With the input and response speeds demanded by fighting games, that tracks with the available data. “I do notice that my reaction time might be slightly slower,” says Wong. Although he’s swift to add that he remains above the level of the majority of younger players. “I can still react to most things pretty well even at the age of 35,” he adds. “People normally do not want to test my reactions even now.”
Of course, modern gaming challenges aren’t only about reactions. They also involve more complex systems, as Westerholm has realized, and this can be an even bigger obstacle for older players. Reimers explains that some elements of cognition decline even more rapidly than reactions—in particular, “switch costs,” the time added to our responses when multitasking. In experiments where subjects have to keep two ideas in mind at once, such as simultaneously saying whether faces appearing on a screen are male or female and whether they’re happy or sad, older people respond disproportionately slower than younger people, compared to when they only have to identify a single trait.
These results suggest that something like the split-second timing of a competitive fighting game would become doubly harder with age. “When you’re having to make decisions and you’ve got a number of things that you could press, and you’ve got to decide which way to respond, your speed takes an extra hit,” says Reimers. “It’s the same with things like divided attention where you’re having to monitor two streams,” he adds, which is another thing games often expect us to do–moving and acting while monitoring gauges or coordinating with other players.
If it’s starting to sound like you may have to hang up your controller by the time you’re 30, much less by the time you retire, it’s not all bad news. For one thing, Reimers says, while some aspects of cognition slow gradually with age or drop off more sharply, there’s a third type that stays flat or even improves: the “crystallized intelligence” of general knowledge. After all, 40-plus years of experience has to count for something.
Mackey certainly believes so. “Raw mechanical skill or reaction time is only a small component of what makes someone perform at a high level,” he says. Similar to some sports, he feels age can compensate for youthful speed and skill. “Look at world champions like Randy Couture or George Foreman. They competed against much younger, more explosive athletes but still won. Experience is a tremendous attribute and advantage.”
And if it works for fighting sports, why not fighting games? “Veteran players have a lot of tricks from older games which could carry over to help in a tournament setting,” says Wong. “Think of it as a once-per-use hat trick where you can use a specific strategy to gain momentum against another player who might not have as much information.”
And there’s always still scope for improvement, as Aim Lab’s data shows. While practice doesn’t make perfect, it helps. “Improvement happens quicker for 18- to 20-year-olds,” says Mackey. “However, even in the 41 to 50 age group, we still see an 18 percent improvement after one week.” Reimers has had similar findings. While he questions whether “brain training” exercises have an impact on improving skills in general, he notes that if someone repeats a task over and over, they certainly get better at that particular task. And that seems particularly pertinent to games, where we often have to execute the same actions time and again.
One problem, then, is that older players generally have less time to practice, but there are ways of adapting to that. David Kelly, 55, started gaming with the likes of Pong, Space Invaders, and Asteroids in the late 1970s. His tastes remain old-school–he prefers shoot-em-ups (shmups), arcade racers, and high-score-chasing multiplayer games. He even owns an Asteroids DX arcade cabinet. “My concentration was better when I was younger,” he says. “As I’ve aged and responsibilities have come along, I tend not to get as absorbed into games.” But that hasn’t stopped him from achieving “one credit completions” (1CCs) on notorious bullet-hell shmups, with a slow and steady approach. “Whilst I’m not as fast as I was, I play more intelligently and stick to one or two games at a time,” he says. “I’ve completed games such as Giga Wing in the last 12 months that I could never have contemplated doing when I was younger.”