We all like playing games here at Everybody Plays - there's nothing quite like getting the staff huddled round a copy of Smash Bros and settling a few scores on a Friday night. And while game-playing skills may vary among our staff (that's probably an understatement, seeing as it always seems to be the very same people in last place...), at least everyone can take part and have a go.
For some, though, picking up a controller and playing a game is easier said than done - no matter how much they might want to. Disabilities, both physical and mental, can impact something as simple and universal as sitting down for a few Mario Kart races with friends, and it's never much fun to be left out. Wanting nothing more than to help more people get involved with games, Stockport-based disabled charity, the Aidis Trust has taken it upon themselves to hold special games events for the disabled, so they can finally join in with the digital fun.
Originally founded in 1975 to help a young student with a muscle-wasting condition carry on through school after he lost the strength to grip a pen, the Aidis Trust works with disabled children by helping them use computers and technology. With the help of specially adapted software and devices, their goal is to help severely disabled people achieve their potential - or in the case of their recent Everyone Can Game project, simply have fun in ways that many of us take for granted. Using their experience of adapting computers, they've been tinkering with games consoles and games so that disabled children can play co-operative and competitive games with their friends.
As you may imagine, though, taking a game designed for fine motor controls, and making it accessible to those who may have no, or little, control over their hands brings with it its own set of challenges. There are a fair few hurdles involved - and much of the adaptation is only really possible due to recent technological advances, as Richard Bull, one of the guys behind the charity, explains. Using a device called a Kinesic Mouse, which requires a 3D camera to work, they are "able to remap keyboards and commands to certain gestures", letting someone control everything from first person shooter The Bureau: XCOM Declassified to Pac-Man through their facial gestures alone. "In it's simplest form, Pac-Man consists of using the arrow keys on a keyboard to go either up, down, left or right. We could, for example, tell the Kinesic Mouse software to remap the arrow keys to head tilting, so simply tilting your head in the same direction of the arrow keys could move Pac-Man in that direction." Either way, it all sounds very clever to us.
Sometimes the tweaks they make are much simpler however, depending on the specific disability in question. For example, "someone with a learning disability might be able to play a game just by lowering the difficulty setting to make the game more forgiving", Richard said, whereas something as common as colour-blindness can make some games unplayable for others. "What we try and focus on is not making every single game playable, but looking at the games that can be adjusted to help as many people play them", which means that "at our events we have a relatively small number of games, but they are ones we have tested and know how to make the adjustments for the people we meet."
Of course, as anyone who regularly plays games will tell you, games can be incredibly powerful things, whether they're helping you learn to express yourself, cheering you up, or simply helping you socialise a little bit more - something the Aidis Trust have seen first hand. As Richard explains, during recent sessions, children who "would never usually socialise with others in the group… got involved and joined in with the other children". Helped out by the small Canadian developer of manic multiplayer mini-game collection Party Panic, they discovered the game was a particular hit with an autistic boy called George who "absolutely loved it, and apart from a short snack break, played it all evening with six others dropping in and out as they went off to try other games". According to Richard, "George doesn't speak much, but his support workers told us how great it was to see him enjoying himself and interacting with other children in the group. It's the small things like that we find really rewarding, knowing that the service is making a difference."
Currently the Aidis Trust operates out of the Stockport/Manchester/Cheshire area only, working with disabled groups in the area - although they hope to "secure some extra funding from the games industry that would allow us to go further afield" in the future. Even if you're out of their area, though, if you're a parent/relative/friend to a disabled child, the folks at the trust will be more than happy to answer any questions parents may have in helping their children with computers and gaming, so feel free to get in touch on their website, http://www.aidis.org/