Harnessing Fun for Children with Disabilities

It sounds like a dream come true for kids everywhere — your parents want you to play your video game. It’s good for you.

Perhaps more surprising is the reason these video games are likely to get parental endorsement — they are designed to get children with cerebral palsy doing their physiotherapy exercises.

“We are trying to make cod liver oil more palatable,” Denis Nikitenko joked in an interview. He puts equal emphasis, however, on the other goal he and his partners have in developing the games: improving quality of life for children with cerebral palsy by giving them something they can play with others. “We’re focused on social as well as physical benefits,” Nikitenko said. “They [the children] don’t interact with peers much, they don’t see friends much.” (One survey found 53 per cent of children with disabilities have no close friends).

The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, through its Community and College Social Innovation Fund. It is a partnership between Sheridan College, where Nikitenko is a professor and coordinator of the mobile computing program, and the Possibility Engineering and Research Lab at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Centre, which serves children with disabilities.

The partners began working together in 2014, when a student chose to make a game for Holland Bloorview as his graduating year project. The idea of using video games to benefit children with disabilities is not new, but those designed for broader markets are often not suitable, and those devised by therapists tend to lack the design and game features that make video games so engaging and engrossing. “If it’s not fun, they won’t play,” Nikitenko said.

The partners are developing games to be played on the Microsoft Kinect, a device operated by motion sensors, where users control the game they are playing by gestures. Each game will have to be tailored for the specific physical and mental abilities of the child using it, and calibrated to suit his or her range of motion and therapy needs. “Each participant will be at the limits of what they can do and pushed to do a little more,” Nikitenko said.

The project will move through several stages, starting with assessing needs and then testing simplified, single-person versions of games with children at the hospital, followed by multiplayer versions. Strict privacy controls on who can work with Holland Bloorview’s patients mean the designers will depend on feedback relayed by hospital staff. The same concerns will keep the games offline for now. There is also that traditional issue of parental approval: the designers will not be creating games featuring fire-bombing dragons or anything else scary or violent. Some will reward cooperation, some will feature magical abilities, perhaps turning an opponent’s online character into something goofy.

The children will not be the only subjects of study, however. At two points, the students working on the project will be assessed to see how their understanding of users with special needs is affected by building games for them.

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