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The Social and Cognitive Impact of Adaptive Video Game Technology on People with Physical Disabilities

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Technology
Wordcount: 3088 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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With the recent advancements in technology, we have created more ways for students with visual and physical disabilities to participate in social, recreational, and educational environments.  Microsoft has recently announced the release of an accessibility controller for people with physical disabilities, so those who cannot hold a traditional controller can participate in their gaming community.  While this is good news, some people may ask what benefit this would have apart from recreational use.  Recent studies have shown the benefit of interface technology in the classroom, as well as the use of some forms of video games to reinforce or teach new skills.  Advances in interface technology build bridges for differently-abled students to participate on the same level as main-stream student peers.  However, there is little research done on the combination of the two concepts: adaptive technology for video games.  We have a wide range of adaptive technology devices, from low-tech finger grips to high-tech computers that track eye movement to select phrases from a library.  Some groups that receive public funding, have made some progress in developing new ways for students with physical limitations to be more involved in social activities, but still face limitations.  Since video games became popular in the late 70s, the Media has painted a negative view of people that chose to spend the majority of their time in that recreation, citing them to be “lazy or absent-minded”.  In recent years, some studies have looked at the influence of video games and have found little or no evidence to support the Media’s claims.  In fact, most have seen an increase of essential skills such as critical thinking, special awareness, and social and cognitive benefits in people that play a specific range of video games.


With all the recent technological advancements, schools are looking to incorporate technology in the standard curriculum.  However, most professionals are reluctant to incorporate new technology or spend time and resources to learn how to use it, without the promise that it will work for everyone.  Despite this, there is evidence to suggest that students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers could benefit from video games that teach or reinforce specific skills, and encourage all students to become more involved in class.  In this paper, I will be discussing what some study groups have found in regards to adaptive technology for gamers, the benefit of video games and the use of technology in the classroom, and draw a conclusion of the results.  The questions I will explore are as follows: What can people with physical disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries and amputations, gain from this application of assistive technology? How could this adaptive controller impact their learning of social and cognitive skills? How does this use of technology affect social and cognitive development?

Literature Review

As mention before, Microsoft is developing an adaptive Xbox controller specifically for people with physical disabilities that cannot use standard controllers.  This adaptive tech was designed with the help of several disability groups: The Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Craig Hospital, SpecialEffect, Warfighter Engaged, as well as The AbleGamers Charity.  A representative quoted, “For gamers with limited mobility…our goal was to make the device as adaptive as possible, so gamers can create a setup that works for them in a way that is plug-and-play, extensible, and affordable.” (Peskett, 2018)  While Microsoft has been working on this for quite some time, it was further spurred by a report submitted by Muscular Dystrophy UK, calling for more inclusion of disabled gamers.  Microsoft is not the only company to tackle this issue. 

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The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Recreational Technologies (RERC RecTech) has spent several years developing adaptive game controllers and recreational tech for people with disabilities, and is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the US Department of Education.  Part of what drives this is the fact that students and young adults that have physical disabilities are less involved in sports and physical activities because of the challenges they face.  Not only do they express lower levels of activity, they are more susceptible to obesity, which can introduce new health risks.  The RERC’s, located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, focus for this project is to promote health and wellness for people with disabilities, and is based on these concepts: Health, access, adherence, and participation. (FG Team, 2015)  Their work is not only aimed at allowing more opportunities for participation, but to encourage young adults and children to exercise more.  In 2016, Craig Hospital piloted a new Therapeutic Gaming Program, which combined assistive tech, therapeutic recreation and rehabilitation.  The participants in the program had physical limitations caused from spinal cord injuries, and the main point was to help them achieve therapy goals.  Not only did they see improvements in basic self-care skills, it also showed psycho-social benefits by fostering a community between participants. (Craig Hospital, 2016)

