavy metal music and the Internet.

But, according to statistics gathered by the ESA, the average gamer is now 33 years old and has been playing games for 12 years. So it seems adults have been letting the inner kid get his tiny metaphorical hands on that PlayStation controller for a while now.

That’s certainly true of Peter Swan, a 56-year-old plumber from Ambarvale, who begins the email interview with: “Sorry for the late reply but I’ve been busy playing Halo.”

A PC man through and through (he doesn’t own any consoles), Swan enters the competitive online world of Halo, a futuristic shoot-’em-up, for about five hours a week, where he battles people from all corners of the globe with rocket launchers, sticky grenades and sniper rifles.

The competition can get very heated, especially when you realise the guy who keeps sniping you in the back is some 10-year-old from Arizona. But Swan enjoys the challenge.

“The media hype is justified: games can be all-consuming. But when you get to my age, does it really matter what people think of you- You can never be too old. Except maybe when you can no longer use the controls, but that would be the only excuse.”

When it came to putting an expiry date on their love of virtual reality, three 22-year-old Sydney gamers gave some surprising responses. “I can see myself growing out of gaming, the same way I’ve grown out of other things,” Mark Boehm says. His friend Steven Hann agrees. “I like the competitiveness of games and the escape from reality. But they’re only good when you have nothing else to do, or as a bonding experience. There might still be times when I go back for a bit but it won’t be all about games anymore.”

However, Stephen Heap thinks it might be some time before he stops playing video games. “It has been my hobby as long as I can remember. [Video gaming] is now becoming more mainstream and so it’s much easier to find not only games worth playing, but also people to play them with.”

At any rate, with the future of gaming looking more assured, it probably won’t be long until these three are stealing their kids’ consoles.

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