Most readers will remember the video arcades of yesteryear – flashy palaces of blinking lights and ringing noises where you could play Space Invaders and PacMan and much more. By the late 1980s, some of these arcade games had arrived as software on the first personal computers and we tested our reflexes on Pitfall and Super Mario.
Today, the number of available video games tops five million and many feature virtual reality worlds of such beauty that they have become a recognised art form.
You likely picture the typical gamer as a teenager shut up day and night in an untidy room, staring at a screen with an Xbox control in one hand, wasting time avidly annihilating spaceships, demons and a host of virtual enemies.
The truth is very different because today’s gamers are of all ages and all types and all, except the true addicts, manage their video gaming like any other recreational activity such as bridge, chess or Scrabble – and seniors make up a large proportion of these.
After all, those who designed the first video games are now seniors themselves.
To quote video games writer Keith Stuart, “A few years ago, people my age were feeling guilty about playing video games, now there are people feeling guilty that they’re not. That’s progress.”
Gaming offers many advantages to older people because it improves cognitive ability and decision making, provides an outlet for creative skills, fosters intellectual stimulation and social interaction and even helps us connect with our grandchildren.
As several social studies have found, even the very elderly and frail can be shown how to play the simpler games, giving both themselves and their carers a new way of staying happy and engaged.
Above all, video games can be empowering because they give us the opportunity to play the hero in a virtual reality world at a time when the real world seems to become so disempowering.
We can strive for control in a video game in a way that may no longer seem possible in real life. Our bones ache, eyesight is going, muscles shrink, hair falls out – but on that screen we are young again, perhaps possessed of awesome powers, not just able to run and jump but also to fly.
Many video games are designed for thinking and learning; they are not just for those with nothing better to do. And playing them is no more time-consuming than traditional board or card games – think board games on steroids.
Tony Obermeit, who until his retirement wrote computer applications for the giant Oracle computer technology corporation, agrees that certain video games are of great benefit to seniors.
He has played many different games in his time but dislikes anything that is gratuitously violent – which many games are. He says studies as to the effect of virtual reality violence on people are ambivalent, but he thinks it can be desensitising.
Tony’s own interest now lies mainly in simulation games, especially those relating to flight. He has long been a model aeroplane enthusiast and now enjoys the remarkably realistic Microsoft Flight Simulator VG as well as another simulation that “flies” model aircraft. He can select his virtual plane to match his real-life model and thus practice manoeuvres on screen without fear of doing real life damage.
MS Flight Simulator can be a social activity, with several players picking a flight plan and destination, then all “flying” to it together.
Tony’s wife Hilary also enjoys gaming, usually with her phone or tablet.
A favourite is Carcassonne, which began life as a popular tile-laying boardgame where players fill in the countryside around a fortified city.
The player who makes the most strategic placement of tiles and followers wins the game. Hilary plays against somebody she has never met in America.
Many of the more complex games require dedicated consoles – powerful computers designed for gaming via your TV screen – and most of us are familiar with names such as Xbox and PlayStation.
Today there is a wide range of games available for personal computers, laptops, tablets and phones.
These are either free or can be bought from shops or through online stores run by Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo and many general suppliers such as Steam, an app which allows users to download and run games.
For many VGs you will need a fast and powerful computer with a dedicated gaming graphics chip.
The sheer range of VGs is mind-boggling and there is space here to mention only a handful of particular appeal to older people who aren’t likely to go for extreme violence, juvenile themes and frenetic big-eyed Japanese cartoon characters.
VGs fall broadly into four genres – neo-Tolkien fantasy with the usual, quests and battles against dark forces; intergalactic drama such as Star Wars; post-apocalyptic dystopia; and Indiana Jones-type adventure.
Some of these have their genesis in film and TV, such as the Spider Man and Avatar video game series. Others, like the ever- popular Dungeons and Dragons, began as board games.
Adventure games help retain mental acuity because players, whether competing against the system or other real-life players, are able to solve puzzles, meet challenges, accomplish tasks, win tokens or treasure, and incrementally move to higher levels in the game.
Players make good friends doing this – even if they never meet face-to-face.
But there are also games that offer a blend of traditional board game-type cognitive challenges with magic and stimulating visuals, such as the Scrabble-derived Words with Friends, Peggle, and the long-popular Candy Crush saga, a mostly free-to-play multi-player/character game with versions for Facebook, Windows and smart devices, that has board-like visuals and tokens.
More challenging is the Meet Your Maker first person building and raiding game that tasks you with creating mazes and traps to protect your resources and raid those of other players – sort of super Ludo with great graphics!
Construction is also the goal of the amazing Sim City series which enables you to design and create your own virtual metropolis, as beautiful and bustling and idealistic as you want it to be as it becomes more intricate.
And you can do it on your mobile phone, as well as other devices. At your command a virtual city (or world, as later games in the series go galactic) comes to life and you can add heroes and villains and every kind of infrastructure. No wonder this is one of the most popular video games of all time.
Very different and less elaborate is Octopath featuring eight stories which occasionally merge, and eight separate protagonists in search of different goals.
And then there is Dear Esther, a minimal-gameplay first-person murder mystery known for its magnificent virtual reality depiction of a Hebridean island and other British-inspired scenery.
Zelda, one of the most popular gaming series, has the usual virtual kingdom, questing heroes and thwarting villains all played out through a series of challenges, puzzles, and rewards.
Some games have a strong connection to real life and offer self-improvement. For example Nintendo’s W11 sports series features sports simulation video games which play on a Nintendo console or handheld device.
They mimic real life sports action with training and fitness modes that monitor a player’s progress and offer competition with other players.
W11 is one of the best gaming systems for older adults thanks to its physical exercise aspect, which uses motion-sensing technology and on screen-simulations so the player can physically engage in activities such as tennis, fitness workouts and dance – but with lighter impact.
Then there are the virtual reality life enhancers like Flow and Flower which blend music, visuals and gameplay to create a compelling emotional experience.
My personal favourite of the moment is Stardew Valley, an open-ended simulation role-playing game for up to four players in which you inherit a rundown farm and improve it by growing crops, raising livestock, learn to fish and forage, interact with townspeople, marry and have children.
Kiki Osgathorpe, 76, and her grandson Tor, 30, share an interest in Pokémon which began in 1999 when Tor collected Pokémon trading cards, before VGs became common household entertainment.
In those days he played it on the ground-breaking GameBoy console. Today, Kiki plays mostly on her smartphone but Tor has a portable device and has just bought another for his five-year-old son Charlie, already a Pokémon player.
“It’s quick, easy and fun,” says Kiki of one of the most loved VG series, which now features augmented reality technology so sophisticated that it appears to take the player into another dimension.
As many gamers point out, the virtual reality world offers an appealing, sometimes exciting refuge from real life and a chance to interact with others of similar interests without leaving home.
“Once you’ve crossed the threshold to that world and played your first game, there’s no turning back,” Kiki says.
And the games keep getting better, with new generation consoles and gaming chips for computers making for higher visual fidelity and avatar action (avatars are the personalised graphical representative of players).
The universe of VGs is so huge that there is a game to suit everybody. Many are free on your PC or smart device and don’t even require downloading.
Others are quite expensive and require a lot of grunt. Some are even set in Australia. The best advice from seasoned gamers is to start with something simple on your PC or smart device before investing in expensive consoles, and take it from there.
If you need advice on how to get started, there is plenty of it online and all VGs come with detailed instructions.
Or ask somebody more tech savvy than yourself – such as a grandchild.