Veli-Juhani Antero Westerholm is 63 and has been playing games regularly for over 30 years. “New games are so fast-paced, I can’t really keep up,” he says. “I usually die a lot before I figure out how the game works.” He mostly plays military shooters and often returns to old favorites from previous generations, such as Brothers in Arms, Sniper Elite, or Call of Duty: World at War. “New games can be more complicated, more multilayered,” he says. “You have a lot of menus to figure out and a lot of game mechanics to learn.” He prefers what he feels are simpler mechanics in the older games. “You only have your weapon–like in Call of Duty–and that’s what you use for the rest of the game, without any big changes.”
Mainstream video gaming has been around long enough now that some people who started playing in their youth are nearing retirement age. Indeed, anyone who indulged in gaming’s first commercial boom in the 1970s is at least in their fifties, if not their sixties. It’s not surprising that the average age for gaming has risen to around 35, and a survey from last year puts 15 percent of gamers in the 55+ bracket–it’s an organically expanding audience. But what does that mean for Westerholm and other old-school gamers who want to keep playing the kinds of games they’ve always enjoyed?
Certainly, with fast-moving action genres, it seems older gamers will inevitably have to face that it gets more difficult to keep pace. Even players with a mastery of online FPSs, versus fighters, or coin-munching arcade classics will eventually see their skills decline. The older you are, the harder it is to “git gud.”
In fact, as with so much in life, the decline starts surprisingly early. Stian Reimers, a cognitive psychologist at City University London, has worked on numerous research projects focusing on the effects of age on different aspects of cognition, including a study analyzing large quantities of data measuring processing, response, and task-switching speeds.
In terms of processes such as reaction times, he explains, we peak between age 18 and our early 20s. “Then it’s decline from there. Fairly slowly to start with, then post-retirement age it gets a bit faster.” While the decline varies from person to person, the standard change from peak to retirement age is around 20 percent. “So, if something takes you a second when you’re in your twenties,” he says, “it might take 200 milliseconds longer when you’re in your sixties.”
We can see this trend in games too. Aim Lab is a training tool that enables players to improve their skills in tests that simulate the conditions of various shooting games. Through an opt-in program, they’ve collected substantial data that highlights, among other things, how age affects performance.
Wayne Mackey, the founder of Aim Lab, confirms that speed is an issue for older players. “Accuracy is actually pretty constant, but reaction time slows down considerably,” he says. As we age, we need more time to make the same quality shots. And yes, again, we peak at a young age. “We start to see drop-off in reaction time averages as early as 22 years old or so,” says Mackey. “Once you hit 40 it becomes much more rapid.” Reaction times in the 18-25 groups average at 271-272 milliseconds. For the 41-50 bracket (the oldest Aim Lab has results for), they rise to 339 milliseconds.
These fractions of a second may not sound like much, but it makes a difference when playing quick response and timing-focused games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and especially in competitive shooters and fighting games. We only need to see the dominance of players in their teens and early twenties at the top end of professional gaming to appreciate the advantages of youth. Even an esports legend like Justin Wong, winner of a record nine EVO fighting game championships between 2001 and 2014, has to accept that, at 35, winning is getting tougher. “I do believe that older players who won tournaments in the past can also win the big tournaments even now,” he says, but he concedes that there is a peak age: “If I have to put a number on it, I guess maybe we can say 21 to 25?”
With the input and response speeds demanded by fighting games, that tracks with the available data. “I do notice that my reaction time might be slightly slower,” says Wong. Although he’s swift to add that he remains above the level of the majority of younger players. “I can still react to most things pretty well even at the age of 35,” he adds. “People normally do not want to test my reactions even now.”
Of course, modern gaming challenges aren’t only about reactions. They also involve more complex systems, as Westerholm has realized, and this can be an even bigger obstacle for older players. Reimers explains that some elements of cognition decline even more rapidly than reactions—in particular, “switch costs,” the time added to our responses when multitasking. In experiments where subjects have to keep two ideas in mind at once, such as simultaneously saying whether faces appearing on a screen are male or female and whether they’re happy or sad, older people respond disproportionately slower than younger people, compared to when they only have to identify a single trait.
