Learning to play Nintendo at the Champlain Senior Center
Bob Fountain is teaching me to walk the line. It doesn’t involve any actual ambulation. I can walk the line from a sitting position if I choose. What it does involve is clicking this confounding white controller that is leashed to my wrist until my bobble-headed video game avatar moves to the extreme right-hand gutter.
See, Fountain is teaching me how to play Wii Bowling. As I am learning, “walking the line” is bowling speak for tossing the ball down the lane so it flirts with the gutter but doesn’t actually fall in.
Fountain is a good sport about his task. At 71 years old, he probably doesn’t want to spend his twilight years teaching me, an avowed video-game negativist, to play Nintendo. But I asked him to tutor me on the finer aspects of the Wii and he kindly obliged.
Fountain is one of a handful of older folks at Burlington’s Champlain Senior Center  who plays Wii Sports. About a year ago, the center bought a Wii gaming console. Executive Director Holly Sullivan says the management thought it might be a way for seniors to learn some new skills and get exercise, albeit minimal, at the same time.
Understandably, Sullivan adds, it’s been slow to catch on. Most of the elders who use the center seem content to follow “Sit and Be Fit” tapes for their exercise. Plus, video games can be intimidating, even for those of us who came of age with Atari, Nintendo and Sega.
But for seniors with mobility issues, or who might be too advanced in years to sprint around a tennis court, Wii Sports is the perfect way to stay moving, says Sullivan. She’s a proponent of offering seniors a variety of activities, from computer classes to mosaic making, that help keep them spry. Not only is Wii good for them physically, she says, it’s good for their brains as well. “Learning new skills is really important as you get older,” Sullivan says. “Wii keeps your cognitive level functioning, and it’s a lot of fun.”
For the uninitiated: Wii is a wireless video-game console made by Nintendo. It stands out for its use of a remote control that has built-in accelerometers and infrared detection to allow users to control the movement of their virtual stand-ins by swinging, batting or chopping rather than just pressing keys or using a joystick. The folks at the senior center use Wii primarily for its sports games. Golf, tennis and, of course, bowling are popular applications.
Every skeptic about Wii Sports asks the same smug question: Why don’t you just go to a bowling alley or a golf course and do these sports for real? I was one of those naysayers, until I got the remote in my hand. And until I met Fountain, who recently had his knee replaced and isn’t really in a position to hit the links or the lanes.
I decided to ask Fountain to teach me to play Wii because I thought learning from a senior might be less embarrassing and intimidating than being taught by a peer. I was right on the intimidation front, but my first experience with “the Wii” was every bit as embarrassing as I’d anticipated.
Fountain is a great-grandfather and a no-nonsense kind of fellow. He loves jigsaw puzzles and always wears a baseball cap atop his balding head. He sports a turquoise and silver ring the size of a walnut where a wedding band would be if he weren’t divorced. Fountain grew up in the Old North End and drove big rigs for 43 years before retiring. He knows every major thruway and thoroughfare in the country and refers to places by their closest highway routes.
In preparation for the Wii lesson, Fountain pulls up two chairs. He prefers to sit while playing because his knee isn’t very stable. But standing, he tells me, works just as well. He starts me off with Wii Bowling, which he says is the easiest of the sports to master. Still, it makes me somewhat nervous when Fountain discloses that he used to play in a bowling league. This means that not only will I lose, but I will lose badly.
It takes me a few frames to figure out how fast to move the remote and when to press which buttons. But soon it seems I’m getting the hang of it. Fountain keep throwing encouragement my way, especially when my ego gets the best of me. “With time, the faster you’ll get,” he says after I manage to throw the virtual ball 5 feet in the air before it drops on the alley and limps toward the pins. “It’s just like walking or riding a bike.”
While Fountain is racking up strike after strike, using a series of sneaky hook shots, I am struggling to get a spare. Finally, in the sixth frame of nine, I get a strike. “You’re doing pretty good for an amateur,” Fountain coos.
After my first strike, I get a little cocky. I’m trying shots with spin and walking the line with aplomb. I swing my arm out, press the button and preen a bit about my good form.
“This is going to be a good shot,” I say.
“No, it ain’t,” Fountain counters.
My first foray into Wii Bowling comes to a demoralizing conclusion — 167 to 148 in favor of Fountain. I can feel my bowling-champion grandmother in heaven smarting at my defeat.
After our game, the Wii console advises us to take a break. “They don’t want you to throw your arm out,” Fountain jokes.
Next up is Wii Golf. For this I have to stand, even though Bob is perfectly capable of taking a full swing sitting in his chair, barely moving his arms. Requiring somewhat more thought and movement than bowling, this Wii sport turns out to be a little more my speed.
We start on the beginner three-hole course, where I promptly find myself five over par. I somehow hook the ball directly into a water hazard, which earns me a one-stroke penalty. When I get to six over par, the Wii encourages me to give up.
“You’ll learn how to finesse it,” Fountain says encouragingly. In our first game, I end up 14 over par, a score that would make a respectable golfer commit hara-kiri on the green. Fountain makes par. “People think it’s really easy, but it’s not,” he says in consolation.
I agree. If you have ever played these sports in real life, which I have, it’s hard to disabuse your body of the muscle memory you’ve stored for each sport. Every golf stroke of mine is more like a real swing than the subtle motion the game requires. But slowly I’m getting it.
We play a few more rounds of golf, and at the end of our session, I’m a regular virtual Annika Sorenstam, minus the millions in sponsorship dollars. On the last hole, I chip the ball straight into the cup and jump up and down with excitement. The man running the senior computer class in the room next door pulls the door shut because of my noise. I’m sorry, but I just went from 14 over par to three over, and I lost to Fountain by just one stroke. I have a right to get rowdy.
Our Wii sesh is interrupted by the aforementioned exercise video. Fountain and five older women sit in chairs, flexing their fingers and twisting their torsos to the beat of the vintage tape. Fountain and I make a date for Wii tennis, which he tells me is the hardest of all of the sports.
When I return, I have to pry Fountain away from the Thomas Kinkade jigsaw puzzle he’s working on. When he turns Wii Tennis on, I realize I’m out of my depth. Now I have to hit a ball that’s coming at me. This is not easy. Fountain has a mean topspin.
Soon the virtual me is falling over and hitting spectators with the ball. A few curious seniors pop into the rec room to see what all the commotion is. Don’t worry. It’s just the sound of me getting annihilated. No cause for alarm, I want to tell them.
Fountain keeps encouraging me to hit the ball with more finesse and less power, but somehow I can’t find the middle ground. Tennis was never my game in real life, and it’s definitely not my jam in the electronic realm.
We end our video-game play date with a little Wii Bowling. It’s a psychic salve for my wounded ego. After nine frames of walking the line and winding them in, I prevail, 139 to 138. I pump my fist in the air and shout a few obnoxious yeses. Fountain is unimpressed. “You may think you’ve got it,” he says, “but you haven’t yet.”