Brisbane’s Justin Hua, 28, has always enjoyed playing video games.
Like many kids of the 1990s it started with a Game Boy and eventually progressed to online games once he had access to a “10 year old computer that sounded like a vacuum cleaner and little to no internet.”
While his internet connection eventually improved, Justin’s hobby turned into something far more impactful when he became a C3 quadriplegic at the age of 19.
“Being able to play video games during my recovery, and even now has been a very important part of my life,” he said.
“It has helped me get through some of the roughest parts of being a quadriplegic.
“It served as a distraction at times, but it also enabled me to challenge myself and problem solve, as well as connect with others and even help some people.”
Justin was on his green Ps, when he was driving on Mount Nebo just outside of Brisbane, with his brother in the passenger seat.
He was as an apprentice mechanic, and was tired after a long day.
The car veered off the road, and both he and his brother broke their necks.
Justin spent 3 weeks in ICU, and 7 months in the Spinal Injuries Unit at the Princess Alexandra Hospital.
“Don’t be stingy when it comes to buying tyres, and don’t drive tired,” he said.
Without any movement below his neck, he wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to return to gaming.
“There weren’t many game controller options for higher-level quadriplegics, just basic adaptive mouses to use a computer, with left or right click, scroll and up down left right arrows,” he said.
A group of young men at the hospital discovered the QuadStick, a mouth-operated adaptive game controller, which allowed Justin to rejoin the gaming scene.
He has also shared his knowledge, after being put in touch with a young man who had broken his neck and wanted to see if he could play Fortnite.
“So I created a new gaming profile on the QuadStick with different inputs on an Excel spreadsheet and give it a go so he could see how it all worked,” he said.
“The experience gave me purpose and showed me that I could still help people.”
Re-imagining an inclusive society
Inclusion in design is a key focus of Griffith University’s interdisciplinary alliance, Inclusive Futures: Re-imagining Disability.
It aims “to solve the most pressing challenges within disability and rehabilitation”, and has a focus on three areas, live, work, and play — which promotes inclusive sport and recreation.
“We aim to work with people with disability to create products, services and places focused on reducing impairment and increasing participation in a re-imagined, inclusive society,” Griffith University’s Joe-Anne Kek-Pamenter said.
She says technology has played a big part in connecting more people with play, including gaming – which is recreational, and esports which is the competitive element.
“Many people are unable to participate in physical sport due to disability, illness or limited mobility,” she said.
“Many people also need a carer or support person attend with them yet crave independence. This is where esports have become popular and we are seeing a groundswell in this area, particularly amongst gamers with disability.
“This is because the gaming industry is increasingly becoming more inclusive and accessible to people.”
Dr Emma Witkowski is a senior lecturer in the game design degree at RMIT and says one of their biggest conversations focuses on accessibility – of hardware and software.
“That can go down to making sure that the colours are the right level for colourblind folks, or that the controls can be adjusted in certain ways to meet a different variety of needs,” she said.
“There has always been a large and very vocal group of players [with disability] who use games in the same way that everyone else uses games, they just haven’t had that visibility.
“And often, you really can’t see it when they’re playing.
“Because once the hardware is up to speed, and the software can match up, we all look the same and do the same online.”
Mind over matter
So what do people get out of gaming and esports, besides the ability to have some fun and pass the time?
Minds at Play is a national organisation that delivers gaming sessions of role-playing games Dungeons and Dragons and Minecraft, primarily to people who are neurodiverse.
Dwayne Fernandes is the “Ambassador of Amazement”, and says they teach people social and communication skills that will translate into the real world.
“You’re learning how to work with people who are very different to you. They may be elves, they be gnomes, they be goblins. But that’s the workplace as well, isn’t it?” he said.
“People are very diverse, and long as you can understand how to work together and achieve an end goal, that’s an employable skill that you’ll take into the rest of your life.”
Mr Fernandes says he’s seen great outcomes for neurodiverse participants.
“Gaming is the most inclusive space that exists at this stage. It allows you to be wherever you need to be, and allows you to have the tools that you need to interact in the digital medium, as opposed to physical exercise.
“Through gaming, you can eventually work your way into leadership positions, because you’re building the right type of skill sets that are leading people, changing directions and winning objectives.
“And disability inclusion in gaming becomes the way that you change the makeup of society.”
Dr Witkowski is on the board of the Australian Esports Association and agrees that gaming and esports can teach valuable skills.
But she warns there are added challenges for women in the space.
“I talk to women who play the very high-performance level all the time and they talk about the extreme amount of work they have to do just have a normal game,” she said.
“They use a username that doesn’t have a gender attached to it. They’ll use a voice disguiser.”
She says while initiatives such as women-only divisions are welcome, there’s still a way to go, and more women are needed in the higher levels of the esports hierarchy.
Transforming virtual into reality
For all the positives that gaming and esports can provide – there’s an acknowledgement of the value in translating that into physical connections and exercise too.
That’s something Mr Fernandes and his group explored in a recent co-design process facilitated by Griffith University, to come up with ideas of how to create more inclusion in sport and play.
“How do you get people with disabilities who are playing computer games, and give them a reason to go do regular physical activity?,” he said.
The solution they came to was providing financial incentives or perks during the games, which are linked to participating in physical activity.
Minds at Play will run a pilot of the program.
“You end up with very sweaty, happy, socially engaged people with disabilities, who are getting a better gaming experience, and physical exercise,” he said.
Joe-Anne Kek Pamenter is an advocate for creating more opportunities in the physical world for people with a disability too.
She was very active growing up, but acquired a hearing impairment after an allergic reaction to a vaccination.
She had to give up the sports she loved, and she and her brother, who also acquired a hearing impairment, faced multiple barriers in trying to find accessible and inclusive activities.
“There was no empathy or consideration of the person with disability as being a human or having real feelings or needs to participate in any activity besides sitting on the sideline or at home,” she said.
But she has now found her place in Muay Thai, and credits her coach with creating a welcoming environment for her.
“Martial arts are traditionally flexible, accessible and open to all ages, genders, fitness levels and abilities, because at its core is discipline, focus and respect,” she said.
“Martial arts, regardless of the style, teaches how to treat others, about responsibility to society and gives one a chance to develop self confidence and self-esteem, which are attributes that are important in life outside of the ring.”
Whether it’s in the physical or digital world, the ability to engage in play is invaluable.
Justin is now looking at what he wants to do next in his life, he’s studying at TAFE and considering going to university.
And he’s still an avid gamer.
“Nowadays I play for enjoyment, chatting with friends/family and the challenge.”