EduTech: Video Games Aren't Just for Fun Anymore

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Video gaming has become a universal language — a virtual platform designed to entertain, excite, and in certain cases, educate people from all walks of life. But consider this: according to a survey conducted by Information Solutions Group on behalf of PopCap Games, with close to 15% of the American population suffering from a physical disability, one in five players of casual games have a physical, mental or development impairment, a substantial percentage of the gaming community. AbleGamers, a nonprofit foundation in support of developing tools for physically disabled gamers, estimates 33 million people with disabilities in the U.S. are gaming as we speak, and those numbers continue to expand.

The mobile gaming industry itself is also growing at an exponential rate, and is set to overtake consoles in 2015, according to a NewZoo report. The luxury of gaming on a smartphone, tablet or laptop has helped people with disabilities participate in ways never afforded to them in the past, with technology bestowing numerous amenities from accessibility to portability. A number of creative solutions are seeking to increase social awareness for children with disabilities and innovate mobile gaming in the process.

The Players

They say the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. One organization spreading the word for those with disabilities in the gaming community is the AbleGamers Foundation, a network and website dedicated to helping gamers find accessible ways to play. The leading nonprofit organization, originally formed in 2004, provides a number of services for its followers, such as live-streaming charity events and open houses. These streams offer consultations with accessibility experts on how to make assistive technology more widely available. Its efforts are just a stepping stone for what Star News columnist and disability blogger David Morrison views as a market necessity: “Accessible gaming offers people with disabilities a common activity that can increase social and fine motor skills while having fun at the same time.”

Google has been one of the more active tech staples to acknowledge this under-served audience, working with electronics manufacturers and video game companies to increase gaming efforts on the Android platform. Android, which owns the majority of the mobile market share, seems to be developers’ choice for gaming, opening its SDK (Software Development Kit) to all aspiring game creators.

The Technology

While home consoles remain the foundation for gaming, the mobile sector accounts for nearly 78 percent of all 1.2 billion global gamers. Those with disabilities were at one point isolated from these gaming systems due to hardware limitations. However, gaming kingpins Microsoft (Xbox Kinect), Nintendo (Wii Remote) and Sony (PlayStation Eye) broke the fourth wall by deviating from the traditional controller setup and creating motion-sensor peripherals, elevating the gaming experience for all players. Mobile manufacturers took note of these technological feats and applied them to their handsets without the need for specialized hardware.

However, hardware is only as good as its software. The beauty behind Android lies in its open-source infrastructure, making most third-party tools compatible with the operating system. Inventions like MaKey MaKey bear the ability to transform any object into a touchpad. The development kit is encouraging inventors to push the mobile gaming envelope in hopes of creating a supplementary controller and interface that doesn’t require any touchscreen interaction.

On the other side of the creative spectrum is a community of hardware “modders” manipulating mobile operating systems to recognize other operational instruments. One community user on AbleGamers claims to have programmed his wheelchair’s four-way controller into a joystick to play Windows games. This alone could increase physical productivity amongst younger demographics.

Game studios are taking advantage of the built-in accessibility features on Android-powered devices, including assistive touch and voiceover commands, to create titles optimized with those with disabilities in mind.

The Games

Google Play is home to thousands of motion-dependent games spread across numerous categories from action to education, affording gamers with disabilities the same experiences as the gaming community at large. Several of these titles are now enhancing cognitive traits while they entertain. Take one-button flash titles like Canabalt or G-Switch — the oversimplified gameplay present in these games only requires the need for one finger, focusing mostly on timed actions.

Further, voice-activated games such as PAH, a space shooter, let players control a ship and activate weapons by respectively speaking two words: “Ahhh” and “Pah.” And a few studies have shown that interactive and action-based games can actually improve motor functions.

The Future

The most discussed form of ultramodern technology over the past year has been virtual reality. Samsung has already created a headset capable of delivering 3D visuals to produce a unique interactive experience in the Galaxy Gear VR. Despite its lukewarm reception, the contraption could very well become a prelude to the mobile virtual reality movement in the same way that the Galaxy Note series was for the tablet-phone category. The ability to interact with environments and objects in a virtual realm garners infinite possibilities and promises for users.

Intel is even working on new tech solutions, with the assistance of Stephen Hawking, that can control software applications through eye movements. According to the company, the system would help users perform specific tasks such as switching between apps and typing at twice the speed. This seems like a great companion for Words With Friends or any other beloved trivia-specific games. Intel Labs researcher Lama Nachman believes “technology for the disabled is often a proving group for the technology of the future.” We’re just beginning to witness its progressive implementation, which in turn is servicing the youth with disabilities on the mobile gaming front.

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