My name is Andrew Gonzalez, I’m 28 years old, and I have cerebral palsy. Since I was a child, my disability has been the punchline of countless jokes, and I found it challenging to do essential daily activities. To top it all off, I am an only child. While my friends spent time outside doing things I couldn’t do, and in some cases still can’t do (ride a bike, play certain sports, etc.), I was home alone with my various video game consoles.
Before we dive into video games, let’s talk a little bit about my cerebral palsy. The disorder is lifelong. This means that I’ll never get rid of my condition. The struggles I endure can potentially get better over time, but they’ll never go away. The left side of my body is not entirely as developed as my right side. I can quickly move my right hand with no issues, but I have trouble moving individual fingers on my left hand. It’s an uphill battle that frustrates me often, but I’ve been trying to cope with it. Even the simplest tasks are difficult. Luckily I’m a righty, but because of the way my disability is, the way I hold a pen is awkward. Because of cerebral palsy, I also have severe asthma and arthritis in my foot.
I’ve had multiple surgeries on my left foot, to realign my foot, three times in my life. As much as I needed these surgeries, each operation reduces the strength in my foot by 20%. The 28 years I’ve lived on this Earth have been filled with fantastic and memorable moments, but many struggles have often hindered my life. Fortunately, video games helped improve my quality of life.
If you’re reading this article, the chances are that you play video games. It’s a hobby that has been in my life since my Grandmother gave me her NES in 1992. The first two games I owned were Super Mario Bros and Mega Man 4. While my skills in Mega Man 4 obviously lacked at age 3, I beat one boss back then and felt accomplished. My teachers and other adults in my life always said that playing video games was a waste of time. “Why don’t you go outside and play basketball?” and “Read a book.” were statements that I usually heard. I read a lot as a child. As I mentioned earlier, participating in activities that required a lot of physical movement proved difficult for me.
I went to therapy (both occupational and physical) for years to help me get my leg stronger and to fully develop motor functions. Fortunately, as I grew up, my speech, writing, and physicality improved. I write a lot during my day job and type a lot for this website. I used to not be able to run or play sports, but I can now walk for hours and even go bowling. After a recent surgery, my movement is limited, but compared to how I was as a child, I’m very fortunate.
Video games opened the door to a whole new world. My favorite consoles growing up were all of the Nintendo systems and the Sony PlayStation. One of the things I love about Nintendo was the fact that each of their consoles had a more complex controller. Look at the NES, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo 64. The NES had a D-pad in addition to the A and B buttons. The Super Nintendo added X, Y, L, and R buttons while the Nintendo 64 added an analog stick, 4 C buttons, and a Z button. As controllers became increasingly complicated, I was forced to learn more commands. I needed to improve my coordination. Playing Goldeneye for the first time proved to be a considerable challenge. Until that game, I didn’t know the concept of having to hold down a button to aim and then use the analog stick to move the reticle.
When I received my first Sony PlayStation during Christmas 1998, it took a while to understand the Dual Shock controller. Until that point, I never saw a controller with two sticks, let alone and L1, L2, R1, and R2 buttons. Every console I obtained required a learning curve growing up. Fortunately, they all helped me to understand new gameplay techniques. Every controller also improved my muscle memory. It wasn’t long before I could pick up a controller from a different console and just know how to play a game. It took a while to master these skills, but it helped growing up.
The rhythm genre is near to my heart. Activision, Harmonix, Red Octane, and EA improved my hand movement. Playing an instrument was always a dream of mine. My parents bought me drum lessons at age 10, but it was too difficult to play because I couldn’t move my left arm quickly. I was at my local GameCrazy (a now-defunct chain of video game stores) when Guitar Hero launched for PlayStation 2. The store had a demo unit playing on one of the TVs. I grabbed the guitar and became discouraged. Strumming the guitar and playing chords and the same time was troublesome. Since I’m a righty, I had to strum with my right hand and use my left fingers for the notes. As I mentioned earlier, the use of my left fingers is limited.
After growing frustrated, I flipped the entire guitar and started strumming with my left hand. Since the fingers on my right hand are strong, I was able to appropriately position my fingers and play. To my surprise, Guitar Hero became I game that suddenly came naturally to me. I spent a few weeks on the normal difficulty, before eventually moving over to hard. After a few months, I switched over to expert and I never looked back. Throughout the years, I beat every song in each Guitar Hero and Rock Band game (besides DLC songs) on expert difficulty. Since 2005, the rhythm genre has been an important part of my gaming career. When Rock Band launched, I attempted to rekindle my interest in the drums. Since I’m an only child, I taught myself to be the guitarist and vocalist in my fictional band. This has helped me strengthen my coordination.
