VR Games Aren’t All About Competition: Perspective From a Player with Parkinson’s


    Roger Wild isn’t very good at VR games. In fact, most of the time he just floats around in his favorite game – Echo VR – catching the disc or chatting with other players in the lobby .

    Not only is that ok with Wild, but the rest of us could learn something from him.

    A software engineer who enjoyed hobbies like archery and hiking, it had always been Wild’s ambition to walk the Land’s End to John o’ Groats trail, which winds through Great Britain between the northeast and southwest extremities. It takes most off-road walkers two to three months to complete the expedition that’s around 1,200 miles for hikers (847 miles by road for cyclists).

    Several years ago, Wild was finally able to pursue his goal so he set out on the trail. Things went well for a while, but then he began to notice that he had an odd gait.

    “Over maybe a week or two this got progressively worse,” the 51-year-old explains, “and I assumed that I had pulled a muscle or something.”

    Eventually his inability to walk normally caused him to reluctantly give up the walk.

    Wild returned home to southern England where he lived with his wife and two sons. He resumed his daily activities, but after six months with an irregular gait he went to see his general practitioner. Following a referral to a neurologist, he was immediately given the diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease.

    Parkinson’s Disease

    Certain cells in our brains make a chemical called dopamine, which plays a role in sending signals from the brain to the muscles. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, incurable neurological disease caused from the death of these cells. Unfortunately it’s possible for these cells to be dying for years and about 80% of them could be dead before symptoms appear.

    Typically symptoms of Parkinson’s disease come on gradually, but Wild says his came on quickly during his hike. Looking back, however, there was one other earlier symptom that he hadn’t recognized.

    “I had been a member of a local archery club for about a year,” states Wild, “and I had just bought my first bow. Unfortunately I could not shoot the bow with any amount of accuracy. I tried for weeks to shoot it and eventually decided the bow was defective, or the bow limbs were too strong.”

    “I noticed that my left arm was shaking when drawing and holding the string,” he continues, “as if my arm was terribly weak. I went back to using one of the club bows with weaker limbs and again I could not shoot with it, which really surprised me. I eventually left the club and thought no more about it.”

    Enter VR

    For a couple of years after he received the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, Wild tried to continue his regular daily activities. Unfortunately, the symptoms interfered with his ability to work since memory issues in particular became a challenge in his job, which required complex programming.

    It was around this same time that he purchased an Oculus Rift VR headset.

    “This is really the best thing I have ever bought,” says Wild. “I am not normally a video game player and I had not appreciated that I would be playing in cooperation with other real people that you can see and talk to during the game. The whole experience was wonderfully immersive.”

    He points out that one of his favorite games is Ready At Dawn’s Echo Arena, a zero-gravity sport set in a virtual arena. Echo Arena is part of the greater hub of Echo VR, which also includes Echo Combat, a first-person shooter set in zero-g. When someone loads Echo VR, they’re brought into a lobby with practice areas, queue terminals, toys, and other players.

    The movement mechanics in Echo make it a good choice for seated players and this appeals to people for different reasons. It’s especially beneficial for players with disabilities. Wild plays seated so he won’t lose his balance and risk injury. In addition, he adds that seated play “takes most of the weight out of the legs and feet and makes the whole experience less tiring.”

    Wild also enjoys the social aspect of Echo VR. Games that provide people a place to congregate and fellowship in VR are popular and the benefits of social contact for people with health challenges can be particularly rewarding.

    “The more time you spend in this environment,” says Wild, “the more people you get to know. If you have limited real world social contact, perhaps due to a disease like Parkinson’s, and suffer loneliness, then this can provide the possibility of talking to people all over the world. I have made friends with some great people since joining Arena / Combat.”

    Occasionally Wild plays a match, but he doesn’t do this often because he doesn’t want to spoil the game for other players who can be excessively competitive. Since he’s admittedly bad at playing, he simply enjoys the lobby – where he can float around and talk with his friends.

    Virtual reality does seem to level the playing field somewhat when it comes to disabilities, as evidenced by Ryan Green, who qualified for the Space Junkies finals during VR League Season 3. Green is twenty-three years old and suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that causes inflammation of the spine and other joints. This confines him to a wheelchair, but hasn’t stopped him from being a competitive player in games like Ubisoft’s Space Junkies and Caveman Studio’s Contractors.

    Ryan Green and Proper_D competed in the Space Junkies finals during VR League Season 3. Green, who is normally in a wheelchair, used a special chair on stage.

    Unfortunately Wild’s symptoms are prominent enough that its difficult for him to use the controller very well so high level competitive play isn’t possible.

    “Parkinson’s Disease can affect your fine motor control,” he explains, “and fingers cannot move fast enough in fast-paced games. I find that after 10-20 minutes my fingers all start to tighten up, at which point it becomes difficult to hit the right buttons without a real struggle.”

    Despite all the challenges, Wild spends a few hours in virtual reality each day. He still experiences amazement at the immersive worlds.

    “Even after about a year of playing in this environment,” states Wild, “it still feels so real. The simulated zero-G seems to make you feel so much lighter, which is pleasant.”

    He also recommends VR games for other people with disabilities. In the case of a progressive disease like Parkinson’s, he recommends starting as early as possible while still possessing enough physical abilities to play.

    In a world where many people take their health for granted, virtual reality can be a lifeline for social contact as well as a much needed outlet for enjoyable physical activity. Wild is an inspiration not only for his positive attitude, but his story also to reminds us of the potential for virtual reality to improve lives.

    “A simple thing like just being able to fly around the lobby” he states, “can be a very rewarding experience for people who maybe cannot even walk as legs are not required!”