Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond, Washington Yields a Win for the Therapeutic Needs of our Veterans

One of my goals when I was named Chief Medical Officer of Operation Supply Drop was to make strong connections and do a ton of networking.  Recently, I found myself sitting behind closed doors at Microsoft headquarters discussing occupational therapy implications as well as accessibility in the gaming world.  The audience included software and hardware developers from the Xbox team who wanted to pick our brains about how they can impact the user interface on games to make them more therapeutic as well as more accessible.

Before I get into some of the things that Microsoft is doing, I wanted to rewind a bit to how a lot of this began.  Many of you know that I was the chief of OT for amputee services at Walter Reed for several years.  During that time, I came across many severely wounded service members who, for good reason, wrote off gaming as a possible activity that they could engage in.  

As an Occupational Therapist, you have two priorities when approaching compromise.  

1) Help your patient recover to the point where they can engage in their desired activity or

2) Teach your patient how to compensate for the deficit in order to engage in their activity.  

The population I was working with at the time was typically 18-30 year old males.  As you can imagine, many of them were gamers and found comfort in that activity.  When given the opportunity to help them re-engage in that activity, I did everything that I knew to do.  Some of this included adaptive splinting or positioning in order to be able to engage a bit better.  Other things included gaming exploration to see what systems and what games would be most appropriate for specific individuals.  Unfortunately, my skills could only take me so far.  There were some guys who just had too much injury for me to work around.  

In a chance meeting, a man named Ken Jones visited us and offered his hands and skills.  Ken is a wizard when it comes to adapting gaming controllers and getting guys plugged back in when it seems like a hopeless challenge.  Ken and I started collaborating while I was there and setting up times for him to come down and help where he could.  From those adventures, Ken decided to start is own non-profit called Warfighter Engaged.  The organization is dedicated to getting guys back in the game no matter what.  Over the past several years, Ken has helped countless wounded Service Members who have complicated cases.  Anything from simple finger amputations all the way to quadruple amputees, he has found a way to get guys playing again.  

Ken reached out to me a few months ago and asked if I would collaborate with him again.  This time, it was to meet up in Washington to brief the developers at Microsoft on how to make games more accessible for any specific type of injury or deficit.  They asked me specifically what I would recommend for consideration in the development stages of a game.  My immediate reaction was that more games needed to be built for local co-op engagement.  The problem with a lot of games these days are that they are either single player or online multiplayer.  

A good example of this is the newest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle game that came out.  The game looks amazing and clean and I was incredibly excited to play it with my kids.  The only problem is that you can’t play the game with three other people surrounding you.  Your options are single player or online multiplayer.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good online multiplayer game.  Halo 3 is probably my all time favorite game.  I’ve also logged in a ton of hours on Overwatch and all the Call of Duty games.  Those games keep me connected with my friends from the past.  You move every few years in the Military, so any chance you can find a way to reconnect with the brothers and sisters you’ve deployed with, you take it.  My biggest problem here is that with the onslaught of the forced online play, you take away the amazing game nights at your house.  How great would it have been to be able to play TMNT with all of us sitting in the same room?  All that said, I pounded home the psychosocial impact that local co-op can have on people.  

Here at OSD, we’re trying to pound home the importance of community.  If we want to optimize the potential for gaming, we need to get people together.  There are a few games out there that I think fit the bill perfectly.  The first one is a game called Cuphead.  It hasn’t hit the shelves yet, but I had a chance to play it at E3 last year.  You’re basically playing a 1930’s cartoon character in a run and gun interactive game.  Like the old side scrolling arcade games from the ‘80s, you and your partner only have one direction to move in.  It’s incredibly fun and you have to rely on your partner to beat the bosses.  It’s going to be a huge hit when it hits stores this year.  The other game….or games that I’ll mention are any of the Lego series games.  They are fantastic and each unique in their own way.  Again, one of the biggest things about the game is that you have to rely on a partner to complete different tasks and advance through the game.

Another area we talked about was being able to “grade” a game.  In the therapy world, if you grade something, you make it easier or harder.  I’m in the business of helping people succeed in life, so if I give them a therapeutic activity that is just too hard, they fail and are often defeated by the task.  If I grade the activity to be just a bit easier, then I can give them success initially and then continue to increase the difficulty until they can handle the full task.  For example, if I were looking to challenge a patient who had cognition issues and I wanted to focus on problem solving, I wouldn’t give them the task of getting through the water temple (Zelda: Ocarina of Time).  I might choose to “grade” the activity to a game like Tetris or something.  All that said, we encouraged them to look for ways to make games easier for people who may not have the dexterity or reaction time to take down a final boss or negotiate a specific obstacle.  One example we gave was the impossible task of picking locks in Fallout 4.  Imagine how difficult that would be if you didn’t have hands.  We suggested they have something that would enable gamers with challenges to bypass a section or do a “super easy” mode.  There are a bunch of possibilities out there and I’m hopeful that some of the things we chatted about will make a difference.

Needless to say, I was incredibly impressed with the Xbox team and what they’re doing for gamers.  They showed us a bunch of stuff they’re working on that I signed a NDA on.  I wish I could share all the details with you and give you some cool info on what they’re working on, but……well……I can’t.  I can, however, tell you that they’ve got a great group of people working on accessibility for gamers who are making a big difference.  Stay tuned.

Click here to Learn more about what Microsoft is working on for accessibility