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College Kids Square Off to Connect 50+ Players Through Video Games

UC Santa Cruz students win $10,000 in AARP's first GameJam competition

Trainwreck Games teammates celebrate their win at GameJam

David Zentz for AARP

Trainwreck Games teammates celebrate their win at GameJam.

Three jubilant young video game designers from the University of California, Santa Cruz won AARP's inaugural GameJam competition in Los Angeles last Thursday, pocketing a grand prize of $10,000 — and bragging rights at having survived the live-pitch contest.

The winning game concept, selected by a five-member judging panel featuring John Ratzenberger of Cheers fame, is "Letters of Mystery," in which players linked by email must cooperate to solve "escape the room" challenges. Ratzenberger’s fellow judges were Sid Meier, developer of the video game Civilization; Robin Hunicke, the brains behind Journey; Freddie Wong, of YouTube phenomenon RocketJump; and Kamili Wilson, who oversees AARP’s “Disrupt Aging” program.

The competition was held as part of the annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles. During his team's presentation at the chichi WP24 restaurant overlooking downtown LA, UCSC designer Pedro Cori explained "Letters of Mystery."

"Let's say two players in the same room discover a chest that won't open," Cori told the judges and audience. "But by talking to each other via email, they discover the lid opens if they lift it together, letting a third player remove the key inside."

"Letters of Mystery" narrowly edged out "Neighbors," a virtual-travel game concept created by two students from Virginia's George Mason University, and "Furrow," a "social exploration game" dreamed up by three students from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Like "Letters of Mystery," both runners-up are intended to help players forge new social connections by inviting them to work with other players, who could be at computers across the street or on another continent. Collectively, the players solve familiar "mini-games" within an imaginary world.

To make older players feel at home in this digital gaming environment, the creators of "Letters of Mystery" included some reassuringly retro aspects. For starters, it uses a rendering of an old-fashioned airmail envelope — you recall that distinctive red-and-blue border, don't you? — to invite new players to join the fun. Secondly, certain elements of its game play summon fond memories of a boomer touchstone, the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein: To reveal a secret room, for example, players must collaborate to discover that a wall sconce trips a hinged bookcase. And third, the game is played primarily by email — hardly the antiquated medium you might suppose: The UCSC team presented evidence that 91 percent of internet users ages 18 to 29 routinely use email. (Boomers are close behind at 90 percent, with both groups topped only by Gen Xers at 93 percent.)

Said Judge Robin Hunicke, producer of the groundbreaking multiplayer video game "Journey": "'Letters of Mystery' looks feasible to execute, can be iterated and tested rapidly and has the power to encourage intergenerational play."

All three finalists — winnowed down from 28 entries identified by the Higher Education Video Game Alliance in April — had to meet the design requirement for an original video game that "promotes social connections among those 50+." After each team delivered a spiel about its game and fielded questions from the judges, its entry was evaluated for three Ps: playability, potential to widen the user's social network, and power to "disrupt aging" — a major theme of the competition.

Competition judge Ratzenberger — who says he is currently "deciding whether to go for Xbox or PlayStation 4" — admits he cut his video-game teeth playing Red Alert "into the wee hours" with his son, now 29. "We had always been a big board-game family," reflects the man who brought curmudgeonly Cliff Clavin to life for 11 seasons of Cheers (and has a voiceover cameo in the new Disney/Pixar film Finding Dory). "But I never let my kids win any kind of game just so they could feel good." Ratzenberger savors the connections he says video games facilitate with his 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren: "They're a bridge between me and the younger generation. They let you see what they're interested in, and they give you a jumping-off point in any conversation. They also let you introduce them to your world."

John Ratzenberger at GameJam

David Zentz for AARP

Actor John Ratzenberger building inter-generational bridges as the head judge at GameJam

Why gaming?

If you don't immediately think of video games when you see the letters "AARP," recent research may be about to change that. The notion that video games are the exclusive digital sandbox of Gen Xers and millennials is "one of those outdated stereotypes that doesn't match reality," says Jo Ann Jenkins, AARP's CEO. The woman knows from reality: Earlier this spring, AARP and the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) surveyed more than 3,000 respondents and uncovered some surprising facts about older gamers.

First off, they are far more prevalent — and far more active — than most people think. "Two-thirds of American homes have a video-game console in them," ESA President Michael Gallagher told the GameJam audience, "and 41 million Americans over the age of 50 describe themselves as gamers." What's more, Gallagher added, "three-quarters of that number play weekly, and 40 percent play daily. So the intensity of interest among those over 50 is very high; it's primed for our attention as an industry."


Smashing another stereotype — that gamers are overwhelmingly male — the AARP/ESA survey revealed that gamers age 50+ are more likely to be women than men. Not only that, the study disclosed, but more women report playing games on a daily basis than do their male counterparts, and they play more online today than they did five years ago.

With nearly 1.2 million unique visitors playing games such as Tumble Tiles and Sling Shock on its website every month, AARP already had a toe — possibly an entire foot — in this water. Yet CEO Jenkins senses the medium can do more: "The games we offer on aarp.org are geared toward one player," she points out, "but we want to help gamers develop online connections that combat isolation — one of the major challenges to successful aging."

As ESA Senior Vice President Erik Huey handed the winners an outsize cardboard check for $10,000, a familiar voice piped up from a bar stool in the wings: "Good luck getting that through the drive-in at the bank!"


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