He’s Helping Wounded Warriors Game Again
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Ken Jones has devoted himself to helping veteran soldiers keep gaming.
By Fiona Zublin
In 10 years, Ken Jones would like to be out of business. In an ideal world, his small business would run out of customers and be consigned to history. But it’s not going to happen.
A mechanical engineer by training, Jones stumbled on his calling in 2012 while visiting a friend at Maryland’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, America’s most famous Army hospital. He was visiting his friend every few weeks and began talking to the center’s head of occupational therapy, Erik Johnson, who asked if Jones could modify a video game controller. One of the soldiers in recovery was dealing with nerve damage in his hand and couldn’t pull the controller’s trigger the way he had before he was injured.
Jones, a lifelong gamer himself, had a 17-year-old daughter at the time, and seeing teenage soldiers who needed him wasn’t something he could ignore. “You’re looking at somebody who could be your own kid,” he says. “It was tough.” He’d never tried to modify a controller before, but he was able to adapt one to be something the soldier could use.
Then another soldier needed help. Then another, and another. The veterans — young men, mostly — were avid gamers who wanted to play while in recovery so they could lose themselves in the activity. “We slowly start chipping away at the injuries and getting these guys playing again,” Jones, 55, said. Johnson, who’d been using gaming as occupational therapy since the advent of the Wii, told him it helped: The recovering veterans showed improvement in their moods and attitudes. Soon Jones was meeting with several veterans a week while working on their controllers. Eventually, he gave the initiative a name: Warfighter Engaged.
Today, WFE is a volunteer-run charity that helps disabled vets at Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center or in their homes, providing adapted devices for free. They also sell standardized pieces and parts that make it possible for civilians with disabilities like muscular dystrophy to adapt their own controllers. The revenue allows the business to keep building free rigs for any veteran who wants one — Jones estimates they do about one per week. “We don’t get a lot of donations, and we don’t ask for a lot of donations,” he says, but that means that when they run out of money, they dig into their own pockets to keep it going. “It’s important that we keep doing this, and we know that.” When he’s not working, Jones spends time with his two kids — one has now taken on a role with WFE.
“[Ken]’s got a huge heart,” Johnson says. And his engineering background — primarily in defense, although his engagement with veterans began during those visits to Walter Reed — has proven invaluable to the cause.
The WFE team is still small after eight years of operation — just five people, about half of them veterans themselves — and Jones stays up till 2 or 3 a.m. some nights in his workshop to build the machines. Some of the adaptations are simple modifications while others are massive rigs, controllers the size of tabletops with joysticks replaced with giant buttons or paddles. Despite years of experience, Jones still has to work with each injury individually — missing a hand can mean different things for different gamers, depending on exactly what’s missing, the degree of nerve damage and the extent of remaining mobility. Johnson, who’s also a member of the WFE team, explains that even though many are skeptical that games often set in war zones are beneficial for veterans — and cautions that every person is different — they often allow the vets to feel in control of a combat environment in a way that’s impossible in a real-life battle scenario.
While gaming may seem like a mere pastime for the wounded, it’s actually considered constructive therapy. A 2018 study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that veterans who play games, many of whom suffer from PTSD, derive several psychological benefits. Games are often social for one thing, and they help former soldiers stay calm and feel engaged and in their element again.
What’s more, WFE has helped inspire broader change in the gaming industry. In 2016, Microsoft held a hackathon and asked Jones for ideas of what innovations he might need. The project they collaborated on became the adaptive controllers for the XBox, which Microsoft started selling in 2018. Jones’ 25-year-old daughter now works in Microsoft’s accessibility department, while also helping out with WFE.
Jones says he hopes someday there won’t be any need for Warfighter — that kids will stop getting maimed in combat and he’ll have provided a controller to every single person who needs one. He knows, however, that won’t happen, so he keeps going.
“They try to honor veterans, they bring them to parades and barbecues and bring them onstage and do all this fanfare … to have people honor their service and their injuries,” Jones says. “But when they get back to their rooms, they still have no arms or legs, and there’s nothing they can do. So the ability to just turn a game on and forget about their injuries and hang out with their buddies online … that’s one of the most important things.”