Game Changer

How unique advances are helping popularize the trend of accessible video gaming

by Steve Spohn on July 14, 2015 - 3:09pm

Quest Summer 2015

The World Health Organization estimates that at least 10 percent (roughly 700 million) of the world’s population is affected by a disability, while the Entertainment Software Association reports 500 million people play video games for at least an hour a day. The extent to which these two groups overlap on a global scale is unknown — but it’s likely more than you think.

In America alone, the number of people living with some form of disability who play video games is a whopping 70 million, according to AbleGamers, a nonprofit that uses the power of video games to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. In other words, if you self-identify as a gamer and live with some form of disability, you’re definitely not alone.


But what about those whose disability stems from a neuromuscular disease — is video gaming still possible?

Absolutely! In fact, gaming has never been more accessible. Assistive technologies continue to advance, and new technologies are being developed today for the video game technology of the future.

QuadStick is an excellent example of such advancement. Engineer and inventor Ken Yankelevitz originally made a controller called Quad Control in the early ’80s as a labor of love for people with quadriplegia who could not hold standard Atari controllers. He continued making gaming controllers for newer systems for decades, but as time marched on, the parts became harder to find, and Yankelevitz began having health problems of his own. 

After months of searching, another developer stepped forward to take the reins and reinvent the Quad Controller. The result is QuadStick, a newer, upgraded design that will withstand generations of technology.

Thanks to the QuadStick, users don’t need any arm or leg movement to play games. Even those with minimal head movement can place their lips on a small sensor and operate the joystick with their mouth. Four sip-and-puff inputs act as the buttons on the joystick, which send the information via Bluetooth to a PC, Xbox or PlayStation.

Another noteworthy accessible controller option is the aptly named Adroit Switchblade 2.0. Co-developed by Evil Controllers and AbleGamers specifically for individuals with neuromuscular diseases, the Adroit offers a button display that can be customized with attached switches to suit the needs and range of motion of the user. 

Adroit Switchblade 2.0 (with thumbstick)

Any switches (or other types of buttons) available on the market can be connected with the Adroit’s buttons via headphone-jack-like ports, allowing the user to customize both switch types and configurations. So instead of figuring out how to bring the gamer to fixed-position buttons, the Adroit allows the gamer to position each switch/button based on his or her comfort level. The switches themselves can even be affixed to the gamer via Velcro, tape or even custom-made foam braces or trays.

In terms of which switches to pair with the device, many people find that the Ultra Light Touch models offer the most versatile support for children or adults who have limited strength. These switches are so sensitive that they can be activated by the touch of a feather. But no matter which of the 3,000-plus types of switches users prefer, the Adroit will enable them to enjoy Xbox and PlayStation games in a way that was not possible before. 

If using a joystick with your mouth or placing buttons all around your body aren’t appealing solutions, playing video games on a computer is still a great option for those who have limited range of movement. There are numerous PC-ready assistive technologies available to get you started — from SmartNav and TrackIR, which allow you to move your head to control your computer and game, to voice-activated software like DWVAC. You just need to find what works best for you and start playing.    

Steven Spohn, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is the chief operations officer of AbleGamers Charity and an award-winning writer living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Follow him on Twitter @stevenspohn to keep up to date with the latest video game technology. 

In Columbus, Ohio, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital are testing video games as an alternative method for clinical trial qualification for some Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) trials.

Using the gaming camera in Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect, researchers monitor the upper-body movements of children as they play a specially created game. As the children wave their arms to fight off aliens or zombies, their scores record how many enemies are defeated as well as how far they can reach for an extended period of time.

This method is being presented as an alternative to the current guidelines, which state that children with DMD must be able to walk for six minutes to qualify for some potentially life-altering clinical trials. In DMD, like many neuromuscular diseases, the leg muscles are affected first, making standing, let alone walking, for six minutes straight a Herculean task for many. 

The results of each gaming session can be measured and the data will show quantifiable change. So far, clinicians are encouraged by the results. Since children are excited to disintegrate aliens and slaughter zombies, their focus and determination is stronger, and they are more motivated to complete the task.

For more on this video game study, including video of the game, visit the Nationwide Children's website.

Many video game developers and industry watchers think Augmented and Virtual Reality (VR) will be the next big thing, but it’s uncharted territory for gamers everywhere, including gamers with disabilities. No one knows exactly what VR will become, let alone how popular it will be, but there are several companies working around the clock to be the first to bring Star Trek’s Holodeck to life.

Only time will tell if VR can be made accessible, but there are developers already working on that problem, as well. So in time, VR could bring about virtual worlds where the only limitations are set by your imagination.

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