The spare bedroom upstairs is where Susan Mausshardt goes to escape.
There, the Everett woman slays dragons, explores mythical realms and defends the innocent from evil — all virtually, of course.
Mausshardt is a gamer. She must be a teenager, nongamers might assume.
Think again. She’s 65, retired from a career in psychotherapy.
Her lifelong love of literature led to the world of MMOs, or massively multiplayer online video games — specifically, “The Lord of the Rings Online,” a computer game set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Since 2012, Mausshardt has poured thousands of dollars and countless hours into gaming. At one point, it nearly consumed her.
Her latest gaming rig, which she booted up this summer, cost $3,000. Sitting at her desk with a cup of coffee and a glass of water, she clacks away at her keyboard and defeats her opponents with relative ease. Only the toughest enemies are a challenge for her favorite character, an Elf known as Elsrethe, who is the queen of a “kin.”
“She can do things I can’t,” Mausshardt said. “I’m 65 years old, but she’s timeless.”
Mausshardt is one of a rising number of older gamers in the country. A new study published in December by the American Association of Retired Persons revealed that 44% of Americans 50 and older play video games. They spent $3.5 billion in the gaming industry in the first six months of 2019.
Mausshardt, who also plays “The Elder Scrolls Online,” “Diablo” and “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic,” said gaming is fun, reduces stress and helps her stay cognitively sharp. It’s also a way to remain socially connected.
Though alone in her room, Mausshardt plays and chats with people from all over the world. “The Lord of the Rings Online” has an active population of about 42,000; she has online friends from as far away as Iran.
Not long after she started playing, Mausshardt befriended a fellow gamer whose character was a skilled hunter named Pierceya. They bonded over difficult missions, late nights and a shared love for strong female characters.
Their discussions ranged from spirituality to politics during the lulls. One day, they put a quest on hiatus when Mausshardt’s daughter went into labor.
“When you’re playing with somebody for 15 hours in a day, you don’t just talk about the quests you’re doing,” Mausshardt said. “Life stuff comes up.”
The friends didn’t miss an opportunity to finally meet face to face in 2017. When Mausshardt and her husband flew to Boston for a wedding, Pierceya — whose real name is Lisa Cyr of Worcester, Massachusetts — drove them around for brunch, sightseeing and tea.
Having only known each other’s voices for several years, the experience was surreal for them both. But it also was oddly comforting.
“It was like coming home,” said Cyr, a traffic manager for an advertising agency. “It was almost like we were siblings, like we’d known each other all our lives.”
Cyr, 57, is a longtime gamer who has played MMOs since 2004. Mausshardt, however, was what gamers call a “newbie” when she started computer gaming in 2012.
Mausshardt, who was still practicing psychotherapy at the time, had asked one of her shut-in clients how she was spending her time socially. The client gave her a demonstration of “The Lord of the Rings Online” on a laptop.
“Here was this outlet that I had no idea about,” she said. “She was interacting with people in a game that doesn’t have to be face to face.”
Mausshardt was more than intrigued. She had stumbled upon a fleshed-out version of J.R.R Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which she loved reading as a kid, and could create a character that lived in his world.
Tolkien’s stories were a much-needed distraction for Mausshardt when she was young. She was adopted and the middle child of seven, and had feelings of isolation.
“When I was young, I would read Greek myths because most of the heroes didn’t know who their parents were,” she said. “That was an ongoing thing for me. I could identify with them.”
After she and her husband, Ted, moved into their 1909 home in the Port Gardner neighborhood (which was featured in the 2019 Historic Everett Home Tour), Mausshardt fell down the stairs and tore all the soft tissue in her knee. While recuperating, she started playing “The Lord of the Rings Online.”
“I had no idea what the heck was I doing,” she said. “I was self-taught a lot of the time.”
She was somewhere in Middle-earth when she was approached by a much more experienced player. Through the in-game chat system, the player asked if she wanted to join a kin, which is essentially a clan of players who work together. She didn’t know it at the time, but Cyr also was in the group.
“Initially, I was hesitant,” Mausshardt said. “I told him I was still figuring this out. He said that was all the more reason to join, because we can help you.”
In five minutes, Mausshardt’s character had all new armor, weapons and accessories. It was overwhelming, but she eventually got the hang of it.
Pretty soon she was addicted to the immersive game. It seemed to offer endless entertainment, and players, including Mausshardt, spend real money on virtual goods that enhance their experience.
“There were days where I got up at 7:30 a.m. and played until 10 p.m.,” she said. “It disorients me now, but that wasn’t unusual at the time.”
Mausshardt, a recovering alcoholic, eventually realized her obsession was spiraling out of control. She’s since significantly cut back her time in the gaming world, and maintains a strict budget (the splurge with the gaming rig was a rarity).
Ted Mausshardt, 63, said his wife’s career as a psychotherapist came with some baggage. He sees gaming as a healthy way to help unpack the traumatic stories she’s heard over the years, as well as stay in touch with her need to help others.
“It’s all part and parcel with how she sees herself going through the world as being a warrior and confronting challenges and being graceful and unique,” he said. “I’m just happy she’s spirited and having fun and getting frustrated; there’s certainly a challenge of figuring out how to do things.”
Seeking balance, she and Ted — who often watches her game — have signed up for art classes. Mausshardt also gardens regularly; she recently added some new bird feeders.
“It has to be a balance,” she said. “I can’t let this consume me.”
Still, the itch to play is there, because it’s part of who she is now. The couple recently went on vacation to Hawaii, where she enjoyed every second of the sunny, warm weather.
But she could hardly wait to get back home and log on.
“It opens a world up in a way that you have a common interest, and you’re meeting each other there and you don’t have to leave your home to do it,” she said. “That’s something I think is wonderful for people as we get older.”