LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Until two weeks ago, Ruth Ebert never had the slightest interest in the video games favored by her one and only granddaughter.
“I‘m 82 years old, so I missed that part of our culture. Soap operas, yes. Video games, no,” chirped Ebert, who recently started playing a tennis game on Nintendo Co. Ltd.’s new Wii video game console at the Virginia retirement community she calls home.
“It was funny, because normally I would not be someone who would do that,” said Ebert, who picked up the console’s motion-sensing Wiimote and challenged the machine to a match.
“I played tennis, if you can call it that, as a high school student. I had such fun doing it,” she said.
Ebert swung the Wiimote just like a tennis racquet and said playing the game reminded her of the feeling she had all those years ago.
While she took the early on-court lead, the Wii beat her in the end. Still, it hurt less than her real-world losses: “I didn’t mind losing to a video game. It couldn’t rub it in.”
Japan’s Nintendo has been on a mission to expand the $30 billion global video game market far beyond the children and young males who make up its core consumers.
And the company, a former underdog best known for fun, high-quality games based on off-beat characters like plumbers -- think Mario Bros. -- has sent shock waves through game industry with the unexpected and runaway success of the Wii.
That $250 console has been stealing the show from Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox 360 and Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 3, higher-powered consoles that are much more expensive than the Wii.
While those rivals focused on cutting-edge graphics and high-tech bells and whistles, Nintendo focused on making game play easier, more intuitive and more appealing to a mass market.
That bet paid off.
The Wii outsold the new Microsoft and Sony consoles in January and February and is generating its own buzz with everyone from nuns to cancer patients to toddlers.
There are Wii parties and Wii bowling contests. Players, who often look quite silly and occasionally injure themselves in fits of overzealous play, upload video of their Wii antics to a variety of technology Web sites like GameTrailers.com and Google’s YouTube.
“I thought it was tremendous,” said Ted Campbell, 77.
Last week he played the Wii for the first time at Springfield, Virginia’s Greenspring Retirement Community, where Ebert is also a resident.
The community hasn’t yet decided where to keep the Wii, although Ebert has volunteered her one-bedroom apartment, with its big-screen TV.
Flora Dierbach, 72, chairs the entertainment committee at a sister facility owned by Erickson Retirement Communities in Chicago and helped arrange a Wii bowling tournament -- the latest Wii craze.
“It’s a very social thing and it’s good exercise ... and you don’t have to throw a 16-pound (7.25-kg) bowling ball to get results,” said Dierbach, who added the competition had people who hardly knew each other cheering and hugging in the span of a few hours.
“We just had a ball with it. You think it’s your grandkids’ game and it’s not,” she said, noting that Erickson paid for the Wiis in its facilities.
Greenspring resident and long-time bowler Sim Taylor said his grandchildren are also great fans of video games.
“I never could understand it,” said Taylor, who at 81 has surprised himself by adding video games to his list of hobbies.
That isn’t the case with Millicent, his wife of 55 years.
“She sticks with bridge,” Taylor said.