Game on: a new generation of gamers is rising
A young, red-haired woman wearing a baseball cap takes aim from close range with a shotgun and blasts a man wearing a banana suit. As he crumples, the word ‘Eliminated’ pops up on screen. The victim flashes blue and disappears, the killer racing off across a sunlit, cartoon-like landscape in search of fresh prey.
‘I like to use an assault rifle or an automatic shotgun,’ says Anne Fish, 60, also known as ‘mamabenjyfishy’. She plays the hugely popular ‘shoot ’em up’ video game Fortnite professionally.
Paid by the Dubai-based company Galaxy Racer, she streams her games live online to her 504,000 followers via the app Twitch. As she battles 100 online rivals to be the last survivor in the fast-moving elimination rounds, fans chat to her – ‘Hello Anne! You are really good for your age!’
From Sunbury-on-Thames, Anne is one of several ‘grandma’ and ‘grandpa’ gamers making waves on video streaming services such as Twitch. There are whole teams of older people (for example, the ‘Silver Snipers’ and the ‘Grey Gunners’) who battle young gamers online, and are paid for the privilege.
Anne became involved after her son Benjy, known as ‘benjyfishy’ – hence ‘mamabenjyfishy’ – became a professional gamer five years ago at 13, winning more than $550,000 in online Fortnite competitions. She then tried the game herself, winning fans among viewers on Twitch.
“I had never played games, really”
‘Oddly, I got involved because of chess,’ she says. Benjy had watched The Queen’s Gambit – the Netflix drama set in the world of chess – and become interested in the game, acquiring Jon Ludvig Nilssen Hammer, a Norwegian grandmaster, as his coach. ‘Hammer also plays Fortnite,’ says Anne. ‘Seeing him play that game inspired me to have a go myself.
I had never played games, really. I had a lot to learn.’ And learn she did. Anne has now written two books on esports, the term used to describe when solo gamers or teams battle it out in front of live audiences or have their performances streamed online. Esports first became popular in the Far East but have since spread worldwide.
‘Being at Benjy’s level as a professional esports player is the equivalent to being signed as a professional footballer for the Premier League,’ she says, adding that her son puts in ‘ten or 12’ hours a day. She says that in the coronavirus lockdowns, her gaming friends became like ‘an extended family’, and that she has online karaoke sessions and even plays Monopoly over video chat with them.
While she can’t match Benjy’s prowess, she can now beat younger players at Fortnite. ‘It’s about working to your strengths, being more strategic,’ she says. ‘Wisdom comes with age.’
‘Get Got by a Gran’
One of the most intense, hardcore games is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), for which teams of gamers use voice chat to co-ordinate counter-terrorist missions with smoke grenades, tasers and AK-47 assault rifles.
The Silver Snipers is a team of older gamers who play CS:GO online, and challenge younger players, with the slogan ‘Get Got by a Gran’.
The AK-47-toting gran in question is Inger ‘Trigger Finger’ Grotteblad, 69. ‘When we became world champions [in CS:GO], it was one of the greatest moments of my life,’ says Inger, from Uppsala, Sweden. ‘The best thing, of course, is when you have your kids, but this was almost as good.’
For the championship, the Silver Snipers faced off against another team of older gamers, the Grey Gunners, from Finland. In videos of the match, Inger shoots Grey Gunners down with pinpoint precision, blasting rivals in the head with her trusty assault rifle.
She says she trains every day, for ‘two, three, four or five hours’. She was not a hardcore gamer before, but joined the Snipers after she answered an ad posted by the computer company Lenovo, looking for older people who knew English and were good with tech.
‘I asked my grandchildren, who were playing Counter-Strike. I said to them, “What do you think? Apply to this and be the greatest grandma in the world?” They said yes. It has now been four years, and it’s been a great, great journey.
Mental and physical benefits
‘You’re playing as a team. It’s strategy, and you communicate with each other. You don’t have to run around and just shoot. We say, “You go there, I’ll stay here. I’ll use this weapon, you use bombs.”’
She believes the game has benefits for her as an older person, both mentally and physically. ‘Counter-Strike is a fast game. It makes my brain work really hard, and it’s good training for my mind. It connects my brain with my hands and makes me feel younger.’
Inger says she is ‘good friends’ with her fellow Silver Snipers, and that they meet ‘outside the computer world’.
‘When the pandemic came, we were sitting at home alone,’ says Inger. ‘We were playing CS:GO online, and I thought, “Is this something I can do for others?” So I started a Facebook group, Gaming Senior. It became popular and now the group has hundreds of people playing with each other.’
While older people becoming esports professionals is a new phenomenon, the fact they are playing games is not. Market research consultancy Savanta has found that in the UK, 46% of gamers are 40-plus, and figures published by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe show that 23% of the overall games market across the continent consists of people aged 45-64.
A US study by the American Association of Retired Persons found that adults over 50 spent $3.5 billion on games in the first six months of 2019. Savanta also found that, in 2020, 50% of gamers of all ages are female.
Puzzle games such as Candy Crush are already popular with older gamers, but ‘shoot ’em ups’, such as the war-themed Call of Duty, are also big draws.
Games and esports offer real benefits to older people, says Dr Jo Twist, CEO of UK Interactive Entertainment, the trade body for Britain’s gaming industry.
‘Players of all ages enjoy games because they’re fun, they’re a great way to keep your brain busy and they help bring people together,’ she says. ‘We know that esports, like other team sports, help to foster a sense of community and get conversation flowing. This makes them a fantastic way to make and maintain friendships, overcome loneliness, and offer everyone a source of long-term entertainment.’
Rik Henderson, host and producer of the GamesLifer podcast, which interviews older people who work in the games industry, says, ‘Many people in their fifties have grown up with video games from birth, so it’s not a surprise that older people play. My dad’s in his mid-seventies and he has never stopped gaming. He’s finished every Assassin’s Creed game, every Tomb Raider. He is currently obsessed with online fantasy game Neverwinter, which he plays daily in retirement.
‘I would say he is one of the top players in the world. It’s the bane of my mum’s life: he’s bought a second monitor for the living room, and he puts on a gaming headset and plays on the monitor while Mum watches TV.’
Rik says that he himself still plays games regularly in his early fifties – although his choice has slowly moved on from fast-paced ‘shoot ’em ups’ to more sedate offerings.
‘When I was young, games were still vilified and frowned on as a pastime,’ he says. ‘But gaming is a massive industry with many facets such as esports and influencers.’
Indeed, Anne believes that people don’t understand that gaming can offer serious career opportunities.
‘Gaming is very much misunderstood – players are learning a lot of skills that can be used in other careers,’ she adds, citing leadership, communication and multitasking.
‘I want to try to promote esports. But I also want to get good enough to qualify for a Fortnite tournament in the open rounds!’
Written by Rob Waugh