Game Night for All Abilities

Image of Xbox Adaptive Controller

Numerous studies have shown that active videogames may be useful for promoting physical activity for therapeutic uses, including for balance, rehabilitation and management of illness or disease. However, not many studies have shown what the social outcomes are when people with disabilities play video games for leisure.

Betsy Hawkins-Chernof, OTD, OTR/L, has focused her scholarly work on improving participation for people with disabilities using assistive technology tools in various practice settings. When she shared her idea last fall of starting an after school video game club for children with and without disabilities to study social participation, it struck a chord with first-year student Chris Gonzalez, OTD/S ‘20.

“I thought it was interesting that she has a background with area schools and assistive technology and I have a background with volunteer organizations such as Special Olympics. We both know that integrating kids of all abilities works for sports activities when they are younger, but it becomes harder when they get older and their interests are more complex,” Gonzalez says. “We are also both gamers, so we know that physical abilities don’t matter as much as how well you understand and play the game. If someone is a good gamer, you want to play with them because they’re good. That’s all there is to it.”

Enthusiastic about starting the video game club, Hawkins-Chernof and Gonzalez began reaching out to pitch the idea to middle schools and high schools with diverse populations of students with and without disabilities. They were met with mixed reactions.

“Some schools immediately declined the opportunity or couldn’t get past the logistics. Other schools expressed initial interest, but no follow up meetings occurred,” Hawkins-Chernof explains. “We then reached out to the Recreational Council of St. Louis, which provides information on leisure, recreation and social activities for people with disabilities in our community. They directed us to various organizations in the area we could potentially partner with, so Chris started calling around again.”

At first, Gonzalez was met with similar reactions. Then he called a local chapter of Best Buddies International and Kelly Quinn, the state director for Missouri, answered the phone. She had a different reaction for Gonzalez.

“It struck me right off the bat that he was talking about using the gaming platform to engage people with different abilities on a social level. That is the core of the Best Buddies mission: we break social barriers so people with and without disabilities can engage with each other in meaningful ways,” Quinn says. “Through our friendship program, we have seen participants seal the bond of their friendship while playing video games. I knew this dynamic was something we could easily tap into by offering our participants the chance to be part of this study.”

The timing of Gonzalez’s call was perfect: Quinn was already in talks with the local Microsoft Store about partnering with Best Buddies. After meeting with Hawkins-Chernof and Gonzalez, Quinn arranged for the three of them to meet with Arika Parr, Community Development Specialist at Microsoft Store at Saint Louis Galleria. Since the store frequently hosts gaming nights where they provide the space, tech and gear to players, the plan quickly came together to offer a unique opportunity to Best Buddies participants. Ten pairs, consisting of one participant with disabilities and one without, would co-pilot games using adaptive technology and techniques for two hours at Microsoft Store at Saint Louis Galleria on June 1. Hawkins-Chernof and Gonzalez would be on hand to assist with accessibility and observe the interactions in preparation for their study.

“This event will introduce Betsy and Chris to our Best Buddies pairs so they can provide information about their research project to them and their families. Gamers have a reputation of being loners and playing in seclusion, but here they will be face-to-face interacting with each other and making those same social connections they do while online,” Quinn says. “The event is open to the public, so it will also raises awareness in the community that anyone can be a gamer and form friendships while having fun.”

Based on the game night outcomes, Parr says Microsoft Store is interested in hosting similar events in other stores nationwide as part of their ongoing gaming programs. Again, the timing is perfect: Microsoft recently introduced the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which will be available later this year for just $99.99. The device can be configured with an array of accessories such as joysticks, buttons and pedals to make it easier for people with limited mobility to play games on Windows 10 and Xbox One. The controller will open up even more possibilities for Hawkins-Chernof and Gonzalez as they conduct their study in the fall.

“My ultimate goal is to improve participation in everyday occupations for people with disabilities in the community through the use of assistive technology, and this includes participation in the gaming community,” Hawkins-Chernof says.

The Best Buddies Game Night will be held from 6:00-8:00 p.m. on June 1 at Microsoft Store at Saint Louis Galleria, located at 1155 St Louis Galleria Suite #2417. For more information, please contact Kelly Quinn at KellyQuinn@bestbuddies.org or Betsy Hawkins-Chernof at hawkinschernof@wustl.edu

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