The National Veterans Wheelchair Games launched 40 years ago and only had seven events available to its competitors. Today, many more exist, with the newest one being esports (video gaming). Video games have been around for about as long as the Wheelchair Games but only recently have they been viewed as something that can be used as a form of therapy for disabled veterans. Jamie Kaplan, a recreational therapist in Tampa, Florida, has been pushing gaming therapy for the past 10 years. His facility, the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, has a gaming room that features pretty much any video game console you can think of, with all of them being modified for use by disabled veterans. Kaplan believes playing video games is a way of bringing veterans together while also helping them cope with their disabilities.
One of the largest pushes in video game therapy for veterans has been the push for accessible gaming. Accessibility has been an issue in the gaming community for years, with every developer and publisher handling it differently. Some developers seem to completely forget about accessibility when they create their games, while others have been at the forefront of the push for accessible games. Microsoft, in particular, has been keen on making it easy for anyone to play games, regardless of their disabilities. Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have had an ongoing partnership with accessibility being their main focus, which led to the debut of the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC). The XAC uses external buttons, joysticks, and switches that allow players with limited mobility to play games that they couldn’t typically play with much more ease. The device can be found in over 24 VA facilities across the United States and can also be bought in stores for use at home.
Initiatives such as the XAC have been a way of broadening the thinking of how gaming can help soldiers once they leave the service. Research exists that points to how video games can be beneficial for improving decision-making, cognitive processing, and motor skills, but for veterans, it can also help them overcome substance abuse disorders and PTSD. Larry Connell, chief of staff of the VA, believes that gaming can also be an effective tool for helping lower suicide rates amongst veterans. Connell believes that one of the biggest reasons veterans commit suicide is due to a lack of belonging and camaraderie that many veterans experienced while serving. If veterans are able to play games with their fellow soldiers, whether it be on Xbox, Playstation or any other console, they can retain that sense of community. Many VA medical centers, such as the one in Washington D.C., host weekly outpatient clinics so veterans can get together and play games using the adaptive controllers. We also live in an age of connectivity where you can play games over the internet, adding even more ways for veterans to find that sense of belonging they may be lacking.
Video games have come a long way since the day of the Atari. While there are many who believe they’re a waste of time and are bad for you, there are many reasons why video games are great for people, especially veterans. Video games have the power to help people in ways you may have never thought.