Connie Felzer lined up her shot along the wooden floorboards, careful to aim the ball just right. She brought her arm back, then swung it forward, releasing the bowling ball … strike!
But wait, where's the noise and the smoke and the beer and the shoe rentals? This isn't real, physical bowling — it's Wii bowling, and it happens every Monday at the JCC Stiffel Center in South Philadelphia.
A dedicated group of regulars has formed since the center began offering Wii — pronounced "wee" — bowling about two months ago, though on this day the crowd was a bit scant, thanks to the bracingly cold weather.
"I love it," said Felzer, age 71. "I almost come here just for this. It makes you feel like you're 30 years old again, and you do better with it than you do with a big, heavy bowling ball."
Wii is the latest video gaming system from Nintendo, and it comes standard with Wii Sports, a package that includes versions of bowling, golf, tennis and others. One of the ways that the Wii has been revolutionary is its use of a wireless controller (a wand or "Wii-mote," if you will), and the sports games are designed to showcase that wireless functionality. Bowlers hold down a button while using arrows on the controller to line up a shot, then bring their arm back and swing underhand, releasing the button to let go of the ball.
On screen, the bowling ball responds in kind — a weak throw means a weak shot, a heartier throw a stronger shot. And a flick of the wrist one way or the other can determine the trajectory of the ball.
Felzer used to be in a bowling league at work, and she touted the communal aspect of the game, whether a group meets at an alley or in a community center.
"There's a bond when you're in a group of people who bowl," she said, adding that she's "absolutely" better at Wii bowling than the old-fashioned version.
There's no official coach, although Stiffel Center staffer Desiree Cheatham is in charge of the program, assisting the seniors with the technology and playing techniques.
"I barely get a chance to play, but when I do, they still beat me," said Cheatham.
There was a broad spectrum of bowlers participating recently, including 91-year-old Catherine Dispensa — who said she hadn't bowled since she was a kid — and 60-year-old Ken Levine.
"It's been a long time since I actually bowled, and I know that I do very well here. Eventually, someone's going to challenge me to a real game at real lanes," said Levine with a laugh.
Getting 'Wii Fit'
The center bought the Wii toward the end of the summer, relayed program director Lynne Ellis, because Stiffel "wanted to be part of this great trend."
She added that the bowling was also designed as an option for the center's male members during a women's group that meets at the same time. But, she said, "we're happy there are women who also enjoy it."
While video bowling may not seem all that strenuous, there are (relative) health benefits to it and to other Wii games. There's even Wii Fit — an exercise program comprised of yoga, aerobics and other light workout fare.
In fact, some states have given grants for Wii purchases to allow special-education students access to its benefits. Studies have shown that playing Wii Sports games burns more calories than sedentary gaming — though professionals have to admit there's still no substitute for actual exercise.
Regardless, Wii bowling is a big hit at Stiffel. Cheatham and Ellis said that the center may try other sports later, but, for now, they're sticking with what's popular. It's become so popular, in fact, that several center members even said that they were considering buying one for themselves.
"It makes you want to just buy it and bring it home," declared Felzer. "I'm not sure if we have the room to move around with it at home, but I'm not saying we won't get one in the future."