VA believes gaming could help reduce suicides

The Xbox Adaptive Controller.(Microsoft via The Washington Post)

After Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella crashed his car into a sand trap in the Xbox One video game Forza, he wondered aloud if it was time to give up. His competitor, Roger Brannon, thought differently. “Never give up,” Brannon said.

“That’s a Marine,” Nadella replied.

Brannon, who served in the armed forces for more than half his life, was playing against Nadella using Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller, a video game controller designed for individuals with limited mobility. Brannon, who has ALS, demonstrated the device’s benefits to Microsoft leadership here at the VA Medical Center last month.

The controllers, released to the market in September, were distributed to 22 veteran rehabilitation centers nationwide earlier this month as part of a collaborative effort between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Microsoft to enhance socializing, therapeutic and rehabilitative practices for veterans through gaming.

“Right now I can’t last 15 minutes with the joystick in my hand,” said Brannon, 48. “With the adaptives, I should be able to play a lot longer.”

The controller is a specific aid to help a broader thinking that gaming can help soldiers when they leave the service. Research suggests video games can help improve motor skills, cognitive processing and decision-making. For vets specifically, video games have been linked to helping people overcome post-traumatic stress and substance abuse disorders.

The adaptive controllers are a step toward making this form of mental health care more accessible. Larry Connell, chief of staff of the VA, said the connectivity of gaming is one of the “intangibles” that could be an effective tool in lowering suicides.

“What we’re seeing as one of the indicators of why veterans commit suicide is that isolation and loss of belonging, that loss of camaraderie,” Connell said. “But if you’re able to use your Xbox and still stay connected with your fellow Navy sailors, I mean, that’s huge.”

For Matthew Wade, who served in the Navy and was rendered quadriplegic after falling 40 feet from a broken flagpole, the benefit of gaming is twofold: It provides a distraction from his physical pain and engages him socially. “It feels like my limbs are on fire,” said Wade, 31. “The more that I’m totally distracted or immersed in a game, the more that pain tends to go away.”

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