Video games now play a VA role

Mi­crosoft adapts con­trollers for vets at re­hab cen­ters

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - BUSINESS - By Alex An­drejev

WASH­ING­TON — Af­ter Mi­crosoft CEO Satya Nadella crashed his car into a sand trap in the Xbox One video game Forza, he won­dered aloud if it was time to give up. His com­peti­tor, Roger Bran­non, thought dif­fer­ently.

“Never give up,” Bran­non said.

“That’s a Marine,” Nadella replied. Bran­non, who served in the armed forces for more than half his life, was play­ing against Nadella us­ing Mi­crosoft’s Adap­tive Con­troller, a video game con­troller de­signed for in­di­vid­u­als with lim­ited mo­bil­ity. Bran­non, who has Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS, a neu­ro­mus­cu­lar disease, demon­strated the de­vice’s ben­e­fits to Mi­crosoft lead­er­ship last month at the VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton.

The con­trollers, which were re­leased to the mar­ket in Septem­ber, were dis­trib­uted to 22 vet­eran re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ters na­tion­wide ear­lier this month as part of a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort be­tween the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs and Mi­crosoft to en­hance so­cial­iz­ing, ther­a­peu­tic and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive prac­tices for veter­ans through gam­ing.

“Right now I can’t last 15 min­utes with the joy­stick in my hand,” said Bran­non, 48. “With the adap­tives, I should be able to play a lot longer.”

The con­troller is a spe­cific aid to help a broader think­ing that gam­ing can help sol­diers when they leave the ser­vice. Re­search sug­gests that video games can help im­prove mo­tor skills, cog­ni­tive pro­cess­ing and de­ci­sion-mak­ing. For veter­ans specif­i­cally, video games have been linked to help­ing peo­ple over­come post-trau­matic stress and sub­stance abuse disor­ders.

The adap­tive con­trollers are a step to­ward mak­ing this form of men­tal health care more ac­ces­si­ble. Larry Con­nell, chief of staff of the VA, said the con­nec­tiv­ity of gam­ing is one of the “in­tan­gi­bles” that could be an ef­fec­tive tool to low­er­ing sui­cides, a se­ri­ous is­sue for the VA in the past year.

“What we’re see­ing as one of the in­di­ca­tors of why veter­ans com­mit sui­cide is that iso­la­tion and loss of be­long­ing, that loss of ca­ma­raderie,” Con­nell said. “But if you’re able to use your Xbox and still stay con­nected with your fel­low Navy sailors, I mean, that’s huge.”

The Xbox Adap­tive Con­troller is a board with two large but­tons and roughly a dozen cus­tom­iz­a­ble out­lets. It serves as a cen­tral con­sole for users to con­nect their own in­puts, such as fin­ger­tip switches, in­puts gamers can move with their mouth or chin, or foot ped­als, based on the user’s need and dis­abil­ity.

The Wash­ing­ton VA Med­i­cal Cen­ter said it will host weekly out­pa­tient clin­ics where veter­ans can play video games to­gether us­ing the adap­tives. Dur­ing the ses­sions, the VA will col­lect data on pain man­age­ment and so­cial­iza­tion to mon­i­tor the ef­fi­cacy of ther­a­peu­tic gam­ing.

For Matthew Wade, who served in the Navy and was ren­dered quad­ri­plegic af­ter fall­ing 40 feet from a bro­ken flag­pole, the ben­e­fit of gam­ing is twofold: It pro­vides a dis­trac­tion from his phys­i­cal pain and en­gages him so­cially.

“I pri­mar­ily use it as a dis­trac­tion from chronic pain be­cause I have neu­ro­pathic pain in the lower part of my body, and it feels like my limbs are on fire,” said Wade, 31. “The more that I’m to­tally dis­tracted or im­mersed in a game, the more that pain tends to go away.”

Wade said he mainly likes to play ac­tion role-play­ing games and first-per­son shoot­ers with his two older broth­ers, who en­cour­aged him to get back into gam­ing to help his mood af­ter his fall. “It’s just a good get­away,” said Wade.

There is a busi­ness com­po­nent as well. With its con­troller, Mi­crosoft has tapped into a par­tic­u­lar mar­ket. Ac­cord­ing to re­search by the Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Foun­da­tion, 92% of in­di­vid­u­als with a mo­tor of cog­ni­tive dis­abil­ity say they play video games reg­u­larly. Gam­ing is also “huge” in mil­i­tary cul­ture, ac­cord­ing to Colleen Virzi, a recre­ational ther­a­pist at the VA in Wash­ing­ton.

“Things like the adap­tive con­troller are spe­cial­ized,” said Nadella. “But in­clu­sive de­sign is much broader than that. I think there’s a cul­tural change in where the cen­ter of de­sign is.”

In ad­di­tion to the roll­out of Xbox Adap­tive Con­trollers at the med­i­cal cen­ters this year, the VA also re­cently an­nounced that es­ports will be added to the July 2020 Na­tional Veter­ans Wheel­chair Games, which will pro­vide an­other com­pet­i­tive out­let for dis­abled veter­ans, thanks to in­creas­ingly ac­ces­si­ble tech­nol­ogy.

Even as Mi­crosoft and VA lead­er­ship con­tinue to grap­ple with is­sues tied to on­line com­mu­ni­ties, such as pro­vid­ing safe gam­ing spa­ces and re­duc­ing toxic com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween users, they re­main con­vinced that the ben­e­fits of grow­ing the gam­ing com­mu­nity out­weigh its risks.

“Whether it’s veter­ans (gam­ing) or ser­vice mem­bers us­ing (video games) while they’re on de­ploy­ment, dur­ing their leisure time, back home with their fam­i­lies or to keep in touch with their fel­low com­rades, it’s some­thing that we re­ally want to be on board with,” Virzi said.


Xbox Adap­tive Con­trollers have been dis­trib­uted to 22 vet­eran re­hab cen­ters na­tion­wide as part of a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort be­tween Mi­crosoft and the VA.

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