Sacramento’s unlikely gamers

The image of the hard-core gamer as a young, pimply, socially awkward male is outdated. Now systems are showing up in bars, clubs and, yes, nursing homes.

At first glance, Alice Dodge certainly doesn’t look like a scrapper. She is a quiet, sweet old lady whose favorite activity is playing bingo in the nursing center where she is a resident. She sits in the spacious activity room of the Emerald Gardens Nursing Center in south Sacramento, her gray hair tied back in a tight bun and dark sunglasses covering her eyes. She speaks quietly and responds to questions with quick, one-word answers. Her fingernails are painted pink.

But her sweet nature is betrayed when she takes hold of the dual controllers of the Nintendo Wii game system and pummels the hell out of her opponent on video boxing. With the care staff and her fellow residents cheering her on, Dodge’s arms pump back and forth like two massive pistons. Her on-screen character mimics her movements, a barrage of jabs and hooks steadily depleting her opponent’s health meter.

It was hard not to feel bad for her opponent, even if he was just a video game character; the guy never stood a chance. After knocking him down for the second time in the third round, the on-screen referee counted to 10. The bell rang and her fellow residents broke out in applause. Dodge was all smiles as small beads of sweat glistened on her forehead. It was the first time she had ever played the boxing game.

The Nintendo Wii is slowly becoming a favorite activity for the residents here. The console in the activity center is the second one the home purchased this year. Sure, it seems odd that video games—normally a form of entertainment for the young—would show up in a nursing home. But an increasing number of homes throughout Sacramento are using the Nintendo Wii both for fun and fitness.

Emerald Gardens is just one of many unlikely places where video games are popping up around Sacramento. More and more, game systems are leaving people’s living rooms and showing up in places like bars and club—and, yes, nursing homes—with their core audience expanding in the process. In fact, the image of the hard-core gamer as being a young, pimply, socially awkward male is proving to be nothing more than an outdated stereotype.

It’s a blazing hot summer afternoon. Even though the heat pushes through the closed shades in the “Wiihabilitation” room, five residents are egging each other on while they play bowling on a widescreen high-definition TV.

Emerald Gardens is a care center for both short- and long-term patients. Marketing director Christina Lallian explains that one of the center’s goals is to help short-term patients—those recovering from injuries or from recent surgery—return home as quickly as possible.

“If you notice, a lot of younger people are getting sick,” Lallian said. “They’re getting hip fractures and knee replacements, so they come to us and they need to get rehab.

“When you walk into a skilled nursing facility, you won’t see just 100 percent of the population be long-term care—older folks,” Lallian said. “A lot of people want to go home after they get their rehab.”

Emerald Green has rehabilitation facilities with all the traditional, unexciting physical therapy equipment: pulleys, hand cycles and parallel bars. But once they started using the Wii for rehabilitation in April, physical therapists noticed a change in their patients’ enthusiasm.

“They’re loud, they get excited, they’re cheering, they’re clapping for each other, they’re egging each other on,” said Candace Kuhl, facility rehabilitation director. “You get a lot more excitement and energy. There’s definitely motivation and rivalry as well.”

The Wii proved so popular that the center now owns two consoles: one for the activity room and one for rehabilitation.

Many of the residents said they have grandchildren who have played video games for years. But for them, the Wii is the first system they themselves have ever tried.

For Larry Bush, a 42-year-old short-term resident, it was his first time playing the Wii. “I like it,” he said. “I’m about to get one. It’s better than the Xbox.”

As opposed to the processor-heavy Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3 consoles that run the latest graphic-intensive games, the Wii was marketed as a system anyone in the family could play. As its competitors were using the latest-generation technology to produce more advanced games, Nintendo took another direction: They decided to keep games simple. It was a gamble that paid off.

When it was first released in North America in late 2006, retailers faced major shortages as they could hardly keep up with demand; Wiis disappeared from shelves just seconds after they were stocked. As of June 2008, Nintendo has shipped more than 29.6 million units worldwide, and it expects to sell 50 million by March 2009. The Wii has outsold the Xbox 360, even though the latter was on the market a full year earlier.

(British paper The People reported that England’s Prince William was having trouble prying the system away from his 81-year-old grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.)

