Disabled veteran gamers are in for a treat thanks to a recent partnership between Microsoft and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Xbox adaptive controller was created so veterans with disabilities and others can play “Halo,” “Kingdom Hearts 3” or whatever games they’re into just as everyone else can.
“It’s a very different approach to a game controller from what I think people conceptualize a game controller to be,” said Bryce Johnson, the inclusive lead at Microsoft Devices. “This is not one-size fits all; this is the opposite of that. You can use this thing to adapt to you.”
While the controller is currently available to buy, Microsoft donated controllers, consoles, games and other adaptive gaming equipment to 22 VA rehab centers around the country. Veterans can use the controllers for free at facilities in Washington, D.C., Texas, Alabama, Ohio, Tennessee, Minnesota, Virginia, Missouri, Florida, Colorado, New York and California.
The idea for the adaptive controller was born during the 2015 edition of Microsoft’s annual hackathon, according to Johnson. That’s when Johnson and his Microsoft colleagues met Sgt. Josh Price, who had lost his right arm from his elbow down.
Johnson recalled watching Price use a customized Xbox controller created by Ken Jones, founder of the nonprofit Warfighter Engaged, which is dedicated to coming up with innovative ways for the disabled to enjoy gaming.
“It was super important for us to see it because we had to recognize what people were going through to play games and how much they were willing to do,” Johnson said.
After developing their own adaptive controller, Microsoft approached the VA to make sure veterans had access to it at their facilities.
“The options for video-gaming have been relatively limited,” said Dr. Leif Nelson, the VA’s director of national veterans sports programs and special events. “That’s what’s exciting about this: It’s another option for us to open up the world of esports.”
Jones has been working in adaptive gaming since 2012, when he began to use his engineering skills to create custom controllers for specific disabilities upon request. He eventually turned those projects into Warfighter Engaged, and he was delighted to work with Microsoft on their Xbox adaptive controller.
He said that Xbox controllers can be modified to “do just about anything,” which makes adapting them for veterans’ individual needs fairly simple.
“So it’s about as universal as you’re possibly going to get,” Jones said. “It’s basically a dream come true for people who modify controllers and for people who need it.”
Gaming is also a therapeutic tool for veterans, both physically and mentally, Jones said. That’s why making it easier for veterans to play, through innovations like the Xbox adaptive controller, is a big deal.
“There is some physical therapy going on there,” he said. “It’s moving your muscles around. But a lot of it is cognitive therapy decision-making. It’s just a way of relaxing and doing something that you wanted to do before.”
Nelson, who is a doctor of physical therapy, said gaming can also help veterans avoid isolation.
“It’s a community now and a way to socially engage and interact,” Nelson said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do with our veterans.”
That element of gaming was vital for Dave Crouse, a Marine Corps veteran and director of veterans services at video-game nonprofit Stack Up. He said that the military lifestyle while deployed is a lot of “hurry up and wait,” and many of those extra hours are spent playing video games.
Crouse served from 2003 to 2014 and specialized in explosive ordnance disposal. He lost his left hand and left eye during an operation in Cambodia in 2013, so he knows exactly how crucial video games can be for a veteran’s recovery and how useful something like the Xbox adaptive controller can be for that purpose.
”For me, it is the perfect form of escapism,” he said. “It engages me mentally and physically, and it gives me this cool escape, whether it’s just to decompress or to put some distance between me and the challenges I’m facing.”
There are many ways for veterans to deal with the lingering effects of PTSD, from motorcycle-riding to extreme sports. The best method for Crouse has been playing video games, and products like the Xbox adaptive controller give him and many others the means to continue participating in an activity they love.
“[T]here were not a whole lot of things that could reach me at 2:30 in the morning when I woke up with nightmares,” he said. “Video games were able to reach me at that time. I found out I’m not alone.”