Adaptive Gaming: A Level Playing Field

Aaron Baker
Spinal Cord Injury Lifestyle Specialist | Shield HealthCare
12/08/23  8:30 AM PST
adaptive gaming

Leveling the Playing Field Through Virtual Reality

I am now old enough to have played most of the original home video game consoles like Atari, Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Play Station and Xbox – all of which brought great joy and entertainment to me as a young boy. Little did I know that the virtual world would end up being a great place for therapy, both physical and occupational, and even mental and emotional encouragement.

Early in my recovery, an occupational therapist had me attempt to play a Nintendo game with an unadapted controller. I fumbled with the slippery plastic device and could not activate the buttons accurately enough to influence the game. I became frustrated and disappointed, then angry at my inability. For months, I boycotted any further gaming until a friend introduced a modified Play Station controller.

The modified gadget had raised buttons and was sheathed in non-slip tape – obvious thought was behind the design of this adapted controller. I could wield it well and soon began to enjoy victory inside the game. This device was my “Game Changer” and allowed me to find confidence again against my peers.

My story, though, is more than twenty years old, and since that time there have been amazing advancements not only in gaming software and design, but also the hardware technology and interface itself.

Take, for example, an elite team of gamers from New York City who call themselves the Quad Gods – all of whom are high-level quadriplegics. You can visit their website here. This team utilizes a variety of highly modified hardware and software solutions to interface with complex games like NBA 2K, FIFA, and Call Of Duty. They also compete against the best able-bodied gamers in the world.

This group of renegades is lead by an optimistic and ingenious neuroscientist and physical therapist, David Putrino. David is a friend of mine at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. He is an Australian expat who was crowned the winner of the Advance Healthcare Award, and heads up the Abilities Research Center, a laboratory devising innovative ways to use virtual reality and video games to improve patient health and rehabilitation.

For David and the Quad Gods, it is not about money or fame. It is about therapy. They know that video games can supercharge rehabilitation and look at gaming as a therapeutic tool, knowing they have the potential to change and reshape the brain. Neuroscientists like David know that the brain has the ability to recover from injury and adapt to new circumstances by rewiring itself, known as neuroplasticity, and believes video games can kick the process into overdrive.

However, players with physical disabilities are not necessarily a priority for video game manufacturers. In the past, like in my case, players with disabilities would have to jury-rig custom controllers with homemade solutions. Today, accessibility and inclusivity can no longer be ignored.

A leap forward came in 2018 with the release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The exceedingly customizable kit, which Microsoft developed in collaboration with disability advocate groups, allows players to link up their own switches, tubes, sticks and buttons, accommodating users with a vast array of physical limitations. The adaptive controller gives a way to play the game and enjoy it without having to focus on actually being able to play the game.

I believe that our computing interface capabilities are now unlimited and that when we innovate with the desire to enhance every human experience, no matter the physical ability, we will rise together. As in David’s quote:

“The practice of rehab medicine is the practice of human performance.” – David Putrino

Go out there and get your game on!


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