Seniors Go Wild For Wii

The regulars at the senior center in Painesville, Ohio, had a dilemma. A Nintendo Wii had been purchased, but the novelty of the new game system had worn off after only a week. On most days, the system received little or no use.

The seniors were familiar with other programs like aerobics, weight training, crafting, bingo, card games and classroom activities, but the Wii presented a new and unfamiliar challenge.

The gaming system also had some stiff competition from a coin-operated arcade bowling machine that had been used for over 30 years. Usually found in a bar or restaurant, this type of machine required participants to bowl a ball -- similar to a bocce ball -- down a small, wooden lane. The ball rolled over spots on the lane and made the pins elevated above the ball raise in conjunction with how accurately one rolled the ball.

After receiving a call from Denise Powell, the director of the Painesville Area Senior Center, we at the recreation department began planning how to assist with the Wii problem. Powell had been reading articles from all over the country that highlighted seniors going wild for Wii Sports, especially the bowling game. She wanted us to assist in planning a program to increase the seniors’ involvement with the Wii.

I knew from years of working at summer camps that the best way to get kids to play games is to make sure they understand:

1. How to play

2. What it takes to have fun playing.

I thought this would also apply to adult learning, so my co-worker, David Whittaker, and I started planning.

Getting In The Groove

The goal was to reintroduce the Wii to the senior-center members, and to promote use of the system on a regular basis. We already knew the games were fun and the Wii program was working on a national level; we just had to bring that enthusiasm to the local center.

The senior center owned a copy of Wii Sports, which consists of five separate sports games -- tennis, baseball, bowling, golf and boxing. It was already determined the most popular game among the seniors was bowling. Tennis and golf had generated little enthusiasm.

Bowling was popular because most of the seniors had had real bowling experiences on real bowling teams. They knew the basic rules of the game as well as bowling etiquette. Using the Wii, seniors could now participate in an enjoyable, low-risk activity without having to pick up and roll a heavy ball.

Whittaker and I stopped by the senior center to try the machine ourselves. We both have video-game experience, but had never used this particular system. We wanted to educate ourselves on the correct way to play so that we could be knowledgeable and helpful when instructing others.

After 30 minutes of play, we felt comfortable showing the seniors how to use all of the Wii’s games -- including bowling. People noticed us using the Wii, and a crowd gathered to see what the big attraction was.

We were able to show people how to make an avatar, where to stand, what buttons to push, and how to roll the ball. We answered questions and tried to demystify the Wii experience. This was the first time that many of the seniors had played a video game, and their enjoyment was obvious.

After providing an introduction to the Wii, the next step was to create a bowling challenge.

Stiff Competition

The recreation department announced a Wii bowling tournament, to be held three weeks later. Flyers were posted and people began to practice and create their own avatars. We visited to answer questions, and people were catching on to the concept. Enthusiasm was rising. Seniors began to show other seniors how to play.

We wanted to make the tournament day special by awarding prizes and pizza to the contestants. I printed out certificates for first and second place, and polished up a small bowling trophy for first place that had been donated to the recreation department.

The tournament attracted eight seniors of various skill levels. A blind draw was held, and a single-elimination format was selected to be completed in approximately 1.5 hours. As competitive as some of the seniors were, it was a fun and positive atmosphere. People had a great time with the new bowling system and told others at the center about the experience.

A second tournament was requested and held three weeks later that attracted 10 people.

The third tournament drew 15 bowlers. As more tournaments were planned, more people started learning to play so they could enter upcoming events.

The tournament format created a buzz about Wii bowling. An all-star team was selected, using the results of the tournaments. The all-stars competed with other senior Wii bowlers from centers all over the county. We quickly discovered that the other participants had much more experience than our seniors. It was obvious more practice was needed to be competitive with the other centers’ players.

Around the same time, members began to show an interest in putting together a Wii bowling league similar to their coin-operated, arcade bowling-machine league. The league replaced the smaller tournaments, and attracted more than 30 participants. Statistics were kept and posters were placed on the wall with the names of people who bowled three strikes in a row (a “turkey”), those who scored “300” games, and those who had other statistical achievements.

Seniors started bringing in their old bowling trophies to decorate the media center where the games were played. At the conclusion of the season, a banquet was held to praise the bowlers for their achievements.

The bowling league is now very popular and brings a lot of fun and excitement to the center. It’s become so popular that some seniors bought a Wii system, or received one as a gift, so they could practice at home.

So remember that -- before canceling a program --s how people how to use the equipment properly, and offer fun opportunities to demonstrate newly acquired skills. It might make all the difference.

Chris Mackar has worked in day care, summer camps, sports camps and after-school programs. He is currently a Recreation Coordinator for the city of Painesville in Ohio. He can be reached via e-mail at