BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Six seniors at the Sedgebrook retirement community gathered in the lounge after dinner as the holiday season was getting under way last year. The residents at the center, about 20 miles north of Chicago, were an unlikely test audience for the season's hottest toys. The plan: determine which toys to give the grandchildren for the holidays. The assumption was that they'd give their grandchildren the toys they approved.
But it didn't quite turn out that way.
The Nintendo Wii was so popular that the residents clamored for their own. Today, all of the Erickson chain retirement communities in the United States own at least one Wii.
Other retirement communities and municipal senior centers in recent months have followed, many using wellness grants and public funds to pay for the video-game system. Nintendo scrambled to tap this demographic.
Proponents say the Wii offers a welcome reprieve from a sedentary lifestyle and boosts hand-eye coordination among the over-60 set in a way that Bingo and Mahjong can't.
However, some find that when it comes to the Wii, which retails for about $250, money is less a problem than getting comfortable with the game. Many retirement communities that purchased the games are encouraging hesitant seniors with tournaments, trophies and cash prizes. Some centers are placing their Wiis in high-traffic areas where seniors congregate, or for the bashful, behind a moveable privacy screen. The idea to target senior citizens
Nintendo started pursuing the senior demographic in 2006 with the launch of its Nintendo DS "Brain Age" game, which the company says stimulates cognitive abilities. The idea to reach out to seniors originated in Japan, where the population is aging more rapidly than in the United States, says George Harrison, senior vice president of marketing and corporate communications with Nintendo of America Inc. "We had to approach people who were not previously video-gamers," he says.
Nintendo found that two things had kept seniors from playing video games. First, the games were too complicated to operate. "The other thing was that there really weren't games for these people," Harrison says. That's where the easy-to-use Wii comes in, he says.
Twenty-four percent of Americans over age 50 played video games in 2007, up from 9 percent in 1999, according to the Entertainment Software Association. People age 55 and older make up less than 10 percent of Nintendo hardware sales. That's a slight increase from about four years ago when the previous generation of game consoles were at their peak, Harrison says. Seniors have "opened up the aperture of people who previously would've not considered themselves to be gamers," he says.
Nintendo has been bolstering its senior-friendly image, partnering with retirement communities, including Erickson, which has received 15 free Wiis. At the October conference of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging in Orlando, Fla., Nintendo and Erickson had a booth with four plasma TVs and four lanes for bowling. "We were just showcasing how residents in this type of environment could interact with the Wii," says Flora Dierbach, chairwoman of Sedgebrook's entertainment committee and a resident there. The conference drew more than 7,000 people. "We had everybody there at one point or another. It was the busiest booth," she says.
Several times a week Sedgebrook holds Wii bowling nights, which begin after dinner and usually wrap up three hours later unless the competition gets fierce. Most centers report that bowling is the hands-down favorite of the Wii game system, which also comes with golf, baseball, tennis, and boxing.
"It's very addictive," Ms. Dierbach says. "Once you get your first 200 game, you've just got to keep going." How to introduce Wii to the retired
Others don't quite have that problem. The Winona Senior Friendship Center in Winona, Mn., purchased the Wii this year with city money but, Malia Storovich, the center's director, says, "A lot of them come in for tai chi or yoga and then go home." She adds, "We think that we're going to have to market it a little more. We might have to do tournaments."
One hurdle, Ms. Storovich says, is that people aren't sure how to work it, so she recently had her staff draft some large-print instructions.
The Wabash County Council on Aging in Indiana used a county grant to buy its Wii this fall. Officials plan a launch party where teenagers - seasoned video-gamers - will be guides, says Beverly Ferry, the council's executive director. "We'll probably give a prize of some kind to everybody who tries it," she says.
In Allentown, Pa., 200 to 300 people arrive at the Lehigh County Senior Center daily for pursuits ranging from orchestra to ceramics. The center unveiled its Wii this fall and put it in the lunchroom. "They've got time to hang out there," says Rick Daugherty, executive director of the center.
The Wii isn't always a hub of activity - that is, until Eddie Smith, a former lightweight boxer from Philadelphia, fires it up and begins to throw punches on the Wii's boxing game.
"They watch me doing it, and I get a big crowd there," says Mr. Smith, a patron and part-time employee of the center. "Next thing you know, somebody will want to play."
For Smith, the game and the spectators offer an adrenaline rush that he hasn't experienced in decades. "When I score a knockdown, it actually feels like I'm going through it again. It's a good feeling," he says. "I imagine the people using this, it gives them self-confidence."
Plus, Smith says, it's a good workout, though not without its perils. "Jabbing and hooking, you've got to be careful," he says. "You can throw your arm out of whack."
Mr. Daugherty, himself an enthusiast of the boxing game, is grateful that "nobody's gotten injured," he says.
Smith says he's eager for Daugherty to buy a second video-game controller in hopes of a challenger. "I'll be glad when Rick gets the part where two people can box. Then I'm going to knock Rick out," Smith says, adding, "on TV, of course."