Audrey Buchanan, 88, has put more than 3,500 hours into "Animal Crossing" — and been able to connect with her grandson across the country.
At the start of her day, Audrey Buchanan puts on her large, round-framed glasses and walks into her kitchen, where she makes herself a bowl of cereal and opens her Nintendo 3DS XL, a handheld gaming system.
While she eats breakfast at her marbled kitchen countertop, Buchanan, 88, is wandering through the world of "Animal Crossing: New Leaf," a video game where the player interacts with a colorful neighborhood of anthropomorphized animals. From time-to-time, she will link her handheld gaming system with her grandson's so the two can play together from across the country.
"I don't have too much of a social life. I'm mostly stuck at home, and I don't know," Buchanan told NBC News. "It feels like company."
As a senior gamer, Buchanan has plenty of company. She is one of a growing number of Americans over 50 who are playing video games as a way to remain socially connected and cognitively sharp in a world that continues to expand into the digital realm.
The growth comes amid a larger boom not just in video games but also in the expansion of competition and culture around gaming — as well as a better understanding of the impact video games can have on their players.
Buchanan has put more than 3,500 hours into "Animal Crossing," according to her grandson Paul Hubans, 38. Carpal tunnel in one hand has made it hard for her to hold the Nintendo 3DS XL, so she tries to keep it on the counter. But she said her injury hasn't cut down her playing time.
"I try to play every day because I don't want to disappoint my animals," Buchanan said with a laugh, referring to her digital in-game friends.
While video games are generally associated with younger people, older gamers make up a significant portion of the industry's consumers. In a 2016 study by the American Association of Retired Persons and the Entertainment Software Association, 38 percent of Americans age 50 and older said they play video games. Half of the respondents in the 2016 study who said they play online games said they play more online games now — on a range of platforms, including mobile, console and computer — than they did five years ago.
"We're seeing an increase overall," Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research for AARP, said of Americans 50 and older who play video games. Bryant declined to give updated numbers, citing a study AARP will release on the topic this year.
Research has shown that some forms of cognitive stimulation may delay or slow the onset of degenerative neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
With their complex controls and fast pace, video games can provide a mental workout for seniors, experts say.
But cognitive stimulation is far from the only benefit seniors can reap from video games. Several gamers over 50 told NBC News that video games offered the social benefit of interacting with other players and even the chance to build followings on platforms like YouTube and Twitch.
"There are a range of ways video games can positively impact older adults," Bryant said. "One is staying socially connected and active, and that's something we've seen continue to grow over time."
However, as grandparents jump into the world of gaming and develop followings of teens and young adults, they still have to play by the rules of the internet as they navigate bad actors online and take care not to share too much personal information or revealing details, which could lead to real-world harassment.
Hubans said occasionally he'll have to delete nasty comments on a now-viral video he uploaded to YouTube of Buchanan playing the game. But, for the most part, Hubans, who is an independent game developer, said his grandmother's gaming habit has been almost exclusively a positive experience.
And Buchanan has no plans to stop visiting her friends in "Animal Crossing."
"As long as I can do it, I'm going to do it," she said.
'I fought to get back'
On a Wednesday in May 2018, Will R. was lying in a bed at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital in St. Peters, Missouri, when he posted a YouTube video and tweetthat he had suffered a heart attack.
That's when the notifications started. One message wished Will a speedy recovery. Then another. Then came the flowers from the moderators of his Twitch channel, where almost 200,000 subscribers regularly watch him play video games.
"What people don't realize, when there's a life-threatening situation and you have people that support you, that is uplifting in itself and it makes you fight," Will, who asked that his last name not be published to avoid harassment, told NBC News. "That's what I did. I fought to get back and get back to my viewers and show I'm not giving up."
Will, 66, goes by "GrndPaGaming" on the streaming platform Twitch rather than his real name, where he plays a variety of video games, including "PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds," a popular online multiplayer shooting game. Wearing black headphones and Aviator reading glasses, he commentates for viewers as he shoots up opposing teams.
Will said he has been playing video games since he had to sign out an Apple II computer on Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in the 1970s when he was a Navy diver.
Gaming into old age is consistent among Baby Boomers who played in their younger years. In a studyby the Entertainment Software Association, 25 percent of male Boomers and 22 percent of female Boomers said that they've been playing video games for more than 25 years.
Although Will has been a gamer for decades, it was only about five years ago that another player suggested to him that he stream his gameplays on Twitch, a streaming platform now owned by Amazon.
Twitch has become a hub for gamers looking to share their gameplay with a live audience. However, Will is not the norm on Twitch, where the largest user segment is 18- to 34-years-old, according to Joel Johnson, the platform's director of consumer communications.
"It's literally opened up the world to me," Will said. "I mean, people who watch me in China say, 'You're a legend in China.' And in Brazil, they say, 'You're famous in Brazil,' or Japan."
Although Will has gained an adoring fan base, there are still real-life risks that come with becoming a star online. And despite their adoring followings, older gamers are not immune to the privacy concerns of the internet.
But the bad actors have been rare in Will's experience, and many of his fans aren't just tuning in to watch him explore the ocean in the game "Subnautica" or shoot up an opposing team in "Battlegrounds" — they're also helping him to take care of himself.
"My regular viewers, they'll say, 'Gramps, are you hydrating?'" Will said, adding that he'll show off his 32-ounce Igloo mug full of water when the question comes up.
In the same way Will's viewers think of him as their gaming "Gramps," Shirley Curry, 83, thinks of her followers as her grandkids.
Many of Curry's videos on YouTube start the same way. Her image appears in a tiny box in the corner of the screen, her oversized black headphones contrasting with the silver curls of her hair. Behind her, the image of a red flower is splashed across a pillow slumped on her couch.
"Good morning, grandkids," Curry says softly, before she begins playing "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim," a fantasy role-playing game, for which she has become an internet icon.
Curry, who lives in Virginia, is arguably the most famous senior gamer. Her serialized Skyrim videos and grandmotherly demeanor have helped her gain more than 700,000 subscribers on YouTube, many of whom are teens.
Bethesda Softworks, which publishes "The Elder Scrolls" series, even announced in March that Curry would be immortalized as a character in an upcoming game.
And while her followers have helped boost her to online fame, Curry credits her love of gaming with keeping her mind active.
"I know if I wasn't playing games, I would just be sitting here at home, quilting, reading," Curry said. "It would get boring, and I would get tired and it would probably lead to depression."
Curry has been playing "Skyrim" since 2014, but said her love of games goes back to the 1990s when her son showed her "Sid Meier's Civilization II." Curry began recording her gameplay in 2015, and although she doesn't stream (she says the chat logs are too overwhelming), she has encouraged other older gamers to join YouTube and make their habit public.
"I have encouraged them to be more outgoing with gaming, because they used to be secret gamers," Curry said of other elderly gamers. "Some say they felt too old to be gaming. I've encouraged them and they said, 'Thank you for helping me open up about my gaming.'"
Curry said that for grandparents like herself, learning how to play video games can take time, but added that, with patience, an older generation can glean real benefits from a controller in hand.
"I just did it for a lark," Curry said. "It was so overwhelming, the response I received, that I couldn't stop."