Boomers are gamers, too!

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When the news broke that playing video games helps keep senior citizens' minds alert and crackling, it was a big day for game-loving boomers. And an even bigger day for marketers of the so-called "brain games."

Up until then, playing these casual games was merely fun. Now, it turns out, they supposedly promote health, too. And the folks who create and sell the games are making sure you know it. The result is a fairly new -- but growing -- video game market sector marked by its graying demographic.

But when Nintendo, for instance, says that its "Big Brain Academy" keeps your neurons dancing, does it truly? And are there any therapeutic effects to playing Midway's "Hot Brain," Ubisoft's "MindQuiz," Telegames' "Ultimate BrainGames," Majesco's "Brain Boost," or Radica Games' "CrossTrain Your Brain"?

"Probably not," says Dr. Deborah Barnes, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco and the San Francisco VA Medical Center. "I mean, it kind of bugs me when I see marketing agencies taking one little study and saying that their product makes you feel 10 years younger in terms of your memory. I know that's their job, but, coming at it from a research perspective, I think people should test their products completely before they go out and make claims about how well they work."

While there's limited evidence that some type of mental stimulation is beneficial to aging minds, she observes, boomers ought to perceive their game-playing less like a doctor's prescription and more like grandma's chicken soup, meaning that having games on their minds "can't hoit."

Still, a relatively new Web site for over-50s, called Eons.com, whose slogan is "Lovin' life on the flip side of 50," sees gaming as an integral part of its potpourri of content.

"The idea of exercising your brain is a relatively new field," says Jeff Taylor, Eons' founder and CEO. "There's been lots of work on pushing off dementia, but not so much on the idea of exercising your brain the way you would exercise your body. With the explosion of the Sudoku craze, there's been a lot more focus on the fact that one of the reasons to play these games -- besides the fact that they're so addictive -- is that you're exercising your mind."

Taylor, who founded the employment site Monster.com in 1994 and sold it in 2005, launched Charlestown, Mass.-based Eons.com in July of 2006. He describes his new business as "a social kind of general media site and portal for people 50 and older, "although," he says with a wink, "you can sneak in at 49."

Ironically, Taylor -- just 46 -- doesn't qualify for entry. But he has strong feelings about what games contribute to his audience's enthusiasm.

"I wouldn't say we just jumped on the bandwagon," he explains. "We launched with games as part of our fun section because this is a generation that grew up on board and card games, and we wanted to take some of those old classics and meld them together with some of the newer casual games, like 'Bejeweled' and 'Suduko.' I'm not sure whether exercising your brain has just become the fashion or whether it really pushes off dementia, but Nintendo seems to have had the marketing power to get the idea out there."

Taylor figures that there are 88 million people over 50 in the U.S., and approximately half of them spend some time on the Internet.

"All of a sudden, this is becoming one of the fastest-growing Internet categories," he says, "and multiplayer gaming is starting to become a kind of natural connector for people who spend their leisure time online."

Eons.com reportedly attracts nearly a million unique visitors a month, and games have become one of the top five most popular attractions on the site. To accommodate this growing audience, Taylor's staff adds two or three new games each week to its current collection of more than 650 games, some of which were created by the site's almost-20-person development team.

Generally speaking, says Taylor, Eons.com's games are of the casual variety, easy to learn and addictive. "Most of our members, I'd guess, have never experienced hardcore games like 'Doom' or 'Quake' and aren't looking to jump on their spaceship and shoot up half of the intergalactic world. We don't get a lot of requests for that."

Instead, Eons.com's team built a concentration-style game called "MatchUp," a game that complements the site's tributes-and-obituary section called "Dead Or Alive," and one called "Boomer Trivia" which has gamers competing against other each to see how quickly they can respond correctly.

For slightly more complex games, Eons.com partners with RealArcade.com and with uClick.com for their downloadable titles as well as their Web browser games. And, most recently, Eons.com announced it signed with Redwood City, Calif.-based Bunchball, which specializes in multiplayer, online, community-building games.

Since Bunchball started in 2005, its entire focus has been on easily accessible Flash games that are played online in Web browsers and require no downloads and no installations.

"I almost hesitate to call us a games company," says founder and CEO Rajat Paharia, who employs 10 full-time staffers and four full-time contractors. "Most games companies are very hit-driven, almost like movie companies. They take 28 months to develop a game, they release it, and then pray it will be a hit. We're not in that market. We enhance existing Web site communities and help build new ones using simple games as a tool. We have a product that allows Web site visitors to do one of two things -- click on "invite a friend," which sends out an e-mail to someone they know and asks them to join in on a game, or click on "match me," which connects the gamer without someone else on the site who is in the mood to play."

And so, says Paharia, Bunchball is more about the process of making a site "sticky" -- or helping attract visitors and build their site loyalty -- than it is about making hit games. Instead of building what the industry calls "triple A" games, the 20 games in Bunchball's current collection just need to be "quick to get into, easy to learn, and something that's fun to do with your friends," he adds. "One of the things Eons.com liked about our games was that they span generations; they are simple enough that grandparents can invite their grandkids to come and play with them."

Indeed, there's hardly anything unique about the titles Bunchball has added to the Eons.com collection which will all look very familiar to gamers.

For example, "Fruit Mixup" is a match-three game like hundreds of others on the Web; create a three-in-a-row line of identical pieces and the score increases. But, on Eons.com, the game is touted as "enhancing visual and spatial skills -- or the ability to discriminate, perceive, and track objects visually."

Similarly, in "Flower Power," where players jump and capture opponents' pieces, Eons.com says it "increases executive function -- or the capacity to control and apply one's mental skills." And "American History Trivia Challenge" is said to "enhance memory skills, the ability to retain and recall information from the recent and distant past."

While one might describe all of these as "me-too games," what is new about them, says Dr. Barnes, is that they're being marketed for older adults.

"But from a scientific perspective, there's really very little evidence to support all of the claims that these are going to improve your cognitive function," she explains. "It is my belief that there's a lot of marketing hype out there."

While she concedes that there have been some intriguing studies that conclude that people who do crossword puzzles or get involved in other kinds of mental activities are less likely to develop dementia, "these tend to be observational studies that don't prove anything," Barnes says.

She explains that one study concluded that if one repeatedly trains in a specific kind of video game, one tends to get better at it.

"I think we'll all concede that's true," she says. "Or that if you sit around and play memory games, you'll tend to see improvements in your memory as it relates to that game. But these benefits don't necessarily extend themselves to any of your daily activities which, for older adults, is really what they want to improve. They don't want to just get better at playing a Mario Bros. game, for instance. They want to get better at remembering peoples' names and faces and the conversations they had last week. Or they want to prevent the cognitive decline that precedes dementia. No one really knows whether the games do that. It hasn't really been very well-studied."

Bunchball's Paharia doesn't dispute Barnes' observations.

"The so-called 'brain games' have become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy," he says. "Older people have heard that some video games are good for mental stimulation, and so they request more of them because they believe they are beneficial. And so more developers are creating them.

"The bottom line is that boomers who may have been too scared to play video games in the past are now finding that they enjoy playing games that they believe are meant for their age level. Maybe they help their brains, maybe they don't. The important thing is that people are having fun, they're meeting new people, and they're enjoying these social Web sites. Seems to me that the games have benefits after all."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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