Old Man Yang can barely contain his excitement as he tries out the racing video game Gran Turismo Sport.
The 86-year-old has hooked up a steering wheel and set of pedals to his PlayStation 5, and is now fighting to keep a Volkswagen sedan from swerving off the track. As the car lurches toward the barriers, his entire body sways from side to side.
“This feels so real, look!” he shouts. “Take it easy, you almost hit the table,” his wife responds with a smile.
The former engineer, whose full name is Yang Binglin, spent his career working on hydrocarbon exploration for Chinese oil companies. But since retiring, he has found an unexpected second vocation as a gaming influencer.
Several times a month, Yang uploads videos and livestreams of himself playing his favorite games to the Chinese video platform Bilibili. His channel, which he has named “Hardcore Gamer_Old Man Yang,” has become a cult hit on the site and now has over 230,000 subscribers.
To his young fans, Old Man Yang is something of a novelty figure. They love the fact that the octogenarian shares their passion for shooter games like Sniper and Far Cry, and enjoy watching him exchange banter with his grandson as they play together.
“Grandpa, you are my idol,” one user commented under a recent video. “I hope I’m like you in 50 years’ time,” another wrote.
But in reality, the retiree is no longer such a rarity. The pandemic has triggered an explosion in the number of silver-haired gamers in China, and the country’s massive 278 billion yuan ($44 billion) video game industry is starting to take notice.
With China introducing strict new limits on minors’ access to video games in late August, the over-60s market has emerged as one of the industry’s biggest growth drivers.
There are now 45-57 million seniors who play video games in China, and this figure has roughly doubled since mid-2020, according to a July report by the Baidu Institute of Marketing (BIM). The country’s total number of gamers grew by only 10% during this period.
The dramatic jump in new users was likely triggered by the extended lockdowns that affected most of China in early 2020. Millions of elderly Chinese adopted a host of digital services during the early days of the pandemic, when ordering groceries and making payments via smartphone became all -but -essential.
Yang Binglin poses for a photo with his new PlayStation 5, which was gifted to him by Sony, 2021. Courtesy of Yang Binglin
Mobile entertainment options like video apps and games also saw big upticks in users, as seniors tried to cope with their enforced isolation. “They get social satisfaction from gaming that’s similar to real-life interactions,” says Song Delong, owner of a toy shop for seniors in Beijing. “It reduces their feelings of loneliness.”
Now, around 23% of senior citizens in China play mobile games, a report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in September found. Most prefer Candy Crush-like Match3 games such as Anipop, with 62% of senior gamers saying they regularly played them.
A 76-year-old from the northeastern Jilin province, surnamed Wang, tells Sixth Tone she plays Anipop on her phone for an hour every day. She downloaded the game after seeing her neighbors playing it, and found it was easier on her back than sitting around playing mahjong for hours.
“I get a sense of accomplishment when playing, and I can also communicate with my neighbors and grandchildren through the game,” says Wang. “But the more I play, the more difficult it gets and eventually it becomes a bit complicated for me.”
Titles like Anipop and farming simulator Happy Farm have become so popular among the elderly, Chinese gaming insiders have begun describing them as “passively aging games.” Though they’re not targeted at seniors, older users have become the main user base as younger players lose interest.
A growing number of companies, meanwhile, are starting to develop mobile games specifically for seniors. Duan Mingjie, founder of Beijing-based consultancy AgeClub, says he knows of several start-ups focusing on this niche.
“For the industry, we certainly think it’s a good channel to obtain customers,” says Duan. “The ideal mobile games not only teach them some health knowledge, but also give them a sense of pleasure, which can slow down mental decline.”
Li Hui, founder of a Shanghai-based gaming firm, says the industry now considers elderly players to be a major target market. “At present, most seniors play Match3 games,” he says. “It’s also a type of game that companies are more willing to invest research and development effort into, because it’s a mature genre.”
Though the changes in China have been particularly dramatic, elderly gaming has been on the rise globally in recent years. The number of gamers aged between 55 and 64 worldwide has grown 32% since 2018, according to a report published by market research firm Global Web Index in April.
In the United States, the trend was evident even before the pandemic. American seniors spent $3.5 billion on gaming hardware, content, and accessories in a six-month timeframe in 2019, a more than six-fold increase from 2016.
Elderly gamers are also playing an increasingly visible role in U.S. gaming culture, with figures like Shirley “the Gaming Grandma” Curry attracting nearly 1 million subscribers on YouTube. In 2020, the role-playing game The Elder Scrolls VI even added a new character in the 85-year-old’s honor.
Though it’s still early days, the same thing is now beginning to happen in China. A growing number of Chinese seniors are branching out from Match3 games and playing titles traditionally popular among young Chinese, such as Perfect World and Honor of Kings, according to BIM. And some — like Old Man Yang — are gaining big followings on social media.
China’s closest equivalent to the Gaming Grandma is a 60-year-old known as Uncle Jifeng. Famous mainly for playing the massively popular battle game League of Legends, Uncle Jifeng has amassed nearly 1.2 million followers on Chinese short video platform Douyin and has even made several TV appearances.
A screenshot shows Uncle Jifeng playing video games. From @疾风大爷与刘二弟 on Huya
He has also become an unofficial spokesperson for China’s elderly gaming community. After a recent update to League of Legends, Uncle Jifeng complained about the new version’s “too small fonts” and “complicated descriptions.” He admitted he now needed his grandson’s help to play the game.
In a recent interview with domestic media, Uncle Jifeng said it took him twice as long to adapt to a new video game as a young person. But he added that he refused to quit gaming, because he wanted to set an example to others.
Old Man Yang shares similar concerns. He has been gaming nearly every day for the past 20 years and is a skilled player, but says elderly people often find gaming more challenging than the younger generations. The gaming industry often doesn’t take older players into account when designing products.
“In addition to the highly technical content, there are also considerable requirements … for configuring the electronic devices that the elderly use,” he says. “Plus, there is a lot of English in games, so I need to know some English to play as well.”
A screenshot shows Yang Binglin playing the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. From Bilibili
But Yang also has no plans to quit. He loves the way that gaming keeps him mentally and physically active. And he enjoys sharing his passion with his fans on Bilibili, which he feels helps him keep “a young heart.”
In another recent clip, Yang leans back in his chair while playing Resident Evil 8. As he effortlessly slaughters zombie after zombie, he shares gaming hacks in his native Sichuan dialect. His fans respond with awe.
“My 20-something classmates don’t dare play this game,” one user comments. “Grandpa Yang is truly very powerful.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Yang Binglin plays a racing video game at home, 2021. Courtesy of Yang Binglin)