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Veterans who lost limbs learn to game again with adaptive controllers

People with a wide range of disabilities are finding ways to game again, thanks in part to the Xbox adaptive controller.

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Xbox's adaptive controller serves as a base that you can plug different buttons and switches into based on your needs.

Ken Jones
This story is part of Tech for a Better World, stories about the diverse teams creating products, apps and services to improve our lives and society.

Former Sgt. John Peck is playing Minecraft, gathering supplies to build a Hogwarts replica there for his wife, an avid Harry Potter fan. It sounds like a simple way to pass the time during coronavirus quarantine, but the fact that Peck is able to do this at all is something kind of magical: He's doing it without any limbs. 

While deployed in Afghanistan in 2010, Peck stepped on a bomb and lost one arm and both legs. He also contracted a flesh-eating fungus, which took his second arm, making him a quadruple amputee while he was just in his 20s.

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During occupational therapy at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Peck met defense contractor Ken Jones. Jones asked Peck, who is now 34, what kind of hobbies he'd like to get back to doing, and one was playing his PlayStation 3. That led to Jones, who built adaptive controllers for veterans in his spare time, looking into rigging up something for Peck.  

"Before I got injured, in the Marines, I would go to work at 5:30 a.m, and I wouldn't come home till four or five at night," Peck said. "The first thing I wanted to do was veg out and play video games."

For the estimated 33 million gamers with disabilities, the hardware required to play (namely, the controller) is often a major hurdle. But technologists, hackers and hobbyists are finding ways to adapt controllers so that anyone can play and become a part of the gaming community, whether they are veterans who lost limbs, or children who were born with special needs. It's the kind of work CNET is highlighting this week in honor of Thursday's Global Accessibility Awareness Day. 

Using an adaptive controller to play video games

Warfighter Engaged uses bite switches, sip-and-puff controls and lots of buttons and joysticks to make adaptive controllers for veterans and civilians with disabilities, including former Sgt. John Peck -- a quadruple amputee who has since had a double arm transplant.

Ken Jones

This kind of technology means that gamers who use adaptive controllers don't just play -- they often excel. An esports team of quadriplegic players is training to compete with able-bodied players. And one of the top-ranked Street Fighter players plays the game using only his face due to a muscular condition called arthrogryposis. 

Fortunately for Peck, Jones delivered. He created a tabletop controller on its own stand, with paddles and levers and buttons that Peck could hit with the nubs on his arms and legs -- not exactly what you think of when you imagine settling in for some Call of Duty. 

"I looked at him like, 'Ken, how the hell am I supposed to play video games with this thing?'" Peck said. 

Bite switches and a sip-and-puff switch let Peck control different elements of a game by biting down or blowing or sucking air into a tube. "It was like a full body workout at first," he said. 

The setup had to evolve over time. In 2016, Peck had a double arm transplant, giving him new arms that aren't fully functional. So Jones changed the controller layout again. 

And generally, it works. "I'm not good against 12-year-olds playing multiplayer shoot-em-up games," Peck said. 

But he can play Minecraft. 

Re-engaging veterans in gaming

Jones' experience working with Peck and other veterans on adaptive gaming tools served as the spark that led to his founding the nonprofit Warfighter Engaged in 2014, which he juggles alongside his day job. 

Plus, demand was increasing -- he was getting around three or four requests for adaptive controllers per week. The donation-based organization now primarily builds controllers for veterans, many of whom are young gamers who suddenly find themselves with multiple amputations, head trauma or other injuries, but want to play again. 

"We took regular controllers and modified them into devices that had all the buttons and levers and paddles and whatever was necessary for them to play with missing limbs, partial limbs, nubs, stumps, whatever they had," Jones said.

Today, Warfighter Engaged works with many civilians as well -- especially since the Xbox adaptive controller came to market in 2018. Veterans receive the controllers for free, and civilians and others can pay for non-custom versions through the website for under $100 -- though those who are strapped for cash are just asked for a donation if possible, Jones said. 

A customized controller setup

Another Warfighter Engaged customized controller setup for a veteran.

Ken Jones

One challenge is determining someone's attitude toward the project, Jones said. "There's a big difference when you work with somebody who's lost the ability to play -- a lot of them have lost hope and think they'll never play again," he added. "You've really got to work with them sometimes to show them that there's potential." 

