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Who’s Got Game? You’d Be Surprised

With 41 million Americans over 50 describing themselves as gamers, AARP jumps into the fray by hosting GameJam

With a $10,000 prize at stake, 28 teams of college students participated in the Social Connection GameJam put on by AARP and the Entertainment Software Association at E3. A panel of celebrity and industry all-stars judged the three finalists whose games aimed to create strong social connections for game players over 50. Watch how it all unfolded!

When several surprises emerged from recent research about older gamers, AARP began scouring the land for young programmers. Why? Because we’re hoping a new generation of designers will come up with a new generation of video games — games that are fun to play and manage to connect those playing them.

That challenge brought three teams of collegiate game designers — whittled down from an initial field of 28 — to Los Angeles in June for the finals of the inaugural Social Connection GameJam. Each team presented its concept for a game with the potential to break down the social barriers sometimes associated with aging. 

The finalists’ designs were heavy on whimsy — forging paths through an imaginary wilderness and escaping from locked rooms — but each front-runner was inspired by real-life concerns.

Game jam

David Zentz/AARP

Trainwreck Games teammates Pedro Cori, center, Alexander Formoso, second from right, and Cong Liu, all students at UCSC, celebrating their victory.

Will you be my Neighbor?

For Kayla Harris of George Mason University, designing a game for people 50-plus was personal: “I wanted to connect with my own family members,” Harris told me after the GameJam competition. “Especially my biological father and my grandparents, who I don’t get to see that often because they live in Alabama.”

Neighbors, the game dreamed up by Team Trilingual — Harris and her partner, Lewis Sellari — would allow players to interact casually throughout the day by playing mini games on Facebook. To make sure their prototype was robust, Harris tested it out on some 50 older parishioners of Colossians Baptist Church in Newport News, Va., where her father, Peter Evans, has been the pastor since 1999. “I asked them all sorts of questions,” Harris recalled: “‘Do you own a smartphone, a tablet or a PC? Do you play games on those devices? What keeps you playing certain games? Do you have a Facebook account? How can we improve Neighbors for this age group?’”

Their feedback exposed one minor flaw: “Many of the people I interviewed have grandchildren who live far away,” Harris reported, “and they said they’d like to be able to see them while playing a game together. So adding a video feature is what we plan to do next.”

Social Connection GameJam  finale at the Ritz-Carlton in Los Angeles, Calif

Guest judges John Ratzenberger, Freddie Wong, Robin Hunicke, and Kamili Wison and (on screen) Sid Meier weigh a proposed video-game concept. —David Zentz/AARP — David Zentz/AARP

Team Trainwreck stays on the rails

Pedro Cori, of the University of California, Santa Cruz's Team Trainwreck, likewise turned to a focus group close to home. “My mom doesn’t use apps,” Cori said, “and she doesn’t register for new websites; she just uses email. But she uses that on her phone, and she uses it on her computer.”

Researching their game concept, Cori and teammates Alexander Formoso and Cong Liu discovered that email — unlike newer arrivals Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram — is part of the fabric of almost every generation: 90 percent of boomers use it routinely, topped only by those ages 18 to 29 (91 percent) and Gen Xers (93 percent).

So Team Trainwreck came up with an email-based game, Letters of Mystery, in which players must cooperate to solve “escape the room” challenges. “Let’s say two players wander into the same room and discover a chest that won’t open,” said Cori, sketching out the premise. “By talking to each other via email, they realize the lid will open if they lift it together, letting a third player remove the key inside.”

Cori’s team felt confident about their approach because of some research they unearthed showing that people’s incentive to play video games “shifts gradually from competition to collaboration as they age. Older gamers want to work together toward a common goal. They’re more interested in intellectual challenges than in ‘twitch’ [physical] game play, so we designed our game to deliver on that,” he said.

Judges at Game jam

David Zentz/AARP

Guest judges shown here are Freddie Wong, Sid Meier, Robin Hunicke, and Kamili Wison.

Follow in my Furrow

For the third group of semifinalists — Team Puddin, from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio — games had always facilitated an intergenerational bond that designer Tom Myers, for one, sorely misses. “My grandfather died when I was very young,” he reported. “But I remember playing card games with him a lot. The last time I saw him, he told my mom that next time he would teach me how to shuffle.”

That closeness may explain the tagline for Team Puddin’s concept for their game Furrow: “We believe that a shared experience makes for a memorable game.” Working with fellow students Megan Linard and Christian Coppoletti, Myers imagined a mystical landscape pocked by towering monuments, which players can reach only by solving the “familiar but challenging puzzles” they encounter along the way. As they explore, they leave behind distinctive paths, which later players can widen and deepen into furrows.

“Most video games are very temporal,” Myers noted. “They rarely make you think: Oh, I did this thing, and it left a permanent mark on the game world!” But then their faculty adviser — Bob De Schutter, a Belgian émigré specializing in video game design for older players — stepped in with a suggestion: “He encouraged us to focus on allowing players to create a legacy — something they leave behind in the game that’s constructive to that game world.”

If Furrow ever rolls off a production line, each player will receive icons representing a camera (to log memories), a notebook (to list friends) and totems (to leave their mark) at the outset of every game session. “Our game lets you make new memories with family members,” Myers explained. “When other players come to the game, later on, they can see that legacy and build on it.”

People’s incentive to play video games “shifts gradually from competition to collaboration as they age.” – Cori & Co., Team Trainwreck

Drumroll, please!

After their presentations, the teams stood nervously by while the judges compared notes on how well each entry met the three P’s: playability, potential to widen the user’s social network and power to disrupt aging. The five-member panel included three video game visionaries (Sid Meier, Robin Hunicke and Freddie Wong), an actor (John Ratzenberger from Cheers) and a policy expert (Kamili Wilson, who directs AARP’s Disrupt Aging campaign). 

After an agonizing wait, the judges singled out Letters of Mystery, prompting the members of Team Trainwreck to raise their arms in triumph and “breathe a collective sigh of relief,” Cori confessed, “that people got what we were trying to communicate.” Judge Hunicke praised the game as “feasible to execute, capable of being tested quickly on a lot of people and expandable to include intergenerational play.”

The win entitled Team Trainwreck to pocket the GameJam grand prize award of $10,000. Not literally pocket it, mind you: As Entertainment Software Association senior vice president Erik Huey handed the winners a giant cardboard check, he paired it with an analogue admonishment: “Good luck getting that through the drive-in at the bank!”

Allan Fallow is a features editor for AARP Integrated Media.

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