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In Search Of Equality: A Reason To Play Video Games

In lieu of recent blogs, so as not to be cast as a vitriolic preacher of disabled issues, I'm changing up the vibe of this piece to focus on something more positive and all-together uplifting. This may cause some of you to switch off, because, let's face it, it's way more fun to tear apart the Tweets of inconsiderate Kens than it is to rejoice over something wonderful. But I feel it's in my best interests to demonstrate I have more than one gear and can offer something other than just troll blood for the mob. In addition, my dad reckons I need to tone down the language if I'm ever to be deemed viable by the mainstream media, sooooo...if you get bored, blame Nige.

This week, aside from being accepted as a Peer Support Volunteer for the Spinal Injuries Association, I have mostly been playing video games. And in order to legitimise this pastime, I feel it's imperative to write about this activity within a framework of disability. That way, I can say I've been doing 'research', when actually I've just been building a massive fort on some random server. (I'll explain later.)

However, before I get into the nitty gritty about why video games can be so liberating for disabled people, I want to provide a bit of context around the gaming industry and why I think it's such an exciting sector. To start with, did you know that Grand Theft Auto V has made more money for Rockstar Games than any other entertainment product in the history of entertainment products? It has now grossed over six BILLION dollars - smashing the numbers generated by any hit movie or music single, signalling a shift in how games are commercially perceived.

Another reason why gaming is so fascinating right now is eSport. At this moment in the UK, eSport is still pretty much below the mainstream radar. In fact, most people simply 'don't get it'. To them, the idea of watching other people playing video games is ludicrous. Quite often, even sport lovers don't see the correlation between watching a professional video game tournament and, say, watching the World Cup. Which is funny, really. Because if they ever spoke to anyone who doesn't like football, they might be urged to consider that watching a bunch of overpaid blokes chase an inflated leather orb around a field is equally ludicrous.

I love football and video games and I don't think it's ludicrous to watch either. As such, I can see a not-so-distant future in which Sky eSports becomes a reality and major video game tournaments are broadcast to our TV sets. This might not sit well with some of you, but in the words of Marty McFly, "you're kids are gonna love it." Which brings me to the main thrust of this piece. Today's video games are different from the ones I played as a teenager for one significant reason: Internet connectivity.

When I was growing up there were two ways of gaming: single player and local multiplayer. But nowadays, kids can play online multiplayer. This means the gamer can combine the concentration once reserved for single player games with the social aspect associated with local multiplayer titles. It's the reason why games such as Fortnite and Player Unknown's Battlegrounds are so popular right now. It's also the reason why parents everywhere are registering concern about the amount of time their kid spends locked in their room, staring at a screen.

But the difference between kids-of-today versus kids of the 90s is that when they lock themselves in their room to play a video game they're actually socialising. It's counter-intuitive even to the most modern parent, but it's a norm that's here to stay. And I say this a good thing. Particularly if you are disabled. Because, as I demonstrated in the film I made, getting out and about with a disability can be a nightmare. Which means socialising can be difficult and often unfeasible. After all, how many of my friends have a home that I can access without being unceremoniously lifted up a flight of stairs? Not many. But I have absolutely no problem accessing my friends to play games online.

There's another aspect to playing video games that I could not have perceived prior to my spinal injury. No matter what game we're playing, my character or vehicle is equal to that of my friend. Equal in a way that I am not in real life. It's not that I dream of becoming a video game avatar or look on with jealousy at the able-bodied character I'm controlling. No, it's more that I appreciate the egalitarian arena and freedom of movement on a more visceral level. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the game I've been playing recently.

Rust is an open-sandbox survival game in which you enter a rural landscape as a bare naked human being. The only things you start with are your physical abilities, a flaming torch to light the way, and a rock to smash and mine things. Before I elaborate on the game itself, I'm gonna make the assumption that most able-bodied players don't stop to think about the joy of simply being able to run through the wilderness with gay abandon. To be honest, I didn't at first. I was too busy being concerned with making a stone hatchet and foraging for mushrooms so I didn't starve to death.

However, once I'd got past this initial phase I started to see the game differently. In essence, the aim is to build a base using your bare hands and the natural resources in the surrounding area. This means spending a lot of time chopping down trees for wood, as well as mining stone and metal. Many of the actions required to do this are repetitive, but ya know, that doesn't bother me. I kinda like saying to my online buddies "I'm just popping out to chop wood." It's liberating. I mean, it's not like I was ever prone to a spot of lumberjacking as an able-bodied individual, but the idea that I can do something as simple as run into the forest and bring back logs is joyful.

At the beginning of this piece I promised you something up-lifting and wonderful, so please allow me to draw your attention to a story that emerged recently on the BBC's Twitter feed. Becky is a young girl with quadriplegic cerebral palsy who likes to play the video game, Minecraft. In brief, Minecraft is an incredibly popular game among kids where you build stuff using your imagination. The problem for Becky is that her physical disability means she can't access typical gaming interfaces, which means she is excluded. That was until some clever people developed a way for Becky to control the cursor using her eyes. In Becky's own words: "It has allowed me to be totally included in the fun as an equal player and it has meant I've had more in common with my friends. I think it has also changed the way that my friends see me. It makes me feel less disabled."

I think Becky has nailed it.

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