Why Games Should Have a Few More Senior Moments

In video games, senior citizens are largely stereotyped NPCs. Rare is the kind of game like Metal Gear Solid 4, with a truly aged, playable protagonist. Can games create more roles for the elderly? Should they?

Matthew Kaplan of GameCritics thinks games have a lot of growing up to do, especially as the median age of gamers inevitably gets older. His essay argues that games, which often involve superhuman or at least athletic protagonists capable of amazing feats, rarely deal with the issues of aging and if so, typically as a limitation only.

But placing a game in the context of someone's advanced age would deepen both its story, its characters, and the relationships players form with them, Kaplan argues. He goes so far as offering Prototype as a theoretical example, and it wasn't at all as silly as it sounded at first.

This isn't an issue of inclusion to the degree that ethnic diversity is; the elderly, right now, don't game in huge numbers, of course. But there is a difference between growing old and evolving, and for games, including the elderly more would be the latter.

Ah, to be OId and Fragging: Roles for the Elderly in Video Games [GameCritics, Oct. 27, 2009.]

As the median age of gamers continues to rise, I wonder how this will be reflected in the character creation choices made by players. I can only speculate that concern over the seeming physical disconnect between the actions demanded of that character and those we consider typical of the elderly will cause even the oldest players to mold younger, more "able" characters.

Yet this is precisely why we need to re-examine what it means to be "able" or an active agent in an escapist fantasy. I ask that aspiring designers consider the following questions with regard to roles for the elderly:

1. Why can't physical trials reflect the obstacles inherent to growing older while still maintaining their end result of power in addition to experience/success? For instance, why couldn't Prototype's Alex Mercer be an elderly man or woman who must wrestle with the newfound power brimming inside them as it conflicts with what they previously considered to be an aging body? Certainly, that is a far more interesting set of physical boundaries for the player to immerse himself/herself in than simply playing as "generic, muscular young male X." I think the only game that did this even marginally well was Metal Gear Solid 4, but that game addressed age as a constraint more than as a natural characteristic of its protagonist (which makes sense, given that Snake's aging between Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4 was mostly artificial).

2. Why are the objects of desire in games typically younger males and females? Isn't an older man or woman worth fighting for? Relationships don't simply stop after youth.

3. What sort of interesting introspection and character development can come from the dilemmas faced by older men and women? Why can't a journey of discovery be just as compelling if the character doing the discovering is elderly? More pertinently, why is growing older considered the end of a journey rather than the beginning of one?

Of course, there is always the question of whether an idea for a video game is marketable. However, I ask that creators and storywriters not fall into the trap of stereotyping for the sake of pushing what the nebulous and questionable "market" considers "attractive." What I have found is most often attractive to gamers is that which most pleasurably defies their expectations.

And when it comes down to it, the word "pleasure" is at the heart of this issue. For all the patronizing glories we confer upon the elderly, we often associate growing older with a descent of condition, away from pleasurable activity and towards death. Surely the process of growing old is not always a pleasurable one, but there is nothing about old age that makes growing up and having fun mutually exclusive.- Matthew Kaplan

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