Breaking Barriers: Exergamers NYC project at Selfhelp in Queens

The bowling league at the Selfhelp Benjamin Rosenthal Prince Street Senior Center in Flushing, Queens, might be the most diverse sports team in NYC. Ranging in age from 60 to 92, the players represent many countries, and speak a variety of languages. As a team, they rely on hand gestures, facial expressions and laughter to communicate—and the universal language of competition. "Last week, we were beating the other team. And we were winning," says Elena, 65, "so I started dancing with her", as she gestures to a petite woman named Ms. Liu, 92. Elena, from Puerto Rico, and Ms. Liu, who emigrated from Taiwan, don’t speak a word of the same language. But thanks to a shared love of bowling and the help of Exergamers NYC, the two have become friends—and dancing partners.

Exergaming combines technology with exercise, allowing seniors to improve their physical, mental and social well-being by participating in friendly competition and interactive gaming using Microsoft Xbox. The project is made possible by a public-private partnership between Microsoft, NYC Department for the Aging (DFTA), and NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). Exergaming has taken root in many of DFTA’s Innovative Senior Center programs, which operate throughout all the boroughs of New York City. 

It has already become one of the center's most popular activities, lending itself to the promotion of both health and community among people from such diverse backgrounds. "This game can really bring people together," says program director Jane Qiu. "You cannot believe how strangers come together, despite the language differences. Everyone is so happy. Their emotions are lifted; you see it in the group."

Jane estimates that hundreds of visitors have participated in XBox bowling at the center. And a devoted team of about 15 players, including Elena and Ms. Liu, now show up each week for tournaments. At first, they mostly bowled against each other or against other "mystery teams." But since honing their teamwork and skills, they've started playing in live tournaments, via Xbox Live, against other senior centers involved in the Exergamers NYC project. Mr. Jong, who is from China and the star bowler in the group, has emerged as the team's captain. Years ago, he says he first taught himself to bowl by reading about the sport online. When he bowls he incorporates movements learned from Tai Chi, and he routinely bowls the highest possible score (300). Since Mr. Jong speaks little English, he relies on physical gestures to communicate with his team. Says Elena: "He communicates with us with smiles and giving us the thumbs up."

Elena, who is outgoing and vivacious, says bowling is her favorite activity at the center, because "it's exciting!" Her husband Harvey is also a regular player. "We have no children, so we are the children," she says. "So that's why we like bowling." She's proud of how quickly she's mastered the game: "my highest is 287!" But her favorite part of playing on the team has been connecting with other visitors who come from different backgrounds and speak different languages. "Most people here are Chinese, and they don't speak English," she says. "The bowling helps us communicate." She explains that Exergaming is a good way to bond because it's accessible and easy to learn. "It helps because while we're talking we learn things about their culture," she says. "And they learn about our culture. So it's very good that way."

One of the standout members of the team is Ms. Liu. She was frail and experiencing shoulder pain when she first came to the center, but Exergaming has helped her recover and regain her strength, at the tender age of 92. "I feel it's very good for my health," says Ms. Liu, with the aid of a translator, "I feel happy, too." Jane says Ms. Liu's transformation has been tremendous to watch. "She came here one year ago with home attendant, with cane, very frail…very unhappy, sad," she says. "But now you look at this lady, she's smiling. Broad smile. And she plays very well. Strike, strike, strike." Cynthia, another member of the bowling team, notes the emotional, as well as physical, transformation in Ms. Liu. "She's happy, she's healthy, if you are not so happy, not so healthy, you won't be so good. We want to make sure everybody knows how to do it."

This could well be possible. Exergaming has been so popular at Selfhelp that the center purchased a second XBox for the lobby, so visitors can play when they first walk in the door. Jane says this placement has encouraged many visitors to give it a try, and even piqued the interest of people just passing by. "It's eye-striking," she says, "People see others playing and they want to play, too." Selfhelp's numbers have risen dramatically in the last year, and Jane says Exergaming may play a role in drawing more visitors, "because it's something new, that other centers do not have."

Another crucial benefit is the low risk of injury. While other sports, even ping pong, carry some physical risks for older adults, the XBox is as safe as it gets. Jane says there have been no accidents, even minor ones, from bowling. Also, the gaming is widely accessible to visitors with a range of ages and physical abilities. "Everyone can play," says Jane, "It's not a privilege or a special program."

Siok, 82, from Singapore, has a bad knee and walks with a walker. Some days she can't even leave her house, but she says when her knee is good, she'll rarely miss an opportunity to bowl. "I can bowl even with my knee problem," she says. "The bowling helps me to move around. It keeps me from just sitting down all the time." She used to love bowling and played when she was a kid in Singapore, "60 years ago!" She tried to play a few years ago at a local bowling alley, but "the ball was too heavy," so she much prefers the virtual alternative. In addition to her bad knee, Siok is also hard of hearing; this makes Exergaming an ideal activity for her, since it's primarily a visual medium. And when she needs assistance, her teammates are always helpful and patient. Though they like to win, it's more important that everyone get a chance to play. "Everybody is so nice. They reach out and help," says Siok. "We've all become friends."

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