Kinect, Microsoft’s failed motion peripheral helped me quite a bit. Confession time: I’m a huge fan of the Kinect. There’s a reason for my love of the device. It helped me become more active. Since my leg isn’t strong, I played a lot of Just Dance 3 and the Dance Central franchise with some of my friends. Almost every Sunday night for around a year a half, we would play for 2 hours or so. While some dance moves were more physically demanding than others, it helped strengthen my leg over time.
Video games have also helped me with my social skills. Needless to say, I wasn’t the most popular kid growing up. I was always shy because of my disorder. Video games helped me open up to people. I remember being in college and talking to some of my peers about the latest video games. I spent a lot of time in my college’s cafeteria talking about RPGs, horror games, fighting games, and Halo 3. Some of the people I met in college, I still talk to on social media about the topic. Video games opened a door where I can communicate with people who share my interests.
These social skills also translate to Xbox Live. Believe it or not, there are people on my friend’s list that I met in 2004 when Halo 2 launched. There’s something so special about Xbox Live. Surprisingly, people want to play with me. Unless I’ve outright opened up about my disability, no one on Xbox Live (outside of the users I personally know) is aware of my condition. This anonymity helps me to be more outgoing, and it’s something I love. I’ve spent hours raiding in Destiny with players I’ve never met before. Through sites like Reddit, I have been able to ask random people to play a game and actually follow through on that request.
Over the years, I’ve been trying to broaden my horizons when it comes to video games. While a few of my friends play on consoles, a majority of the people I know are PC players. Last year, with the help of two of my friends, I built a gaming PC. It set me back around $2000, but I decided to create a machine that can not only play AAA games on high-end settings, but I can also use the PC for audio and video editing, a skill that is useful for working in the games industry. After buying a few games for the PC, I found that it’s extremely challenging to play. I can’t use the keyboard that well when playing again because of my weak left hand. I often play with my friends using a controller, but I’m at a disadvantage because most opponents are using a keyboard and mouse.
Console gaming has been a safe haven for me. The controller just feels natural, and it helps me to unwind after a long time at work. Controllers feel comfortable, but they’re also trusty friends. I know that I can always rely on my Xbox controller to come through for me. The Elite controller for Xbox One has been a Godsend. I’ve used the customizable paddles and button placements to configure buttons in a way that helps me benefit from my disability. Microsoft’s high-end controller is not only durable, but it’s also helpful for different types of games.
25 years of playing video games have effectively changed my life. Video games often get a bad reputation. News outlets tend to condemn video games when violence and sexual content are front and center, but they usually don’t talk about all the good things that come from the medium. Video games can be used in an educational context. Minecraft is used in schools, there are games that require problem-solving skills, and in my case, video games helped me physically and socially. I’ve seen people “outgrow” video games, but that’s something I don’t see happening in my life. Ever since I started playing video games, I made lifelong friends (including my best friend of 8 years), I became more confident in myself, and the left side of my body has become stronger.
Cerebral Palsy sucks. It’s a disorder that I’m stuck with for the rest of my life. While I can’t beat it, I can do everything in my ability to stall it from winning. To be honest, thinking about cerebral palsy scares me from time to time. I look at the people I know, and it sucks that I can’t do “everything” that they do. Sometimes I need to decline invitations to go out because I know that physically demanding activities will put a toll on my body. One thing I have learned from my 28 years on this Earth is that there are many things I can do to improve my quality of life. I’ve never taken a second for granted and one of the reasons I believe I’m stronger is because of video games.
I still have a long wait to go before I’m the strongest I can be, but for now, I’ll continue to thank Nintendo, Microsoft, EA, Activision, Sony, Sega, Dontnod Entertainment, Blizzard, Ubisoft, as well as other companies for making some of my favorite games. Games that not only helped me pass the time, but also help me bond with friends, deal with my condition, open up emotionally, and strengthen my body. Gamers are a tightknit group of people, full of understanding and compassion. This is a story that was difficult to write, but one that I wanted to share. Disabilities are often cumbersome, but knowing how to deal with them is the biggest step in the right direction.