Esports Gain Traction at Welfare Facilities in Japan

REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Asian Games – Hangzhou 2022 – E-Sports – China Hangzhou Esports Centre, Hangzhou, China – September 29, 2023 A general view of the venue during the League of Legends Final

Tokyo (Jiji Press)—Esports, or the competitive playing of computer games online, is finding broader applications at social welfare facilities across Japan, assisted by specially designed game software and devices.

Residents of such facilities engage in brief original games lasting around one minute. The games utilize a button-type switch that has been developed to cater to individuals of all abilities and ages.

Esports is being employed with the aim of preserving cognitive functions in elderly individuals and serving as a means of social exchange for those with disabilities. In the current fiscal year to March, the Tokyo metropolitan government has started a project to provide game lending services to facilities for disabled individuals in the Japanese capital.

At Adachi no Sato Yazaike Fukushi En, a social welfare corporation located in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, residents with intellectual or physical disabilities engaged in esports during their leisure time in late November last year, utilizing equipment provided by the metropolitan government.

Residents at the facility had the opportunity to select their preferred games from a pool of 15 options. For example, individuals facing challenges in color identification participated in a footrace that uses only one of the four color buttons. Those proficient in using multiple color buttons enjoyed a game of throwing beanbags into a basket set on a high pole. The winning players were met with cheers from the facility personnel.

An official from the facility said, “When a tournament was held at the facility, closely contested games heightened the whole atmosphere of the event.”

In the current fiscal year, the Tokyo metropolitan government extended its esports equipment lending program to 10 facilities offering daily care and support for continuous employment to disabled people. Following a three-month period of use, the local government plans to assess the impact of the initiative.

During an esports event organized by the metropolitan government in mid-December, five facilities for individuals with disabilities, along with the event venue, were connected online for a competition involving eight teams. Responding to equipment rental requests from numerous facilities, the metropolitan government is considering extending the project into the next fiscal year and beyond.

UDe-Sports Kyokai, a general incorporated association based in Koshi, Kumamoto Prefecture in southwestern Japan, is involved in the development and promotion of specialized games for esports. UDe-Sports stands for universal-design electronic sports.

Ryuta Ikeda, the 39-year-old representative director of the association and a physiotherapist, witnessed the diminishing social interactions with the outside world during his tenure at a nursing home, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although Ikeda considered an esports event using commercially available games, he encountered challenges with complex rules, controller skills and restrictions on the permanent installation of existing games in welfare facilities. In response, Ikeda and his colleagues decided to take matters into their own hands, starting the development of custom game software.

Individuals can take part in unique games developed by the association by connecting a personal computer and associated equipment and accessing the dedicated website.

The association showed ingenuity in transforming welfare equipment into a 7.5-centimeter-diameter button. It also manufactured a small switch that can be operated with the chin or fingertips, along with a switch responsive to static electricity or blinking, among other devices. Through skillful combinations, even individuals with severe physical disabilities can engage in playing these specially designed games.

Currently, about 120 nursing care facilities and facilities for the disabled across the nation have adopted the association’s esports system through monthly contracts. The system accommodates up to four players engaged in simultaneous gameplay, and a monthly competition fosters online interaction among participants.

Surveys conducted by the association and other organizations indicate that sustained use of esports has contributed to enhanced attentiveness and motivation among elderly individuals. Furthermore, the findings reveal instances of the physical functions of disabled individuals improving, subsequently facilitating their employment.

“In an era when even elderly individuals adeptly use smartphones, it’s worth noting that many residents in welfare facilities still spend their leisure time with traditional straightforward activities such as ‘origami’ paper folding and balloon volleyball,” Ikeda said. “It would be fulfilling if esports, with its accessibility to people of all generations, could serve as a catalyst for social interactions and rehabilitation.”