Professional Development

This former WilmU game design educator now makes gaming accessible for hospitalized children

Scott Shaw, former director of Wilmington University's Game Design and Development program, now spends his days working as a game and technology specialist at Nemours Hospital for Children. There, he helps give hospitalized kids a sense of normalcy.

Scott Shaw is one of about 50 game and tech specialists in US hospitals.

(Courtesy photo)

For 13 years, Scott Shaw led Wilmington University’s (WilmU) Game Design and Development program — the first four-year degree program of its kind in Delaware.

The program quietly put WilmU on the map as a college for students interested in gaming careers, with graduates launching local game companies such as Momiji Studios. Shaw was instrumental in WilmU’s partnership with Futures First Gaming events that combine tournament play with education and information on joining the growing industry.

In July, Shaw brought that expertise into a career move to Wilmington’s Nemours Children’s Hospital, where he works as a game and technology specialist — a position that helps hospitalized children gain access to gaming.

“We’re using video games as a way to bring some normalcy and hopefully connect [patients] back to their friends and family,” Shaw told Technical.ly. The work has been especially crucial as the pandemic has prevented sibling visits: “Making uncomfortable positions bearable and maybe even fun, that was the draw. Using my talents in terms of game development, gameplay, game theory, game-based learning — all of the things that I had done previously — in a way that could give back to a population that is not in the best place.”

The position centers on a few focus points:

  • Playing games with patients, and sometimes with staff to prevent burnout
  • Supporting all of the hospital’s entertainment systems, game and VR systems, iPads and tablets
  • Working on projects such as building adaptive controllers or implementing use of VR and AR

Since some hospitalized children may require more than simply having a game system brought to their room, there is a whole range of disabilities and limitations that Shaw has to consider, adding a problem-solving element to the job. If a child doesn’t have fine motor skills in their hands, for instance, the game interface can be adapted so they can use another body part or bigger buttons to control play.

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Shaw also uses adaptive controllers produced by companies like Microsoft that feature a “co-pilot” where Shaw or a parent can play with a patient, allowing them to take over certain portions of the controls — “so if we’re playing a driving game, one person can do the steering and the other person can do gas and brake,” he said. “Or if it’s an adventure game, one person can control movement and the other person can control abilities.”

Oversized buttons for adaptive game controllers

Oversized buttons for adaptive game controllers. (Courtesy photo)

The game and technology specialist position is a new part of Nemours’ Department of Child Life, Creative Arts Therapy and School Programs, managed by Melissa Nicely and funded by a grant from Child’s Play.

Nicely points out that while gaming adds something fun to a child’s time in the hospital, it can also be truly therapeutic.

“We have a lot of children who might need to complete physical therapy or occupational therapies every day, and it’s really painful for them and they don’t want to do it,” Nicely said. “You can put a VR headset on those kids and they will do whatever movements they just said ‘no’ to. We’ll do it 20 times in a row because it decreases the sensation of pain for them — because their brain is thinking about something completely different. It can make a big difference when it comes to being able to increase movement and action, so that’s a huge advantage.”

While similar VR distraction therapy had been used with adults at ChristianaCare’s Cancer Center (and is expected to become more prominent in children’s therapy), there aren’t that many positions gaming-specific positions like Shaw’s at US hospitals — only about 50, per Shaw. But he expects that more will roles emerge.

“I hope to see it grow, because I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned in these early months is that building relationships with patients and families takes time,” he said. “Without somebody like myself to kind of deal with the tech issues, it takes a lot from the existing child life specialists. Their job is to build relationships and take care of the patient, and if technology gets in the way, that can’t happen.”

The growing need for more game and technology specialists in hospitals — a position many people looking for jobs in the gaming industry may not even know exist — is one of the reasons Shaw, with his continued WilmU and student connections, fits the position well.

“There are absolutely educational opportunities,” Nicely said. “One of the reasons that we were really attracted to Scott was because of his educational connection. We would love to create a volunteer program, an internship program, a practicum — there are so many opportunities to bring kids and students into it.”

People interested in learning more about getting into this line of work can reach out to Nemours’ Child Life Program at childlifeprograms@nemours.org.

“You can’t get a better job,” Shaw said. “You get to play games with kids and you’re making an impact. Of course, there are challenges with technology all the time. But that’s why this position was created: to make those things go smoothly.”

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