Wii are the Champions

Games Features Wii
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Willa Mae Graham grips the Wii controller at her side, coolly eyeing the bowling lane on the LCD screen in front of her.

“Come on, now,” she says as she waves the remote in a forward arc. Her virtual avatar swings and releases its ball in tandem, and a camera follows it to the end of the lane where it demolishes all 10 pins. “Nice strike!” the game’s robotic announcer chirps. Graham turns around, cracks a smile and walks back to her team to hand the controller to the next bowler.

At 81 years old, Graham—a former church-league bowling champ—has, in her own way, stepped out of retirement. Her Wii bowling chops have earned her the captainship of the Langston-Brown Senior Center’s LB-1 team in Arlington, Va. Today, her team is competing in the National Senior League’s inaugural Wii bowling tournament, a nationwide contest between senior-center squads for the “National Wii Bowl” championship. This first season is a test-run; organizers hope the tournament will eventually involve whole communities, akin to other intramural sports.

High expectations, but not unrealistic. The NSL’s tournament has quite literally changed some players’ lives, offering them a new way to enjoy the dizzying highs and lows of competition, forge friendships and discover unexpected reserves of spirit.

It’s a sunny, bracingly cold day in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. In the Langston-Brown multipurpose room, seniors gather under fluorescent lights to play dominos and assemble puzzles while “The Cha Cha Slide” pulses on a boombox. The center’s two Wii bowling teams are assembled in one corner of the room, donning tie-dyed team shirts before they play. “For luck,” explains Margaret Richardson, captain of Langston-Brown’s LB-2 team.

They can’t see their opponents, the Clark-Lindsey Village Guttergals from Urbana, Ill. (the scores are posted online after each game to determine who wins), but the competitive tension is still palpable. And yet Willa Graham’s serene demeanor never changes; in her church-league days, back in high school, she took home trophies, scoring as high as 290 one game. Her best Wii score is only slightly less impressive: 246.

The bowlers’ pre-game confab carries an air of warmth and mutual respect. Center director Eva Cano-Mayor thrills at how the game has inspired such camaraderie: “Wii bowling is definitely the most popular here, and I believe it’s because everyone is moving around a lot more and, most importantly, having more fun.” Cano-Mayor was born in Peru and speaks with a thick accent, but her voice has a forceful clarity and conviction when discussing the benefits of Wii bowling. “The spirit of friendly competition—it’s great,” she says. “Even the seniors who never play watch and cheer along. I would definitely say that everyone here has become a lot closer since they started.”

Richardson shares that sentiment. “Young people do things. It’s the seniors who sit around and do nothing. If we’ve got something that can get us up and moving around, and get us together, well, let’s do it,” she says with a laugh. “My grandkids still won’t play me though, I think they’re a little scared that their grandma would win.”

The National Senior League’s very existence is testament to the Wii’s incredible success.

Since the console’s release in September 2007, Nintendo has sold more than 20 million Wiis in the U.S. and 50 million worldwide, far surpassing sales of Sony and Microsoft’s competing video-game systems. The Wii’s budget-friendly price and motion-sensitive control scheme have made Nintendo’s brand synonymous with a new generation of casual gamers, erasing the decades-long borderlines of age and gender that made gaming the stigmatized hobby of teenaged basement-dwellers and twentysomething men with too much free time. Gaming may be a wildly lucrative industry, but only very recently has the video-games-as-art argument been taken seriously.

The paradigm shift was long overdue. Steven Johnson’s 2005 book of low-culture apologetics, Everything Bad is Good or You, makes a neuroscientific argument that the strawman of gaming as a mind-numbing waste of time is undeserved; video games actually enhance the brain’s cognitive functions. Dennis Berkholtz, the founder of the NSL, champions Wii bowling for the very same reasons.

The inspiration for a nationwide video-game tournament for seniors came to Berkholtz after a visit to his parents’ retirement community in Cape Coral, Fla. “It bothered me that there weren’t any programs to engage the senior residents, programs that encouraged what I’d call a good community or active minds,” he says. “A year later, I played Wii bowling for the first time. A light immediately went on in my head: This is the perfect game to keep them sharp! So I worked out a business plan, and I discovered that many senior communities were already playing Wii sports. All I had to do was bring them together with a national championship.”

