Helping his seven-year-old daughter Romy set up the Nintendo Switch she got for Christmas, Paul Cliff managed to get himself hooked on Animal Crossing. “I’ve somehow played over 600 hours on it since January,” says Paul, 56, of the life simulation game where villagers carry out daily activities such as gardening, furniture arrangement and gathering fruits.
“I love the collecting in it, it’s so gentle and oddly rewarding,” he says, recalling an afternoon spent fishing together when Romy finally caught the Stringfish she’d been trying to catch for ages. “She couldn’t wait to show me. We’ve been amazed at each other’s achievements and creativity. I’ve found it an immersive and relaxing experience. I love my wee island, it’s a wonderful escape from what’s going on outside our four walls.”
While gaming was already expanding well before Covid-19 upended normal life and confined many to their homes, its popularity soared this pandemic. Ofcom found 62% of UK adults played some form of video game in 2020, and research from GlobalWebIndexfound the 55-64 age group was the fastest-growing market, rising by almost a third (32%) since 2018. With gaming increasingly counted as “family time”, it also uncovered the rise of gaming parents and grandparents, affectionately coined OAGs.
“Video games have been an important source of help for many during these difficult periods of restricted movement,” says Prof James Newman, a video games and gaming culture academic. Part of the pleasure comes from being in the world of the game, whether that’s the reassuringly mundane daily routines in Animal Crossing providing continuity in such uncertain times, or being able to roam free in vast open worlds at a time of limited access to real-world spaces.
But as well as providing much-needed fun, stimulation and escape from the isolation and monotony of the past year, video games have helped connect friends, families and people of all ages across the world, Newman says.
“What we’re seeing a lot is parents and grandparents being taught by their children and grandchildren to keep in touch, and this gathering around a common interest creates quality inter-generational interactions and connections, even at a distance,” says Dr Lynn Love, a lecturer in computer arts at Abertay University.
Video games can have manifold benefits for older people, including boosting cognitive and problem-solving skills, she adds, and the pandemic has opened up new audiences to different kinds of games. “Many are finding video games aren’t what they thought they were, and are seeing that there are different types of games they can connect with. It also seems to be giving many a new lease of life.”
Jane Boon developed her new hobby after her son moved home from university last March and she asked him to teach her how to play. “I’d always thought it looked fun and it was something we could do together during lockdown,” says the 62-year-old. “I was useless but I persevered,” she says of her first try at action-adventure game Hollow Knight. Before long, she was playing through the game entirely by herself and kept playing on her son’s old Xbox when he went back to uni.
She loves the sense of achievement it gives her, from the sheer joy of single-handedly killing a major boss in Hollow Knight, to de-stressing with a long game of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. “It’s taught me that I can do new things and not give up,” she says. “It’s very easy when you’re older to start to assume you can’t learn new things and it’s not true.”
John Reed, 74, agrees, having found his skills as a chess player highly transferable to his new addiction, Call of Duty: Warzone solos. He’s so far gained five outright victories in the first-person shooter game. “It’s gained me enormous kudos with my grandsons,” Reed says. “And it’s nice to think that all these highly rated players are being taken out by a grandpa in his dressing gown.”
Playing games with her children and grandchildren made the third lockdown “far easier” for 66-year-old Julie Mason. Chatting on FaceTime while they played the cooking simulation game Overcooked and the strategic maze-based game Bomberman helped them enjoy much-needed family time when they couldn’t see each other. Now even her husband, always “a very reluctant gamer”, plays Dr. Mario with her every day. “It took him a while to be confident but he’s pretty competent on it now – not as good as me though haha!” Mason says.
Playing Minecraft with their grownup children also kept Angela and Bernhard Heidemann, 55 and 57, sane during lockdown. The sandbox construction game helped keep them connected as a family, giving them shared experiences, adventures, and even life events – they held a virtual graduation ceremony for their son last summer, building their own graduation hall, a virtual certificate, and a restaurant and nightclub for the afterparty. “We’re now thoroughly hooked,” says Angela.
The pandemic has shown a thirst for different types of experiences, particularly with the level of customisation in games such as Animal Crossing and Minecraft, says Love, who believes the upward trend is here to stay and that people will continue to fit video games into life beyond the pandemic.
