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Using video games to transform children’s lives

A girl playing a video game

Award winning games designer and researcher Siobhán Thomas has been working with students to develop games for young people with disabilities

Developing accessible gaming

The lives of children throughout the UK are being transformed thanks to a ground-breaking project spearheaded by an LSBU games researcher.

Enable Gaming is an award-winning action research project set up and led by Siobhán Thomas. The project is a unique games education initiative that advances innovation, knowledge and research in accessible game development. Now in its fifth year, the initiative sees charity Lifelites (www.lifelites.org) commission game development students to make accessible games and games hardware for 9,000 terminally ill children in 54 hospices.

Enable Gaming is providing students with life lessons that are impossible to replicate in a classroom, which also makes them incredibly employable as graduates. The most important thing though is that Enable Gaming truly has the power to change the lives of children in hospices

Siobhán Thomas

Changing lives of children in hospices

Lifelites provides specialist technology for young people at children’s hospices across Britain. The project develops video games that are accessible to youngsters with disabilities and that can be played on the specialist equipment that Lifelites supplies for children in those hospices.

“It is a project that is amazing on so many fronts,” says Siobhán. “Students get the chance to work with a professional client on a real-life brief, are under pressure to deliver quality games, and they know what they’re doing has genuine consequences. It is providing students with life lessons that are impossible to replicate in a classroom, which also makes them incredibly employable as graduates. The most important thing though is that Enable Gaming truly has the power to change the lives of children in hospices.”

Designing the games

When initially commissioned, the students were tasked with developing computer games for children at all 54 baby and children’s hospices in the UK. Due to the range of disabilities experienced by the children, all games had to be designed with accessibility and specialised equipment needs in mind. The project incorporates technology, creativity and diversity and now encompasses a number of additional aspects.

Exploring the role of gaming in improving employability

Alongside the original development of video games accessible to youngsters with disabilities, there is now a key study being undertaken to examine how participating in video game development can improve the employability of people with disabilities.

“People with severe disabilities have limited employment opportunities and, as a consequence, are often excluded from society,” explains Siobhán. Because the games are now developed with, and tested by, people with disabilities such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the project is opening up new avenues that weren’t possible before. Work is also taking place with the charity DMD Pathfinders, which helps teenagers and adults with Duchenne get into employment.

Recognising the importance of the research

Siobhán’s research is playing a vital role in raising workforce diversity in the fast growing games industry. This aspect of the project has been recognised by special needs employment groups, and its innovative nature was profiled in 2016 by GamesAid.

Siobhán, who was named one of the Top 30 Women in Games in 2016, adds: “Recognition such as our recent The Independent Game Developers’ Association (TIGA) award shows the immense value the industry is placing on the work we are doing with this project. We’re at the forefront of tech advances, constantly pushing the boundaries of what games education is. For us, innovation involves prioritising accessibility and diversity in all the work developed across the course and it is just so rewarding to be able to say that the games we make truly change people’s lives for the better.”

Plans for the future

Inspired by the success of Enable Gaming, plans for the future involve developing an international games accessibility curriculum training program, and also a ground-breaking project that sees people with disabilities advancing the UK as a global powerhouse in competitive e-sports, using video games to help them become more involved.

Research Impacts:

  • Enable Gaming won the Best Educational Initiative and Talent Development award at the prestigious The Independent Game Developers’ Association (TIGA) Awards 2016. Nominees included industry heavyweight Sony’s PlayStation First initiative, as well as fellow higher education institutes Staffordshire University and University of the West of England.
  • The success of Enable Gaming helps Lifelites – a charity which donates specialist technology to children in hospices – in their bid for funding from game industry charity GamesAid. This helps Lifelites to provide equipment and services for terminally ill and disabled children that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
  • The project improves quality of life for people with life-threatening disabilities and can help to foster their independence through providing employment opportunities as testers.
  • These employment opportunities could, in turn, potentially reduce healthcare costs.
  • The testers are gaining valuable skills, as are the LSBU students working with them.
 
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