She curses at the TV when "Prince of Persia" gets tough. She's broken her video game controllers. And she's conquered "Resident Evil 4" enough times to earn a rocket launcher with unlimited ammo. Barbara St. Hilaire is a typical hardcore gamer, but with one key difference: she's a grandmother.
When people talk about the PlayStation generation, they're not referring to people who collect Social Security. But a couple of older gamers, Barbara St. Hilaire, 69, and Doris Self, 79, are making their mark in the gaming world and aren't letting old age stand in their way.
"I don't see what the big fuss is," St. Hilaire said from her home in Cleveland. "This is just me."
Check these gaming credentials: From the comfort of her recliner, St. Hilaire reads Game Informer and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Her Internet bookmarks — all two of them — include gamefaqs.com. She loves "Final Fantasy VII" and "VIII" and thought "Parasite Eve" was "fabulous" but felt "Silent Hill 4" was redundant ("I couldn't get into it"). She's owned a pile of systems, from Atari 2600 and Genesis to PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube.
She's even dabbled in "Grand Theft Auto." "I tried some and I find it's relaxing," she said. "I can take out my frustrations on the TV."
St. Hilaire may not think any of that is out of the ordinary, but her grandson Timothy, 22, does. He's grown up with a gaming grandma, playing Luigi to her Mario on the classic Nintendo console, and he's regularly seen the shock of friends who discover just who is the supreme gamer in his house. Last month, on the suggestion of his friends, he started to blog about it. Grandma's now a budding Internet celebrity.
"Old Grandma Hardcore" chronicles Barbara's profane exploits to conquer today's hottest games. Timothy said Barbara says "Aw, piss" a lot, and according to his blog, she gets a lot saltier. Like many serious gamers, she's known to give the character she's controlling a piece of her mind when the going gets tough — "Run up the wall! Run up the goddamned wall!" — offer her own commentary on the game's development — "This game needs a f---ing map" — and calmly assess the game's difficulty — "You've got to be sh---ing me." Could there be any doubt that Grandma is hardcore?
"People said I was faking it," Timothy said. "There is no way a 70-year-old woman says these things and plays these games." It's not just that. It's hard to reconcile the typical image of a little old lady who knits or watches soaps with one who, Tim said, "almost bought one of those chairs that had speakers built in and vibrated with the controller."
To prove Grandma was real to his Web readers, Timothy posted movies of her in action on his site. But even just a conversation with Barbara St. Hilaire proves her credentials pretty well. She speaks like a true gamer: "Basically if I can't sleep at night, I'll get up and play video games," she said. "If I'm interested in a game, I'll start playing after dinner and play until 5 or 6 in the morning."
Research cited by the Entertainment Software Association, the gaming industry's main trade organization, claims that 19 percent of computer and console gamers are over the age of 50, but a visit to your local gaming store or a flip through a gaming magazine doesn't suggest that a lot of senior citizens are lining up to play "Halo" or "World of Warcraft."
One senior citizen who isn't interested in today's video games is Doris Self, 79, of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "The games now where you're killing this one or killing that one, it's a turnoff to me," she said. That's why Doris sticks to the 1982 arcade game "Q*bert" and will be heading to London in August to challenge for the world record in that game. Doris Self is another senior gamer not to be trifled with.
In 1984 she set the world "Q*bert" record with a score of 1,112,300 points. In the process, she laid claim at the age of 58 as the world's oldest video game champion.
Back then it was unusual even for a woman in her 50s to be seen in the Florida arcades. "I didn't like going in the daytime because there were too many kids," she said. She'd hit the 24-hour arcade at midnight and wouldn't come home until dawn, about the time her daughter would be heading out to work. "She looked at me like 'You're crazy,' " Self said.
A year after setting her records, Self drifted away from video games. She had befriended at least one of her arcade's regulars — teenager Billy Mitchell, who was making headlines for his mastery of "Pac-Man" — but friends her own age were more interested in bridge.
By 1999 Self hadn't touched a "Q*bert" machine in five years. Her "Q*Bert" record had been topped, and a 72-year-old was now considered the oldest person to set a gaming record. That's when Mitchell called and convinced Self to let him deliver a stand-up "Q*bert" machine to her house on the condition that she would train to reclaim her records. Within a half-hour, she'd rediscovered her dormant skills.
Now she's playing two or three days a week, earning enough free lives to reach 3 million points with ease. "My bridge partners always thought I was nutty," she said. She hasn't convinced them to start playing video games.
In June she made a run at the world record, which requires breaking 1.8 million points on a five-lives limit. She fell short. London, where she'll be heading with Mitchell, will be the next attempt.
As the body ages, gaming isn't quite as easy as it used to be. Self used to play her "Q*Bert" games standing up. Now she keeps a bar stool handy, though she said her hands work well enough for her to use all her old techniques.
In Cleveland, St. Hilaire said she's developed carpal tunnel syndrome and doesn't feel that her reflexes are sharp enough to enjoy playing hair-trigger first-person shooters such as "Halo" and have kept her from pursuing online gaming. "Most of your readers are younger people," she said. "Tell them to enjoy it while you can, because as you get older your reflexes stink."
Both women said they don't know anyone else their age who avidly plays games, but they both recommend it. So will the world soon face a wave of senior citizens who can game with the best of them? Timothy St. Hilaire said his blog about Old Grandma Hardcore has garnered international response and some evidence that there may be other seniors out there who could benefit from the medium. "I get many e-mails from Japanese readers whose own grandparents are addicted to pachinko gambling," Timothy said. "Many write that they are going to try to get their grandparents console systems as a substitute, and they use Grandma as an example."
For her part, Old Grandma Hardcore doesn't want to be known as an exception. She just wants an Xbox 360, a PS3 and a trip to L.A. for the annual Electronics Entertainment Expo, the annual trade show that showcases the year's hottest games. "Grandma's dream, while it may not be a big deal to some, even in the gaming world, is to go to E3," her grandson said. "If the site can do that, rock on."