Following Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory, it is understood that children develop their cognitive, social, physical and emotional abilities through play.  Children draw on what they have experienced while playing and apply those lessons in scenarios during new games and real life situations.  Game play gives opportunities to make choices like deciding between conservative and aggressive approaches.  In games, this choice will usually generate different risks and rewards.  Children can try scenarios multiple times and adjust their approach in order to achieve goals.  These experiences can lead to increased comfort levels in real life situations.  This form of play is necessary for children’s creative, emotional, social, and cognitive development.  These days, children have been steered away from more creative play outside and have turned to solo and multiplayer video games.  Online multiplayer games provide a unique opportunity to interact with others cooperatively around the world.  A 2013 study in Iran looked at the relationship between computer game usage and the development of social sills among primary school aged children.  This study had 237 participants out of the 2200 student population, and collected data via two questionnaires.  As stated in the study, children are drawn to the social aspect of online games because of the friendships and common interests that will often go beyond the game itself.  Games that encourage interaction to complete goals and form strategies will help develop social skills.  Until recently, researchers had claimed that video games were the cause of social withdrawal and isolation.  New data no longer supports this claim, and one researcher found “a reverse causal relationship in which elementary school students with lower social adjustment tended to play video games” (Aghabigloo & Abbaszadeh, 2013)  The results of the research showed a positive correlation between children’s social skills and computer games. Video games provide an appealing platform that allows a dimension of control, so the user can choose the level of challenge they are most comfortable with, and helps increase self-esteem upon completing certain challenges or goals.

If video games have a positive effect on social development, what about cognitive development in an educational setting?  Traditional classroom settings have adapted to the influx of new technology, and most schools have taken the initiative to incorporate it into curriculum.  This in turn has allowed a wider range of access to materials, especially to students with physical disabilities.  A qualitative explorative study done in 2015, looked at how students and teachers use technology in the classroom, their perceptions towards this change in learning practices, and the conditions that support them.  In order to effectively use technology in the classroom, there must be a context that produces authentic learning.  This study used six focus groups made up of ten people each, recruited randomly. Forty students and twenty teachers participated in the six month long study, and completed a semi-structured 90 minute interview by answering questions about the pros and cons of using technology in class, how it affected their learning, accessibility, and how they felt about its incorporation into curriculum.  The results of the study showed that while most teachers believed technology to have a more instrumental role in the class, some showed concern over classroom management, stating that students would be tempted to use the devices for entertainment rather than education.  (Montrieux, Vanderlinde, Schellens, & De Marez, 2015)  The students that participated in this study reported that the use of technology provided a more authentic learning experience and were able to construct and share knowledge in a media-rich environment.

In the case of adaptive technology for students with disabilities, most teachers agree that it can “level the playing field”, citing that while it is beneficial for students with disabilities, it also show the non-disabled peers that there are different ways of learning. (Balme, 2015)  The use of adaptive technology not only affects performance but the motivation of the student that uses it.  A 2015 Master’s Thesis looked at three major types of adaptive technology: the SMART board, the iPad, and the Dynavox, and their use in learning strategies and research.  For the SMART board, it is stated that it can benefit students with learning disabilities by encouraging them to stay engaged in the lesson, and act as a sort of PECS to teach daily living skills.  The use of iPads in school is more recent than the use of SMART boards, but still holds similar benefits to students with disabilities.  From its use as an organizer to a communication tool, this device encourages students to use technology to help with homework.  This is especially helpful for students with visual or fine motor impairments and encourages them to be more involved within the class. Balme also states that “Students with poor fine motor skills or students who do not have use of their hands or fingers can still use the iPad by touching it with other parts of their body, such as their elbow, forehead or chin.” (2015)  The Dynavox helps provide more meaningful instruction to students with moderate to severe disabilities during a lesson.  This works well for students with speech impairments or who are completely nonverbal.  By using pre-programed answers, this device allows students to respond to questions regarding material covered in class. In general, each of these interface platforms helps students overcome physical barriers to participating with the lesson, the teachers, and the other students.  The participants of the study were all educators with Masters Degrees in their field, from different school districts.  A questionnaire looked at the participant’s opinions on the use of this technology to help differentiate instruction.  While discrepancies within the training process for using this adaptive technology were noted, the majority agreed that the use of adaptive technology benefited all students, not just their students with special needs.