These results suggest that something like the split-second timing of a competitive fighting game would become doubly harder with age. “When you’re having to make decisions and you’ve got a number of things that you could press, and you’ve got to decide which way to respond, your speed takes an extra hit,” says Reimers. “It’s the same with things like divided attention where you’re having to monitor two streams,” he adds, which is another thing games often expect us to do–moving and acting while monitoring gauges or coordinating with other players.
If it’s starting to sound like you may have to hang up your controller by the time you’re 30, much less by the time you retire, it’s not all bad news. For one thing, Reimers says, while some aspects of cognition slow gradually with age or drop off more sharply, there’s a third type that stays flat or even improves: the “crystallized intelligence” of general knowledge. After all, 40-plus years of experience has to count for something.
Mackey certainly believes so. “Raw mechanical skill or reaction time is only a small component of what makes someone perform at a high level,” he says. Similar to some sports, he feels age can compensate for youthful speed and skill. “Look at world champions like Randy Couture or George Foreman. They competed against much younger, more explosive athletes but still won. Experience is a tremendous attribute and advantage.”
And if it works for fighting sports, why not fighting games? “Veteran players have a lot of tricks from older games which could carry over to help in a tournament setting,” says Wong. “Think of it as a once-per-use hat trick where you can use a specific strategy to gain momentum against another player who might not have as much information.”
And there’s always still scope for improvement, as Aim Lab’s data shows. While practice doesn’t make perfect, it helps. “Improvement happens quicker for 18- to 20-year-olds,” says Mackey. “However, even in the 41 to 50 age group, we still see an 18 percent improvement after one week.” Reimers has had similar findings. While he questions whether “brain training” exercises have an impact on improving skills in general, he notes that if someone repeats a task over and over, they certainly get better at that particular task. And that seems particularly pertinent to games, where we often have to execute the same actions time and again.
One problem, then, is that older players generally have less time to practice, but there are ways of adapting to that. David Kelly, 55, started gaming with the likes of Pong, Space Invaders, and Asteroids in the late 1970s. His tastes remain old-school–he prefers shoot-em-ups (shmups), arcade racers, and high-score-chasing multiplayer games. He even owns an Asteroids DX arcade cabinet. “My concentration was better when I was younger,” he says. “As I’ve aged and responsibilities have come along, I tend not to get as absorbed into games.” But that hasn’t stopped him from achieving “one credit completions” (1CCs) on notorious bullet-hell shmups, with a slow and steady approach. “Whilst I’m not as fast as I was, I play more intelligently and stick to one or two games at a time,” he says. “I’ve completed games such as Giga Wing in the last 12 months that I could never have contemplated doing when I was younger.”
At the same time, with no real interest in switching to more forgiving modern genres, he’s started to think about what he may find possible years from now. “I can see me gradually reducing what I play down to a handful of games, like Tetris and Asteroids,” he says. “Those two, along with Super Breakout and Monkey Ball, are what I consider perfect games, and I’d like to think I could keep on playing those in some way. Playing Asteroids standing up can only be good for the circulation.”
This returns us to the wider point that veteran players don’t want to give up on the kinds of challenges that formed their passion for gaming. “If there are any good new war games, I will certainly play them,” says Westerholm. “That’s my kind of game, almost the only thing I play nowadays.” But experience and patience will only get them so far, and as more gamers reach retirement age and beyond, they’ll want games new and old to remain accessible.
As developers themselves age, perhaps they will consider the specific requirements of older players more. Or interface designers will find ways to remove some of the cognitive boundaries. “Maybe we’ll have some kind of glasses that let us control the games with our eyes,” says Westerholm. “It would be a lot simpler.”
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