Video games now play a VA role
Microsoft adapts controllers for vets at rehab centers
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.