Part of what makes the Wii so popular with audiences is the simplicity of its hardware. Instead of relying on complicated button-laden controllers, the Wiimote and Nunchuck use motion-sensing technology to detect movement in three dimensions. That means that for games like Wii Sports, which comes packaged with the console, swinging a tennis racket or baseball bat is just like doing it in real life.

On Wednesday nights, even the uncool and uncoordinated get a chance to live out their rock ’n’ roll fantasies by playing <i>Rock Band</i> at Marilyn’s on K.

Photo By Ted Cox

That’s what appeals to Emerald Greens resident Joe Mason, who played sports all his life and likes using the Wii to keep himself in shape. He sits perfectly upright in a wheelchair in the Wiihabilitation room, hands crossed as he waits his turn to bowl.

“I used to be a pro bowler—210 average,” Mason said. “I bowl 190 on the Wii.”

So how does the Wii compare to real-life bowling?

“Oh, it’s real close. I’m a natural left-hander with a curve,” he said. “This is like in real bowling.”

Mason’s turn comes around, and he grips the Wiimote in his left hand. He lines his character up to the farthest left side of the lane. He pulls the controller back behind him, then swings his arm forward, the ball shooting forward down the lane, balanced precariously on the lip of the left gutter. The ball hangs there for an eternity, threatening to drop into the gutter when suddenly, at the last possible moment, it swings to the right and smacks squarely into the pins. The room erupts in applause; Mason has rolled yet another strike. He smiles, passes the controller on to the next player and folds his hands together.

But Wiihabilitation isn’t just about fun and games. Nursing homes across the country have turned to the little white console for helping their residents, many of them wheelchair-bound, get active or recover from injuries.

Kuhl, the rehabilitation director, has noticed improvement in residents that play the Wii. Through weekly evaluations, she notes that they are better able to hold their balance, get up and out of their chairs or beds, or dress themselves.

She feels that the improvement is linked to the fact that opposed to more traditional, less exciting rehabilitation, residents actually like playing the Wii.

“I think it’s increased their healing, and their functional abilities have been able to increase in a short period of time just because they’re more motivated to be in the therapy and the type of activity that they’re doing,” Kuhl said.

Grace Farrell, who has been playing bowling and tennis against other residents while wearing a black shower cap, suddenly wants to call it a day.

“I’m tired,” she said, as the Wiimote falls to her side. She has been rolling bowling balls and swinging tennis rackets for over a half-hour.

“But the game’s not over yet!” laughs one of the caretakers.

“It is for me,” she replies. [page]

Game night at Marilyn’s
“I will probably end up buying every single one of these games,” said Midtown resident Brian Breneman, “Even if I don’t even like the bands.”

Was it merely coincidence that he said that while hammering away on a plastic guitar controller to Winger’s creepy jailbait-sex hit “Seventeen” on Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s?

But tonight, Breneman isn’t playing the game at home. He’s at Marilyn’s on K, a downtown bar that hosts live music, trivia or karaoke most nights of the week. On Wednesday nights, Marilyn’s hosts Game Night, where budding musicians can pick one of three different televisions and play either Rock Band, Guitar Hero, or Nintendo’s racing classic, Mario Kart.

Much like Wii games, the Guitar Hero concept is simple: Players press keys on the guitar neck while strumming in time to the music.

Activision’s Guitar Hero franchise, along with rival Harmonix Music Systems’ Rock Band has taken the country by storm, giving even the uncool and uncoordinated a chance to live out their rock ’n’ roll fantasies on plastic instruments in front of virtual video crowds. Friends can set up Rock Band’s guitar, microphone and drum kit, then crank the volume while playing some of the greatest rock songs in history.

Emerald Gardens, a nursing care center in south Sacramento, is just one of many unlikely places where video games are popping up. Here, patients line up to take a spin on the Wii.

Photo By Ted Cox

Breneman, who says he has been playing the Guitar Hero series “for too long,” isn’t surprised Marilyn’s would host a game night. After all, video games are big business, he said.

Indeed, game developers are well aware of the millions up for grabs in the game market. Earlier this year, Grand Theft Auto IV, where players can roam freely in a fictionalized version of New York City, stealing cars and blowing up cop cars along the way (who wouldn’t want to play a game like that?), sold around 3.6 million copies the day it was released.

Gamers have purchased more than 3 million of the bundled versions of Rock Band, which includes the game, a guitar, drum kit and microphone, at around $170 each. More than 15 million songs have been downloaded from the online Rock Band store, most of them going for $1.99 apiece.