Berkholtz, 64, played handball for the U.S. team in the 1972 Summer Olympics, and he swears by the merits of organized competition as a panacea for the many ailments and illnesses that accompany aging. “It’s a fun way to keep them physically and mentally engaged, which is so important when you get older.” His steely voice trips for a split-second: “That’s why I started this, to help raise money for Alzheimer’s, as a way of honoring my father who died with dementia.”

Berkholtz quit his job last June to manage the NSL full time. Encouraged by the positive response to last fall’s trial season (which boasted more than 186 teams from 24 states), he’s already planning to expand the program to include a webcam league, and possibly a multi-sport Wii Olympics to coincide with September’s international Active Aging Week. “Right now, we’re also looking at expanding into public housing, which traditionally has big senior communities, and also into the Veteran’s hospital system,” he says. “After that? International!”

Rusted-over bridges and abandoned factories line the approach to Charleroi, a sleepy exurb on the banks of the Monongahela River in the hills south of Pittsburgh.

A sign on the outskirts of town featuring hollow-eyed businessmen informs you that you’re entering “The Magic City.” There’s a peculiar homogeneity to the vast stretches of farmland and post-industrial towns in Pennsylvania that makes Bruce Springsteen seem like America’s most accurate regional historian.

The NSL’s championship game is going down at the Riverside Place senior center across the railroad tracks from the town’s main drag. Riverside Silver will play two games against the SAS Strikers of Boca Raton, with victory going to the team with the highest point aggregate. The players can watch their rivals on a TV hooked up to Skype, giving the competition all the drama and immediacy of live sports.

Bedecked in black-and-white bowling shirts emblazoned with “Wii are Riverside Silver,” the competitors are stationed in front of two TVs, right next to a pair of unplugged Dance Dance Revolution pads that are used in the center’s “DanceTown” program. Kathy Cochran, a wheelchair-bound bowler, maneuvers over to the playing area and grins.

Her teammate Larry Maraldo, a former Pittsburgh police officer and weightlifter, crosses his arms over his barrel chest and peers at the screens from underneath bushy eyebrows: “We were seeded 16th and came up from the very bottom. Talk about your dark horses.”

They edge out the SAS Strikers by 26 pins in the first round, thanks largely to a perfect 300 from Maraldo, each strike bringing thunderous cheers from the dozens of onlookers. “I’m still alright,” he deadpans after his final throw. “I bowl perfect games in Wii all the time,” he explains as they ready for the second of two games. “When I bowled in a league I averaged about 260. But I had two open-heart surgeries, carotid surgeries, back problems and marital problems. I can’t do real bowling any more, but with this I still feel like a champion.”

Despite another perfect game from Maraldo, Riverside falls 46 pins short in the second match, losing the championship to Boca Raton by just 20 pins. And though the bowlers are in mild disbelief about the loss at first, a sense of pride quickly replaces their disappointment. “This is a wonderful thing,” Maraldo says. “It brings us together, and it brings good friendships. This isn’t just a video game, it’s something better.” Cochran, silent for most of the postgame, suddenly speaks up: “I like to think I’m not afraid of anything, but I’d probably be scared if I tried to bowl in real life. I’m legally blind and in a wheelchair. This lets me do something I’ve never been able to do.”

Though they’re hundreds of miles away in Arlington, the Langston-Brown bowlers are treading the same emotional ground as Riverside Silver.

Both Langston-Brown teams made it to the playoffs and were defeated in close games. And maybe it’s a certain perspective that only comes with age and experience, but they don’t really care about victories and losses, point and rankings.

“It was never about winning,” Graham says as she prepares for a postseason exhibition match between LB-1 and LB-2. “It was about us. We wanted to do better, so we came together as a team. And by doing that, we were better, whether or not we won. That’s something special. There’s a real value and dignity to that.”