It was a roller-coaster ride that sparked Chuck Bergen’s interest in helping kids with disabilities. Many years ago Bergen and his family attended a theme park in Pennsylvania and stood on line for a roller coaster. The ride was accessible, in the sense that people who used wheelchairs could transfer from their chair to the coaster car on a separate platform, which seemed like a reasonable arrangement to Bergen until the ride operator cried out: “Will ANYONE give up their seat so the disabled kid can ride?”
Besides the shear embarrassment Bergen says he felt for the young girl in a wheelchair, he was even more shocked at how many people refused to give up their seat so the girl could ride with her companion, who happened to be her mother. “It pretty much hit me that a virtual reality roller coaster ride for special-needs individuals would be a nice alternative to the awkward situations some theme parks put people through,” Bergen says.
A software developer by trade, Bergen knew he had a unique opportunity in front of him. He founded VTree in 1999 and began creating virtual reality education software such as I-CE-ME, which packages entertainment with education – from soccer and volleyball games to memory and word-matching challenges — to help special needs kids both learn and play.
But he still kept thinking about that roller coaster, and wanted to give kids an imitable experience though video games. “One thing that struck me was that almost all the popular software video games were strictly designed and developed for the mass market, which excluded physically and developmentally challenged individuals and families,” Bergen, president of VTree, says. “I decided I wanted to break through this wall.”
Ultimately, Bergen and his team settled on a making a football video game for kids with physical and cognitive disabilities that would look and feel almost exactly like the traditional titles. After all, football is the most popular sport in America, and games like Madden NFL and NCAA Football are proven bestsellers.
The next challenge was getting the idea to market. Luck played a role when Bergen attended a trade show in California for accessibility technology, where he had the opportunity to meet video-game maker EA SPORTS’ Chief Technology Officer Rob Moore. He pitched his idea to Moore on the spot, emphasizing the need to help kids as well as the thousands of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan whose serious physical or mental injuries now prevent them from enjoying the video games they grew up with.
Moore got the green light for VTree to redesign all of EA Sports video games for gamers with physical and cognitive disabilities. VTree’s first title, ‘My Football Game’, was released last month. Up next is ‘My Golf Game’, due out in early 2010.
‘My Football Game’ is a CD-based game for the PC that can be played on any desktop or laptop with a Windows XP or Vista operating system. The game is compatible with a USB XBOX 360 game controller, a keyboard and most USB adaptive devices. ‘My Football Game’ is $39.95 and VTree offers free shipping through the end of the year.
“’My Football Game’ proves that you can make a game for the special needs community that looks and feels like a traditional game,” says Mark Barlet, founder of AbleGamers, a website that ranks video games for accessibility. “The game does everything right, from the design of the box to the features that it has built in. It’s almost exactly like Madden NFL,” he says.
Features include 20 customizable playing speeds to allow nearly everyone to play the game, regardless of disability. There’s also a skill drills feature that allows the gamer to practice running, passing, tackling, and kicking at a comfortable speed to improve their skills before moving into full game competition, providing positive feedback and instructions along the way.
Personalization is another option, with gamers being able name their player avatars. U.S. Armed Forces members, who have access to the games at VA facilities, can create teams with authentic uniforms for each branch of the military service and special units such as Seals, Rangers and Special Forces. And a My Championship Ring feature takes cues from real-life football to help players earn a full set of diamonds as they master their playing skills.
Readers, I’m giving away a copy of VTree’s ‘My Football Game’. Send me a comment about this story, and I’ll choose a winner at the end of today. Be sure to also check back later this week for my list of the best accessible video games and other holiday gifts for people with disabilities.