Actual, real-life rock bands are taking notice, too. Mötley Crüe released their latest single, “Saints of Los Angeles,” to the Rock Band store, where it was downloaded 48,000 times. Guns N’ Roses is expected to release “Shackler’s Revenge” on the Rock Band 2 game due out in September, sparking rumors that the group’s Chinese Democracy album may (finally!) be released this fall.

Some video-game titles have even topped Hollywood blockbuster receipts. Variety reported that The Dark Knight had pulled in just over $300 million two weeks after its release, while Grand Theft Auto IV earned $400 million in its first week alone.

“As you see economic downturn hitting industries across the board, we’re fortunate to be able to say that ours is growing,” said Richard Taylor, a spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association, a video-game industry trade group.

“Dollar for dollar, it’s probably the best form of entertainment you can go out and purchase,” said Taylor. “Film is a two-hour experience. Many of our games have a hundred hours of game play, and that’s not even counting online interaction.”

ESA tracks the sales and gaming habits of Americans through nationwide surveys, and their results paint a picture of video games growing as a national pastime.

Among some of the ESA’s latest findings: 65 percent of American households play computer or video games. The average game player is 35 years old, and 26 percent of gamers are over the age of 50.

“You start looking at numbers like that, and you realize that it’s an industry that is appealing to young people and teenagers and college students and then beyond,” said Taylor.

Taylor believes part of the growth into various demographics is due to young parents having been raised with video games themselves. “I think you’re seeing a generation come into parenthood that grew up with video games and embraces them as incredible entertainment value,” he said.

Another reason is simply the variety of hardware and software available for purchase; from high-end, graphic-intensive fighting titles to simple word games on hand-held devices like the Nintendo DS, choices abound regardless of a person’s age or gender.

“It’s like a multiplex, really,” said Taylor. “There’s something for everyone.”

Meanwhile, locally, the new trend in gaming seems to have ever-increasing outlets.

Like Emerald Gardens, nursing homes across America have turned to the little white console to help residents get active again.

Photo By Ted Cox

In June, Intel’s Folsom campus hosted a 36-hour local-area network party for charity, where 150 people showed up and played games like Company of Heroes, Call of Duty 4, Battlefield 2 and Guitar Hero III. The Onyx Club in Roseville hosts Guitar Hero on Saturday nights. And KWOD 106.5 just hosted a Rock Band night at Sandbar in Citrus Heights. (Everyone who played the game was entered into a drawing to see the Foo Fighters live in Denver.)

Still, Marilyn’s is the premier Sacramento-area bar hoping to cash in on the ever-expanding popularity of video games. The club has hosted a game night since October 2007, where they started with Guitar Hero and a few board games.

Earlier that year, Marilyn’s promoter and trivia host Jeff Gribben saw a band play at another bar, where a bustling game room had Guitar Hero set up.

“That seems to work,” Gribben said to himself. “So I did some research on the Net and a couple other places had stories on Guitar Hero nights. … That seemed like a promotional success for them, so I thought we’d give it a shot,” he said.

The games have drawn a good-sized crowd, and the televisions were occupied throughout the night. Most of the time, the night goes off without a hitch.

“One time, I had a game set up on a table and someone pulled it off and it broke,” Gribben said while puffing on a cigarette on the bar’s patio. “We’ve had a broken drumstick on Rock Band, but it’s been all right.”

Gribben plans to add a Wii to the lineup, but he has also had trouble finding the console in stock. He used to be a gamer when he was younger, but the responsibilities of adulthood forced him to sell his consoles and games. Now, with the game nights at Marilyn’s, he has been getting back into gaming.

But if video games have been around for decades now, why is it only recently that Marilyn’s has hung game-night posters right next to the posters promoting upcoming bands? Why didn’t bars host Pong nights in the past?

Rock Band you can play with your friends,” Gribben said. “A lot of people come and say, ‘I don’t mind if we’re playing with people we don’t know.’”


Gender games
Back inside Marilyn’s, at the end of the bar, in front of a big-screen TV, Brittany Laswell and Mimi Chon, both 22 and from Natomas, work their way through a set that includes the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and Garbage’s “I Think I’m Paranoid.” Laswell strums the guitar; Chon taps away on drums.

