Nov 30, 2017

UTSA students creating video games for injured veterans

Reprinted from UTSA Today article


(Nov. 30, 2017) -- John Quarles, associate professor of computer science at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), is taking a new approach to his students' final projects in his video game development class this semester. He's partnered with local non-profit Gamerz 4 Vets, which aims to rehabilitate injured veterans through gaming, and asked his students to create a video game specifically tailored to a disabled veteran.

The partnership began in July, when Quarles was approached by Nathan Gonzalez '13, a Marine veteran and the founder of Gamerz 4 Vets. The organization helps veterans with physical disabilities such as spinal cord, traumatic brain injury, amputation or mental illness.

"Sometimes a person can have unseen injuries, like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder," Gonzalez said. "Gaming can allow someone to rehabilitate their dexterity, hand-eye coordination and general focus."

Gonzalez graduated from UTSA in 2013 with a degree in business management, and has since put that to work by creating Gamerz 4 Vets. When he had the idea to partner with a game developer, he returned to his alma mater and was directed to Quarles.

"Nathan got in touch with me and told me about his vision for Gamerz 4 Vets. It occurred to me that this could be a unique opportunity for students in the game development course to learn about accessible gaming, but also actually make a difference in these veterans' lives," Quarles said. "So far, it's been an exciting experience and one that the students have really become passionate about."

Quarles is no stranger to creating rehabilitative games. The UTSA professor has multiple sclerosis (MS) and previously received a National Science Foundation grant to support the continued development of a rehabilitative underwater virtual reality game called Shark Punch. It allows people with MS to exercise in a pool, which prevents overheating of the extremities. Additionally, his students have taken on game development in relation to topics like cybersecurity in the past, so he felt assured they were up to the task of aiding veterans.

"The work of our students in Dr. Quarles's class is wonderful example of the important work they contribute to the community," said Rajendra Boppana, chair of the UTSA Department of Computer Science. "I'm very excited to see the finished games and the tremendous positive impact I'm sure they will have."

Groups of four to five students in Quarles' class are each partnering with a veteran affiliated with Gamerz 4 Vets. The disabilities the veterans are coping with include paraplegia and near-complete blindness.

One student group, made up of junior Trase Westbrook seniors Andrew Sanetra, Clifford Hill and Edward Mondragon, is working with a female veteran who is quadriplegic.

"We met with her a few weeks ago and now we're in the early stages of creating the game," Sanetra said. "She gave us a few suggestions and let us know what her gaming preferences are. But mainly what she wants is a game she can play because there aren't many at all that she can play."

The group is creating its game using technology that would allow their veteran to play by moving her eyes. It takes place in outer space, allowing the player to gather resources, craft upgrades, destroy enemies and progress to higher levels.

Mondragon, whose life's ambition is to become a professional game developer, is excited by the challenge and moved by the mission of Gamerz 4 Vets.

"We play video games every day and take it for granted," Mondragon said. "Some of these veterans haven't been able to play in years. To be able to give that back to them is amazing."

The UTSA students are currently developing their video games, and will present them to Quarles, Gonzalez and their partnering veterans as the semester ends in December.

"When I registered for the class, I had no idea we were going to do this," Sanetra said. "It's been a really rewarding experience to make something that actually matters for someone and will hopefully make a big impact in their life."

UTSA is ranked among the nation's top four young universities, according to Times Higher Education.