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Dear Dr Mark,

I know you’ve written at length about teenagers and young adults, but my wife wishes you would address the issues of middle-aged gamers. Do many older adults video game and if so, what games do they tend to play? Are there problems and issues unique to this group?

As I ponder this question, I am on an airplane cruising along at 472 mph, 38,000 feet above the state of Wyoming (thanks JetBlue for my favorite TV channel, LiveMap). Looking around, I realize I’m the only person using a laptop. Seated nearby is a family with two small children. The kids are watching TV, and mom is reading a book. Dad is very helpful across the way, but he has spent the entire flight playing games on what looks like an iPad. Strolling along the aisle, I see tablet devices in virtually every row, many in the hands of other adults. Some are gaming, others are reading books or watching movies or TV shows. I realize I must have missed the airplane/tablet revolution.

There are plenty of middle-aged gamers on this plane, and apparently elsewhere. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2011 “Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry”, the average age of game players today is 37. While I know of teenagers who run into trouble with gaming, do older adults have similar issues, or do they manage it better?

I’d love to cite a good study with lots of data to answer this question. Some of you may be better acquainted with the literature, but my brief search did not yield much. Based on my personal and professional experiences, it seems that gaming has found many enthusiasts among middle aged adults.

Those who get involved face different challenges than the average teen gamer. Some of us feel an inherent discomfort with the technology–we didn’t grow up with computers, many of us don’t really understand the internet, and some of us have tried hard to avoid it. That said, many middle aged adults ultimately make accommodations to function in the workplace and communicate with others. Having achieved this, its only a short sidestep to figure out games and the devices associated with them.

Middle-agers may find the gamer culture more alien and confusing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn how to operate within it. This may involve learning some lingo and the social conventions of online game worlds. When I played WoW, it took me awhile (and some embarrassing mistakes) to sort all this out, but once I did, I was often able to pass for a younger person. Some of us have slower reflexes and fewer “actions per minute,” a harder problem to remediate, but always a good excuse for screw-ups. We may also lack familiarity with the dynamics of game play because we didn’t grow up with the medium. While you can learn to ride a bicycle at 50, it may be much harder than doing so at 5. I do believe older adults who put in the time can become very competent gamers in spite of all this.

I’ve known older adults to play a wide range of games with great avidity. The most accomplished player of the game “Angry Birds” I ever met was a man in his 50s. Many play solitaire and word games obsessively. These games can be engrossing and distracting and provide a great way to kill time while commuting, waiting at the doctor’s office (we old guys have to go the the doctor a lot), or relaxing at home. Many of these games don’t require specialized computer knowledge, and some are simply digital versions of games we played as kids (I’m still waiting for a digital abacus so I can do mathematical calculations like in the good old days….)

Other adults play online multiplayer games avidly. Some do this as a way of staying in touch with friends, relatives, and even kids. Family Halo night may have a different feel than family Parcheesi night, but it may offer a better way to stay connected with people who are far away.

If gaming is a great way for teens to escape the strain of reality and make connections in a virtual world, why wouldn’t it be just as effective for adults? We just have different stresses we are trying to escape. Some adults turn to the hobby to avoid chronic physical illnesses (not that younger gamers couldn’t have these as well) or the common, grinding aches and pains of aging. Others became gamers to cope with divorce or loss. Others are trying to escape tedious jobs or unhappy families. While the reasons may differ, the phenomenon is largely the same: enter an engrossing and fascinating alternative reality to have a great time and get relief from festering irritations that don’t go away.

Whether gaming is an enjoyable diversion or a problem depends on how it affects you and the people you care about. If your wife wanted me to write about middle aged gamers, could this mean she has a problem with your gaming? This can be complicated to sort out. Some spouses are happy to be left alone while their partners game, though eventually the habit can lead to isolation and feelings of abandonment–fractures that can easily become crevasses in any relationship. Other spouses join in, and gaming becomes a way to have fun together. If you are happy with your gaming habits, but your spouse is not–if it takes important hours away from children, sleep, or work, then you may have a problem.

My guess is that we will be seeing a great increase in middle aged gamers as todays’ teens and young adults age. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone demonstrated that moderate gaming actually helps keep aging minds sharp and nimble, just as moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to have salutary effects. Just be sure to touch down and check in with those you love every now and then. Very sad to lose them over a game.

Dr. Mark Kline figured out how to open a Steam account and was miraculously able to remember his password a week later. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to askdrmark@escapistmag.com. Your identity will remain confidential.

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