Students in first of its kind game-changing projectStudents on London South Bank University's (LSBU) BA (Hons) Game Cultures course were commissioned by charity Lifelites to develop video games accessible to youngsters with disabilities, prototypes of which were unveiled at a 'sneak peek' industry event held at LSBU last night.
Lifelites, a charity that provides specialist technology for young people at all 49 baby and children's hospices in the UK, tasked LSBU students with creating a variety of accessible games: from traditional platform and racing games, to more abstract and experience-based worlds. The games have been developed for hardware specifically created and supplied by Lifelites to children in hospices throughout the country.
"This project is amazing on so many fronts", says Siobhan Thomas, Course Director for Game Cultures at LSBU. "Students get the chance to work with a professional client on a real-life brief. They're under pressure to deliver quality games and they know what they're doing has real-life consequences.
"This project really has the power to change the lives of children in hospices. It's not just a university assignment. It provides students with the type of life lessons that are impossible to replicate in a classroom - life lessons that make somebody graduating from university incredibly employable."
Lifelites say that their technology packages provide youngsters with severe disabilities better opportunities to learn, play and participate with their brothers, sisters and mates. At Richard House in Beckton, for example, groups of boys stay up all hours, thrashing each other at football, exploring new worlds, racing expensive cars and behaving like all other teenage boys - enjoying games and forging friendships.
The technology is specially designed with disability in mind: the head-mouse gives children with low motor skills the chance to use the computer and type like anyone else. Special switches are installed for interactive and story-telling games. And each package includes an adjustable touch-screen computer so that children can paint and play.
It's so exciting to be involved with a development project like this", says Lifelites chief executive Simone Enefer-Doy. "Especially as it's the first project of its kind.
"Accessibility isn't always at the forefront of a game developer's mind, so it's been really interesting to see the ways in which these talented students have used it as a launchpad for some really fantastic ideas."
Aaron Morley is a third-year studying Game Cultures at LSBU. He's been volunteering as a press officer for Lifelites as part of the on-going collaboration between the charity and LSBU.
It's not often that a group of students have the chance to pitch a real product to a real client, but that is the opportunity that my classmates and I were given when we were asked to produce a game for severely disabled children in hospices.
"There were a lot of constraints, the most important - and problematic - of which was that all the games had to be playable using just one button.
"To put that into perspective, the average keyboard has more than 100 buttons, a mouse generally has three, and even the earliest of computer games utilised at least two.
"Taking this into account, you can understand why accessibility isn't always a priority for developers. It's really exciting to be part of a project that helps develop and launch our creative ideas."
"Few games industry professionals have this kind of skillset", adds Siobhan. "Students can go into companies and share this knowledge about how to make games accessible and, as a result, the industry itself changes, from the ground up."
The final frontier for the students will be exhibiting their work at Eurogamer, the UK's largest computer games exposition -and with some of the biggest game developers in attendance - in September.
"Places are fiercely fought for and we will have to ensure that our work is up to scratch", says Aaron. "I've had the opportunity to speak with some of my games industry heroes. It has been a brilliant networking opportunity and an invaluable addition to our CVs."
"That's the holy grail, isn't it?", says Siobhan. "Students aren't just learning skills, they're taking away a phenomenal life experience from this."
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