Karen Davis*, 59, found the freedom of open-world games such as Skyrim, Fallout and Oblivion hugely comforting. From Pembrokeshire, Davis hasn’t seen a city since 2019, and the Dishonored series became her favourite because of its urban setting and appropriately dystopian storyline. Every day she’s spent hours immersed in difficulty settings, skill sets and character attributes, but with life moving closer to something like normal, will she have time for her lockdown hobby? “I’ve just bought The Witcher and Red Dead Redemption,” she says. “So this isn’t over.”
The 14th annual iPhone photography awards offer glimpses of beauty, hope and the endurance of the human spirit. Out of thousands of submissions, photojournalist Istvan Kerekes of Hungary was named the grand prize winner for his image Transylvanian Shepherds. In it, two rugged shepherds traverse an equally rugged industrial landscape, bearing a pair of lambs in their arms.
Alphabet today launched its latest tech startup, Intrinsic, which aims to build commercial software that will power industrial robots.
Intrinsic will focus on developing software control tools for industrial robots used in manufacturing, we’re told. Its pitch is that the days of humans having to manually program and adjust a robot’s every move are over, and that mechanical bots should be more autonomous and smart, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and leaps in training techniques.
This could make robots easier to direct – give them a task, and they’ll figure out the specifics – and more efficient – the AI can work out the best way to achieve its goal.
“Over the last few years, our team has been exploring how to give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications,” said CEO Wendy Tan White.
“Working in collaboration with teams across Alphabet, and with our partners in real-world manufacturing settings, we’ve been testing software that uses techniques like automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, simulation, and force control.”
Tan White – a British entrepreneur and investor who was made an MBE by the Queen in 2016 for her services to the tech industry – will leave her role as vice president of X, Alphabet’s moonshot R&D lab, to concentrate on Intrinsic.
She earlier co-founded and was CEO of website-building biz Moonfruit, and helped multiple early-stage companies get up and running as a general partner at Entrepreneur First, a tech accelerator. She is also a board trustee of the UK’s Alan Turing Institute, and member of Blighty’s Digital Economic Council.
“I loved the role I played in creating platforms that inspired the imagination and entrepreneurship of people all over the world, and I’ve recently stepped into a similar opportunity: I’m delighted to share that I’m now leading Intrinsic, a new Alphabet company,” she said.
The new outfit is another venture to emerge from Google-parent Alphabet’s X labs, along with Waymo, the self-driving car startup; and Verily, a biotech biz. ®
Charles River is expanding its testing capabilities in Ballina as part of its partnership with Covid-19 vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca.
Contract research organisation Charles River Laboratories is planning an €8m site expansion in Ballina to facilitate batch release testing for Covid-19 vaccines from AstraZeneca.
The expansion at the Mayo site will create an additional 1,500 sq m of lab space and 90 highly skilled jobs in the area over the next three years.
The company provides longstanding partners AstraZeneca with outsourced regulated safety and development support on a range of treatments and vaccines, including testing and facilitating the deployment of Vaxzevria for Covid-19 and Fluenz for seasonal infleunza.
The latest investment follows earlier expansions at the Ballina site and Charles River recently announced plans to establish a dedicated laboratory space to handle testing of SARS-CoV-2 and other similar pathogens that cause human disease.
“We are incredibly proud of the transformational changes we have implemented on site and the role that Charles River has played in supporting the safe and timely roll-out of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine,” said Liam McHale, site director for Charles River Ballina.
“Throughout the pandemic, our site remained fully operational while keeping our employees safe and having a positive impact on human health. Our expanded facility will provide us with the increased capacity needed to continue the essential services we provide to our clients.”
Charles River acquired the Ballina facility, which focuses on biologics testing, in 2002. The company employs 230 people at its two facilities in Ireland, including the Mayo site and a site in Dublin, established in 2017, which serves as the EMEA and APAC headquarters for the company’s microbial solutions division.
IDA Ireland is supporting the expansion. Mary Buckley, executive director of the agency, said Charles River is an “employer of long standing” in Co Mayo.
“The enhancement of its product lines and the development of additional capability at the Ballina facility is most welcome,” she added. “Today’s announcement is strongly aligned to IDA Ireland’s regional pillar and its continued commitment to winning jobs and investment in regional locations.”
Dan Wygal, country president for AstraZeneca Ireland, added: “Our Covid-19 vaccine, Vaxzevria, undergoes extremely robust safety and quality testing prior to becoming available for patients. We are committed to bringing safe, effective vaccines to Ireland and other markets as quickly as possible, and Charles River will continue to be an important partner in this regard.”