Synthesis of Results

Craig Hospital’s idea to use video games to address social, physical and occupational therapy rehabilitation goals, yielded some promising results.  The participants were noted to have improved basic functional skills, social skills, and elevation in mood.  With the RERC Rec-Tech and their quest to promote the health and wellness of people with disabilities through the development of various adaptive recreation technologies, they are continuing to identify the barriers that most children with physical disabilities face with existing game controller, and are working towards creating new adaptive technology.  Balme’s paper on adaptive technology in special education looked at the contribution of SMART board, iPad, and Dynavox devices and how they affected student confidence, participation and performance, and the opinions of the professionals that used them in classroom settings.  The general consensus was that using adaptive technology benefits general education students, not just special education. 3 out of 4 participants used adaptive technology the majority of the school week, and most preferred to use microphones for students with hearing impairments, and SMART boards.  The study of the relationship between children’s social skills and computer game usage in Iran, showed a significant relationship between use of computer games and the development of their social skills.  However, this study’s sample size was relatively small, accounting for about 14% of the primary school’s student population, and only looked at the Miandooab region.  The qualitative study on the Introduction of Tablet Devices in Secondary Education, looked at the experience of both students and teachers with the introduction of technology in the classroom, their perceptions towards this change in learning practices, and the conditions that support them.  The results of the study showed that perceptions of technology integration affected the classroom environment. While students benefited greatly from teachers that incorporate technology into lessons, most teachers felt underequipped to teach using this technology due to a lack of appropriate teaching materials.  It was also noted that more attention should be paid to the professional development of teachers to support them in this educational reformation.

Conclusion and Implications


Based on the literature reviewed, there are groups that have built upon the fact that that technology and video games have some benefits to social and cognitive development.  Adaptive technology helps people with disabilities perform on the same level as their non-disabled peers.  In the academic environment, students who can type fast often have an advantage over their peers who struggle with the hunt-and-peck approach.  Both students may have an equal understanding of the material but the one who can type faster has one less barrier to performing well in their studies; if there were an interface that removed the complicated physical skill of typing fast, both students would play on a more level field.  For decades, students entering college to study hard sciences were often dismayed and disappointed to discover that they were expected to know how to draw.  Rock outcroppings, mechanical structures, and biological samples viewed under the microscope were all expected to be carefully drawn in log books and lab reports.  Students who could not draw were academically challenged in this environment where turning in refrigerator-quality art was a barrier to getting full credit for their efforts.  Today, thanks to advancements in interface technology, images can be captured by cameras, microscopes, and scanners and transferred directly into electronic documents to more directly reflect the students study effort instead of their skill with a pencil.  Video games encourage players to communicate and share their mutual enjoyment of the games they play and participate in forums discussions.  Game interaction removes many social barriers and gives an opportunity for people to see each other for their similarities and not focus on their physical differences or abilities.  Each step in removing barriers lays a foundation for building a more level environment where differently-abled students can perform with more impact from effort and less from challenges.  The educational benefits of video games are there, but they must fill a specific need and criteria in order to see any noticeable improvement in the skills they are being used to reinforce.

Works Cited

  • Aghabigloo, F. M., & Abbaszadeh, M. M. (2013). The relationship between children’s social skills and computer game uusage in Miandoab. European Journal of Experimental Biology, 3(5), 361-364.
  • Balme, L. (2015). Adaptive Technology in Special Education: How does it Help our Students? (Master’s Thesis). St. John Fisher College: Fisher Digital Publications.
  • Craig Hospital. (2016, March 29). New Therapeutic Tech Program Helps Patients Get Back in the Game. Retrieved from CRAIG: https://craighospital.org/blog/new-theraputic-tech-program-helps-patients-get-back-in-the-game
  • FG Team. (2015, February 3). RERC Rec-Tech Developing Adaptive Game Controllers for People with Disabilities. Retrieved from Fitness Gaming: https://www.fitness-gaming.com/news/health-and-rehab/rerc-rec-tech-developing-adaptive-game-controllers-for-people-with-disabilities.html
  • Montrieux, H., Vanderlinde, R., Schellens, T., & De Marez, L. (2015). Teaching and learning with mobile technology: A qualitative explorative study about the introduction of tablet devices in secondary education. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0144008
  • Peskett, J. (2018, May 25). Microsoft develops adaptive Xbox controller for disabled gamers. Retrieved from Access and Mobility Professional: http://www.accessandmobilityprofessional.com/microsoft-develops-adaptive-xbox-controller-disabled-gamers/


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