Online gaming is typically synonymous with fun, but advances in technology have made games suitable for vital purposes beyond entertainment. New interfaces give people with motion disabilities access to computing without the need for a mouse or laptop trackpads.
In a lecture titled Augmented Abilities in the Virtual World, John Magee, professor of computer science, explained that online games have played an important role in education and social connection for those living with disabilities. The talk was part of “Fair Game(s): Social Change and Justice on the Digital Playground,” the Higgins School of Humanities spring 2022 symposium.
“As a computer scientist, this is what excites me, the human reaction to what’s going on with technology,” he said. “This is what I like to develop, and these are the kinds of things I want to give to people.”
The impetus for Magee’s lecture blossomed from a love of the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. Magee spent so much time playing the game as a doctoral student that he had to quit it to complete his Ph.D. and get a job, he said.
His love for virtual environments helped Magee discover ways to enhance human-computer interaction for people living with the effects of Multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke, or other conditions.
As an undergraduate at Boston College, Magee started working on a project called Camera Mouse developed with professors and fellow students. The technology, which is free to download, gives people who can’t move their hands or feet the ability to control the mouse pointer on a Windows computer by moving their head. Magee explained that in one case, Camera Mouse helped a child understand cause and effect.
“Children learn by playing and seeing what happens. Through using the system, they were able to get an understanding that their motion was causing the thing to happen on the screen,” he said. The service has more than 3 million downloads.
Magee has been developing alternative ways for people to manipulate a computer, like a headband that can serve the function of a computer mouse via an embedded sensor. The person wearing the headband can raise their eyebrows to initiate a click.
“There’s a stigma often associated with physical disabilities,” Magee said. “People will often mistakenly assume that physical disabilities automatically imply that there are cognitive disabilities. This is not necessarily true.”
The obvious example, Magee said, is Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant minds of our time and someone who used an alternative communication device.
Another ability-based interface Magee has worked on is an image editing program. Its toolbars can adjust and slide around the screen, making it easier for the user to click each button.
“Imagine the tiny buttons on Microsoft Word,” he said. “You could explode those into larger buttons that would let people with different abilities use that type of interface.”
With Computer Mouse, which can be used to play games or complete work, developers started generating messages that asked participants if they wanted to share their scores on social media. Participants said that sharing could help people find commonalities or inspiration to try something new.
It’s like the current phenomenon of sharing Wordle scores, Magee said.
Virtual worlds have also been created to cater to people with different abilities. AutCraft is a Minecraft server dedicated to providing children with autism a safe environment for play and learning. The general public is not invited, and the world is monitored.
“There’s a focus on fun, games, and adventures so that people are collaborating and learning from each other,” Magee said. “Family members know their children and really see the change that interacting in these virtual environments has given them.”