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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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82-year-old app developer creates global buzz

Dec. 6, 2017

A woman is creating a buzz globally with a smartphone game she developed in her 80s. Her ideas have caught the eye of one of the largest tech companies in the world.

The app is called Hinadan. It's named after a tiered stand that's used in a traditional Japanese festival to display dolls. The dolls represent the emperor and his entourage and are arranged in a specific order. Players move each doll to the correct place. The app went online in February. It's been downloaded 60,000 times. "It's simple and fun." "Hina dolls are very familiar, so it's easy to get started," say the people who use it.

Hinadan's creator, 82-year-old Masako Wakamiya, says, "There are hardly any game apps that old people can enjoy, so I decided to make one." Wakamiya first used a computer when she was 60. She'd retired from a bank and was taking care of her 90-year-old mother. "I couldn't get out much, but I wanted to chat with people. So I bought a computer," she says.

Wakamiya needed computer skills. And she was a voracious learner. Soon, she was editing photos and videos she'd taken while traveling and posting them on the web. That connected her with people around the world. She made more than 800 friends online. "My life became fun. I got to know younger people and people in other countries. It's interesting because their views are sometimes very different from mine," she says.

Wakamiya kept improving her computer skills. Soon, she was giving lessons to beginners. Then, she got a request. A friend wanted a game that seniors could enjoy. Wakamiya passed that request to a bunch of young programmers. "I asked them to come up with something that would please seniors. They said they had no idea what that would be," she says.

So, in her 80s, Wakamiya decided to create a game herself. Her first challenge was to choose a theme. She thought of things familiar to the elderly, and came up with Hina dolls. "I thought they were a good thing to feature because they're part of traditional Japanese culture," she says.

Then she figured out how to make the game user-friendly. She knew smartphone users her age struggled with swiping and quick movements. So she decided players should only have to tap the screen.

Another decision was to not force players to finish within a certain time. All this means Hinadan is just right for seniors. "Most games are about who's the fastest, but not Hinadan. There's no win or lose either. Anyone can play. I thought, 'Why not create something completely new?'" Wakamiya says.

When the game was launched, it generated a big buzz. It was featured by the media in more than 40 countries. It also caught the eye of an American tech company. "I got a message from Apple. It was in Japanese. I had only ever had messages from Apple in English, so I gave it a good check for viruses. It said, 'Let's go to the United States together!'" says Wakamiya.

Wakamiya was invited to an app developers' conference at Apple headquarters. She met with the CEO and told him about the challenges and innovations behind her game. "At the end, he told me I'd encouraged him. And then he gave me a hug," says Wakamiya.

Wakamiya is still looking for new challenges. There's no end to her curiosity. "Eighty is not too old an age to start something. I want to develop apps that help the elderly and pass on traditional Japanese culture to younger people." Wakamiya's passion to take on challenges continues. She's now going global. She wants more people to enjoy Hinadan, so she's making a version in English. It's due out by the beginning of next year.