Meanwhile, people who are born with a disability may have already learned to play in different ways, like with their faces or feet, because they haven't known anything different, Jones said, and tend to be more excited about the possibilities opened up by adaptive controllers. 

John Peck and Ken Jones

Peck (left) and Jones (right) met at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Jones built an adaptive controller setup for Peck to continue playing video games despite his injuries.

John Peck

As in Peck's case, some custom controllers need to change over time, as someone's injuries heal, or as children get older, introducing another wrinkle for Jones to overcome. 

Warfighter Engaged builds about 200 controllers per year, and 3D prints many of its parts because they are easier to modify, Jones said. And when I say Warfighter Engaged, I really mean Jones -- while the organization has an all-volunteer staff of six, Jones does 99 percent of the actual design and fabrication work. 

"It causes me to be up late almost every night -- 2 a.m. is a good night," Jones said. "But logistically, it's just easier this way. I can certainly use help but since the org members are scattered around the country -- having a centralized point of production makes the items consistent." 

Lots of people have tinkered with different methods for making adaptive controllers over the years, often sharing their work online, Jones said. "We're just doing an organized version of what people do on their own." 

Working with the Xbox adaptive controller

Today, everything Warfighter Engaged builds is on top of one tool: The Xbox adaptive controller. The controller (which costs $100, though Microsoft provides a free supply to the organization for its work with veterans) was born from a Microsoft hackathon that Warfighter Engaged participated in in 2015. More advocacy groups including the AbleGamers Foundation, SpecialEffect, and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation got involved in the design as well. 

The device is fairly minimal, with just a few buttons and two large round black pads. You can plug in buttons, joysticks and mounts from any source to fill in what you need, said Bryce Johnson, inclusive lead of product research and accessibility at Microsoft. (Logitech also released an Adaptive Gaming Kit of customizable controls to pair with the Xbox adaptive controller, for $100.)

"A limb-different vet is very different from a 12-year-old with muscular dystrophy," Johnson said. "You have to identify what the core needs are for both of those people. It has to be flexible." 

The controller has been "a game changer," Jones said. "It's really made people aware of how many other gamers are out there just wanting to play, but couldn't because there was nothing off-the-shelf to buy. Now people are coming out of the woodwork, saying 'hey, I want to play too.' Having a device like that is now allowing these people to have some hope." 

The latest versions of traditional console controllers involve a lot of buttons, with the goal of giving people as much power as they can get with two hands, Johnson said. But when a person doesn't have two hands or dexterous fingers, those controllers are not going to work for them. 

With the adaptive controller as a base, "you can create a controller that suits your movement, whether it's putting buttons in places that you can hit with your feet or shoulders or elbows or armpits," Johnson said. "When people come to us, it's often natural for them to say 'Well, I can't do this.' What we try to emphasize with folks is, 'Let's talk about what you can do. And let's try to put controls where you have movement.'" 

Progress in the gaming industry

Outside of the Xbox adaptive controller, most changes in the gaming industry have been on the software side, both Jones and Johnson noted. The nonprofit International Game Developers Association has advocated for gaming accessibility at the manufacturer level, and we've seen changes like better visuals for people with color blindness, and fonts that are accessible for screen readers. 

An adapted controller rig, with Minecraft on screen.

Peck can play Minecraft with his adapted controller rig.

John Peck

"There's blind gamers now, and deaf gamers, and people with all kinds of different disabilities who are playing strictly because of software changes," Jones said. "The gaming industry and the software has had a dramatic improvement over the years." 

However, on the hardware side, "it's really been left to people like us," Jones added. 

Games have become so detailed and immersive that a wider range of people really want to play, Jones said. "It's important that people like us and all the others that are making hardware are making it possible for them to join in and be a part of the gaming community and their friend community," Jones said. "They just want to be part of it." 

At his home in New Jersey, Peck is playing Minecraft, gathering iron, wood and coal to build the tools he'll need to create his own Hogwarts. He's going to design a Halloween version of the magical castle, with lots of jack-o-lanterns and lights.

"I used to be a gym rat and work on my car. I can't do that anymore. Games are another way for me to destress," Peck said. "For those of us missing digits or hands, it's great to have a hobby we can get back into -- one we thought we had lost." 

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