Jan. 14--For Dewayne Cameron, games aren't just fun. They're serious business.
The Grovetown resident recently founded Grunt Games, a game development studio with two purposes -- to help people enjoy themselves, and to help rehabilitating patients succeed through a different kind of therapy.
"My idea is that you can build a game that is actually a game, but you have to use your physical therapy exercises to actually control it," Cameron said.
Like many people in the Augusta area, Cameron and his family arrived here through the Army. His Army experience also brought him to his second professional life.
As a kid, Cameron and his family moved around a lot, but his deepest family roots are in western Pennsylvania. He joined the Army in 1995, first in the National Guard then a year later on active duty as a crewmember on a Bradley Linebacker, an armored vehicle that provides short-range air defense.
In 2005 the Army's Human Resources Command began phasing out his job "because we hadn't shot down any aircraft since, like, Korea," Cameron joked. Many missions at the time involved just route reconnaissance.
As a staff sergeant, Cameron initially was offered two reassignment choices: work either with Patriot missiles, or Sentinel short-range air defense radar. Neither option appealed to him.
Time was ticking for him to either retrain or leave the Army, so the Army expanded his options, and he chose the military police. Deployed back to Iraq during the 2007 "surge," his job was to help train and expand Iraq's tiny civilian police force.
That new assignment changed Cameron's life. His squad was hit by an improvised explosive device. Shrapnel tore through nerves and tendons in his left leg. Discs were crushed in his neck and back. He sustained 38 breaks in his left arm.
"I spent quite a while going through rehabilitation, and that's kind of what started the seeds of what I'm doing today," Cameron said.
One day while he was undergoing occupational therapy at Fort Gordon, one of the therapists introduced the patients to the Nintendo Wii, which features handheld controllers that use accelerometers and infrared detection to control onscreen movement. The idea was to get patients moving.
"And I kind of had this chip on my shoulder. I was angry at the world and I didn't want to do it," Cameron said. "I realized you could sit there in a chair and cheat."
But then he realized something.
"The games weren't meant for people with injuries," he said. "They weren't meant for people with disabilities. They were meant for everyone else who was normal."
As time passed, he couldn't find a game a consumer could just buy off the shelf that required physical activity, yet was tailored to a person with limited physical movement and could be used to assist in physical therapy.
Microsoft later introduced Kinect -- a line of input devices for the company's Xbox gaming consoles that relied on motion-sensing cameras instead of handheld controllers. That technology was limited at first, but has evolved to detect heart rate and body heat, and now "can see every single bone point in your hand," Cameron said.
"So I can come up with games that are completely meant for fingers alone," he said. "Say you broke your hand and you had pins in there, and you needed to go through rehabilitation. We could come up with a gamer where this could be the motion for you to play it."
He had his idea. But he also had a problem.
"I had no clue how to make a video game," Cameron said.
So his already busy life got busier. He enrolled in online classes through Full Sail University and in 2014 graduated as an accredited video game designer. That was in addition to undergoing time-consuming rehab and, as a wounded veteran, navigating the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He also held down a job -- first with the Veterans Curation Program, which archives archaeological artifacts and data, and later as an image analyst at Savannah River Site.
After graduation, Cameron got a job with the Angelo Group, a Martinez software company. As an interactive designer, he built games to teach foreign languages to advanced-level military interpreters.
When that contract ended and he left Angelo, Cameron enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, to learn how to start his own business.
"After I went through the program I learned a lot of stuff," he said. "One thing I realized is that people can come to you with an idea, and ideas are great. But if you don't have a working product in hand they don't really care. And when you don't have any experience in starting up, it's hard to gain funding when you're taking about building games for physical therapy."
While learning those lessons, Cameron -- as he described it -- "backtracked a little bit."
He wanted to produce a "quality product" -- a concrete object to place in a customer's hands, or the hands of a potential investor.
Cameron's answer was in the cards.
"Before we were allowed to touch a computer system in school we had to make regular games -- card games, board games, all that stuff," he said. "We had to learn the basics. So I started looking at what I had."
He had been bouncing around an idea for a strategy card game. His early vision for the game would be difficult for just one person to execute.
"So I kind of gutted it down to the bare bones," Cameron said. "I looked at it for a while, and then one day I decided: I'm going to make this game, and I'm going to show everyone that I can take absolutely nothing and make something out of it."
The result is Lewt Ninja.
Two to five players choose to play as one of five "hero" characters, who then draw and throw cards as they fight their way through a monster-infested dungeon.
The object of Lewt Ninja is to collect all eight pieces of your hero's magical armor, and collect all the loot you can -- either by slaying creatures, or stealing from your teammates. The cards in the game's four decks have different values and purposes that combine or clash to create many, many gameplay scenarios.
In developing the game, he even gained some valuable feedback from members of Evans High School's Gamers Club, who played Lewt Ninja in test runs and offered their suggestions.
Cameron said the first 2,000 units of the game have been produced. The idea is to use proceeds from initial game sales to produce Lewt Ninja expansion packs, and possibly even a mobile app.
Profits from subsequent sales can help fund the development of the video games Cameron is designing to assist physical therapy patients.
He's still fleshing out concepts -- one video game has a military combat theme and another is modeled after increasingly popular interactive "escape rooms." The movement in the games, and the player's progress, will be dictated by the player's range of movement picked up by motion sensors.
"The physical therapy gaming is where I'd like to go with the company right now," he said. "Looking at the other companies that are kind of going along the same lines I want to go, they're already $26-34 million in just development. And I want to go in really a completely different route from where they're going.
"I think I'm looking at it differently because I went through therapy myself, and a lot of these people are either doctors who are doing the therapy and they're seeing it from one view, or they're a relative of someone who's gone through therapy and seen it," Cameron said. "I haven't seen anyone who's actually been a patient of therapy and gone through the struggles I've gone through."
Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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