Video games are more popular than ever. The boom is partly due to pandemic boredom and the desire to find new activities to pass the time and connect with others, but also because video games are now a mainstream form of entertainment.
"Historically, game companies targeted only a narrowly defined audience," says Joost van Dreunen, author of "One Up: Creativity, Competition, and the Global Business of Video Games." But, he notes, "the digitalization of games and the popularization of the smartphone have resulted in a much broader and more diverse audience being interested in interactive entertainment experiences."
That audience includes older adults. "The age of gamers has been skewing older for the past decade," reports David Heineman, author of "Thinking About Video Games: Interviews With Experts."
"People who are 50 now were kids when the first Atari systems came out and they also played arcade games, so there is a childhood nostalgia associated with video games," says Heineman. In addition, there's been an evolution in the graphics of the games and a shift toward a wider array of stories that appeal to a broader audience than just teenage boys."
Beyond shoot 'em up, racing and auto theft games, video games now feature puzzles, task games, mysteries and even love stories.
Getting the hang of games
An AARP survey found that the number of adults over 50 who play video games grew to 50.6 million in 2019 from 40.2 million in 2016 — and more women play than men.
I'm one of them.
I recently gave video games a try during the pandemic as a way to connect with my 30-year-old nephew, Jared. He loves video games and talks about them constantly, and it had been difficult for me to grasp why. We had always gone to movies together and out to dinner, but with the COVID-19 restrictions, we saw each other infrequently.
Jared was more than happy to lend me his PlayStation 4 when he scored a highly coveted PS5 this past Christmas. Once I got it set up, I signed up for a one-year subscription for $60 and we connected via the PS system with headphones.
We started with a multiplayer game called "Borderlands," the point of which escaped me — beyond killing monsters and marauders who rush at you. I frequently found myself trapped staring at a wall, sky or floor while Jared killed everything around me. Occasionally, I would get off some shots by rushing the enemy, but that typically led to me dying. Of course, in video games you get another chance, so it was all good.
My nephew was patient and instructive, so I gradually got the hang of the controller (so many buttons!) and what I was supposed to do. I even branched out on my own and attempted some solo games.
How do you start gaming?
You may already be a gamer and not even know it if you play games on your smartphone. "Words With Friends," "Angry Birds," "Bejeweled" and "Candy Crush" are all considered to be video games, and many are free to play.
If you want to step up to what we think of as "real" video games, both van Dreunen and Heineman recommend the Nintendo Switch over the PlayStation or Xbox as a good starting console for older adults.
"Nintendo Switch has a wide range of beginner-friendly games like 'Animal Crossing' and 'Mario Kart' that you can play with your family," Heineman says. You can also download classic arcade games like "Galaga" and "Pac-Man."
Van Dreunen, who plays video games for three hours a day with his son and friends, adds that after playing on the Nintendo Switch, "you can determine if you want to go online with others and try something like 'Fortnite,' or explore a massive role-playing world like 'World of Warcraft.' "
The console, which you hook up to a television, typically comes with one controller; you'll need to buy a second if you want to play with another person and a headset if you want to play from separate homes or online. You'll also have to pay for a gaming service — a Nintendo subscription, for instance, costs $19.99 for a year.
Here are some tips if you're new to video gaming:
1. There are now thousands of titles to choose from and you can download them to your console or buy hard copies of them at stores like Walmart, Target and Best Buy. Prices range widely, from about $9.99 to $79.99. Some platforms offer free games. Carefully vet the stories behind all games to make sure the content interests you and you can handle it.
I made the mistake of buying a popular single-player game called "The Last of Us" that was billed as an epic journey across the U.S. It turned out to be a zombie horror story where I was constantly being assaulted by different types of terrifying zombies. It made my heart pound at times and gave me nightmares, so I gave up on the game.
2. Make sure the game is compatible with your platform. Some games are only released on certain systems.
3. Expect a learning curve. Older adults don't intuitively understand how these games work or what we're supposed to do. If you don't have an experienced gamer at your side like I did, access Google on your phone for tips and walk-through guides while you're playing. Gamers have posted detailed videos and articles to help you know how to solve puzzles or perform missions.
4. Video games typically intersperse narrative cut scenes with gaming sequences to advance the story. Once the action stops, it's your turn to move the character you're playing. And if you don't know what to do, look for arrows pointing you in a certain direction or for an object like a door, crate or lock to open, push, smash or shoot.
5. If you are disabled or have a condition like hand arthritis that makes it difficult to manipulate the controller, look for adaptive devices. Visit Ablegamers.org, a nonprofit charity that helped design an adaptive game controller for the Xbox system, for more information.
This article originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.