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To Nintendo's surprise, Wii is hot with seniors

Retirement communities around the US are adding the video game to their rec rooms.

By Gigi DoubanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 27, 2007

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.

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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 US 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 US, 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, Mr. 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.