Microsoft's adaptive video game tools will support VA rehabilitation therapies

Microsoft is providing its Xbox Adaptive Controller and other gaming hardware to 22 VA centers treating veterans with limited mobility.
By Dave Muoio
11:34 am
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Mike Monthervil, US Army veteran (front), and Jamie Kaplan, recreation therapist at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, play a video game using an Xbox Adaptive Controller, set up with buttons and switches. Photo credit: Jeff Young Photography/Microsoft.

Thanks to a new partnership between Microsoft and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, military personnel with mobility and manual dexterity limitations will have a new way to participate in video game-based rehabilitation therapies.

According to a blog post published this morning, Microsoft will be donating its Xbox Adaptive Controller — a modular hub that connects third-party switches, buttons and joysticks designed for accessibility — as well as Xbox consoles, games and other adaptive equipment to 22 VA rehabilitation centers.

VA staff will use these tools to conduct rehabilitation activities targeting muscle activation, hand-eye coordination and broader social interaction. These staff members will then provide Microsoft with feedback on the hardware’s therapeutic utility, and how well it was received by the veterans.

“We’re looking for platforms for veterans to interact with each other, and the Xbox Adaptive Controller can be that access point to get involved in this world and in the gaming community,” Dr. Leif Nelson, director of the National Veterans Sports Programs & Special Events for the VA, said in the post. “Gaming is now everywhere in the world, and while people tend to think of it as isolating, we’re finding that it actually has the opposite effect and can increase interactions with other veterans and folks who are non-veterans. I think this can be a tool in the rehabilitation process to achieve a lot of different goals.”

Launched in September of last year, the Xbox Adaptive Controller was designed by Microsoft in consultation with a number of accessibility advocacy organizations. While the face of the device itself is dominated by large, programmable buttons, it houses 19 3.5mm jacks and two USB ports that allow players to connect additional gaming peripherals that suit their range of motion. Once everything is hooked up, players can remap each buttons and create corresponding user profiles within the Xbox One and Windows 10’s Xbox Accessories App.

WHY IT MATTERS

Video games are a common recreation activity among active service members, according to the blog post, and losing the ability to operate a standard controller sever veterans’ connections to their peers. In addition to playing a role in certain physical therapies, Microsoft’s hardware would allow veterans to stick with the hobby, socialize and potentially promote their mental health recovery.

“It was a sense of belonging and a sense of safety,” Jeff Holguin, a clinical psychology intern at Northern Arizona VA Medical Center and research designer at Microsoft, said while recounting his own injury-based discharge in the blog post. “When you have trauma and you’re depressed, sometimes even just a little bit of stimulation is too much and you just don’t have the cognitive or emotional resources to deal with other people’s well-meaning interactivity. … Gaming gives you what we might call exposure therapy, meaning you get a little bit of socialization, but when you’re ready to turn it off, you can turn it off.”

WHAT’S THE TREND

Many have turned to video games as a source of rehabilitation, whether it be physical or neurocognitive. Companies like MindMaze got their start with programs designed for use with Microsoft’s (recently revived) Kinect, while several others are turning to virtual reality setups to mitigate pain, reenforce motor system activity, assist in stroke recovery and more.

ON THE RECORD

“Everyone can play games, and we really focus on that as an organization,” Phil Spencer, EVP of gaming at Microsoft, said in a statement. “With the VA being the largest integrated health care provider in the US, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to bring our focus on gaming and the great work that the VA is doing together.”

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