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'Kind Of An Experiment': UTSA Students Team Up With Veterans To Create Adaptive Games

A group of seniors at the University of Texas at San Antonio unveiled their video game projects to an audience of disabled veterans on Thursday.

UTSA’s North Paseo building is home to professor JohnQuarles’ video game development course, which met for the final time Thursday. Teams of students showed off their final projects — complete with theme music — demonstrating the controls and interacting with the virtual environments they’d created.

This semester Quarles partnered with Gamerz 4 Vets, a local nonprofit that aims to rehabilitate injured veterans through gaming, and he asked his students to create a video game specifically tailored to a disabled veteran.

Most of them had no game development experience prior to this semester.

“A lot of my students are gamers, but they don’t think on everyday basis about what it would be like to play games if you were a quadriplegic or if you were blind,” Quarles said.

Quarles has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. He structured the class as an exercise in empathy — as well as programming ability. As part of their final projects, students reached out to their assigned veterans to identify their limitations and wants in gaming.

Gamerz 4 Vets supplied all the adaptive technology: things like modified controllers and virtual reality headsets that allow players to move around with a nod of the chin.

Clint Chenault, a UTSA senior, said he was impressed by all the possibilities.  

“They offered up everything. I mean, they had thousand dollar joysticks,” he said. “Things that were custom made."

Chenault and his team created a game called “Rocker Soccer.” It’s played on a virtual soccer field, only there are armed cars that bounce the ball around.

“Our veteran, he has physical limitations,” Chenault said. “He has one hand that is seemingly fine and then one that is less fine. So we’re trying to do a project that you could do with just one hand. But also to fit his video game preferences. He likes sports, shooting games. Kind of everything all together.”

Other designs involved deer hunting, magical paladins, and a supercharged wheelchair.

Nathan Gonzalez, president and co-founder of Gamerz 4 Vets, came by to show his support and take a peek at the students’ projects. For him, this a very personal mission. While on leave from the Marine Corps in 2001, Gonzalez was hit by a drunk driver and partially paralyzed.

Video games — especially on the Playstation — helped him work his way out of depression.

“It’s shown in studies that video games do help,” Gonzalez said. “You have camaraderie, social interaction. You have a mission again.”

But he began to realize that accessibility in gaming was an uphill battle. When Playstation added joysticks to its controller, Gonzalez, who doesn’t have the use of both arms, struggled to play.

“I told myself, ‘That’s it. I’m never gonna play again. There goes my fun,’ ” he said. “But then my best friend found me a one-handed controller. You use it with one hand. All eight buttons. It was great.”

Since then, Gonzalez has been passionate about connecting injured veterans with adaptive gaming technology. Gamerz 4 Vets caters to amputees, individuals with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, and those with mental health concerns. The nonprofit doesn’t limit itself to electronic gaming; board games, card games, role-playing games are also encouraged.

Gamerz 4 Vets plans to team up with Quarles in future semesters, with the hope of designing games with a greater focus on physical rehabilitation.

“Next time, Nathan and I will finely tune all of this,” Quarles said. “Overall, I was pretty pleased with the progress that everybody made, given the constraints that they had. And given that this was kind of an experiment.”

Carson Frame can be reached at carson@tpr.org or on Twitter @carson_frame


Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.