With black, low-cut tops, dark jeans and high heels, the two roommates are dressed like they were intending to go dancing. Isn’t a little odd that they’re in a bar on a weeknight, playing video games?

“It’s the whole reason why we came,” said Laswell.

There’s probably some truth in the idea that most gamers are younger males, but women like Laswell and Chon, who also enjoy video games in their spare time are becoming more common, and more open. Laswell said she spent her economic stimulus check on an Xbox 360 console and Grand Theft Auto IV.

Both women grew up playing video games.

“I started with Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. on the Nintendo. Then Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario Kart,” said Laswell.

“Remember Duck Hunt?” interjected Chon.

Ah yes, Duck Hunt, the ’80s hunting game where that damn dog would snicker every time you missed a duck. And no matter how many times you tried, you could never, ever, shoot the dog.

“We’ve been playing for four or five years now. It’s never mattered what sex you were, it’s not a gender thing,” said Laswell.

But there are definite gender issues that come up when discussing the video game industry. Debates abound over the ways women are portrayed in video games, for example. Like Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series or the skimpily dressed women from the Dead or Alive fighting games, female characters are often buxom beauties of anatomically impossible physical proportions; male characters are usually realistically proportioned, and wear more clothing.

This discrepancy didn’t seem to bother Laswell and Chon, however. When asked about how women are portrayed in gaming, they named off the games, like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil, where women are the main characters—and they kick some serious ass.

They even spoke rather casually about the sexual aspects of the various Grand Theft Auto incarnations.

Vice City was the best just because it had all the hot cars, the hookers. It was like Miami Vice!” Laswell said.

Starting with the original 8-bit Nintendo, Mary Foltz has been playing games for more than 12 years. She now works at GameStop, a major national video-game retailer.


In the latest version of the game, Chon said, Niko’s [the character controlled by players] girlfriend “gives it up after the third date.”

“You have to have a certain amount of dates for the girl to give it up,” Laswell said. “It might have happened in San Andreas, but I didn’t get that far.”

But what does she think about that—that characters can have sex in video games?

“Maybe the third date is a little soon,” she said before breaking out in laughter.

With Rock Band and Guitar Hero, games that appeal across gender lines, video games may become a form of entertainment that—gasp!—men and women can agree on. Salon featured an article in May by Rachel Shukert on how playing Rock Band with her husband saved her rocky marriage.

But for those goofy gamer guys who have trouble meeting women, take heart:

“I used to date guys that had video games so I could play them,” said Laswell. “No, that’s not the reason that I dated them. But if he happened to have them, that was a good thing.”

Mary Foltz has run into another problem female gamers can experience: not being taken seriously by the guys.

Starting with the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, Foltz has been playing games for more than 12 years. She’s worked for three years at GameStop, a major national video-game retailer, and she’s currently the assistant manager at the store near Sac State. (GameStop scored No. 348 on this year’s Fortune 1000 list, up from No. 426 the year before.)

Even though Foltz clearly knows her stuff, some customers don’t see a woman as a reliable source of gaming information.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t think you know what you’re talking about, Foltz said. “I’ve had it where they ask guys [about games] over me.”

She saw the problem mostly when she worked at an inner-city GameStop in Maryland. But it isn’t as severe in Sacramento, she says, an improvement she attributes to the city’s diversity.

“Once you get to know people, they know that you do play a lot of games, that you do know what you’re talking about,” Foltz said.

But she did mention another downside to being a female gamer.

“Well, I have to say, you get hit on a lot,” she said. “There’s a lot of guys, you know, that play a lot of the games, but aren’t necessarily socialites.”

Apparently, some gamer stereotypes still hold true.

Ultimately, even in the face of a looming recession, the future of video games—regardless of the application—looks bright. With beers and burgers getting more expensive, people are looking for more ways to stay entertained at home. And as the legendary baby-boomer population ages, get ready for a spiking growth market in Wiihabilitation.

Interestingly, Microsoft just announced that it would sell user-created games through its online Xbox Live service—complete with a revenue-sharing plan for the creators. In today’s Web 2.0 world, Microsoft’s move appears to be a brilliant one: By tapping the power of undiscovered creative minds, the company expects to see major leaps forward in the way games are created, played and even perceived.

It’s only a matter of time before someone creates a Duck Hunt sequel where you can finally shoot that damn dog.