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Interview with Ben Townsend: Everyone Can Game Volunteer

As you may know, the Aidis Trust has been running a project called Everyone Can Game, which aims to help disabled people to become involved in gaming. As a part of which, there have been gaming days to get disabled children playing games in an accessible way. Well, I thought it might be a good opportunity to catch up on how things are going as well as talk all things gaming with one of the project’s volunteers.

Benjamin Townsend, who is a games designer has taken the time to support disabled participants on a number of the gaming days run by the Aidis Trust. So for this post, I have interviewed him about his work as a game designer, his experiences volunteering for Aidis and his thoughts about gaming accessibility.

What first got you interested in gaming?

I started playing games from a very young age. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting down with my brother or some friends to play on the NES or Atari, and they were good times.

Why do you enjoy gaming?

Games allow you to experience multiple things that no other medium can. Firstly, they are a challenge. You need to think, solve puzzles, learn skills and improve in order to progress in a game. Secondly, they are a form of entertainment. Like films they can make you laugh, cry, feel fear. You can become attached to the characters in a game, perhaps even more so than in a movie because you are the character, you control them and go through the experience with them. Finally, games are a unique way that people can test the rules of the world in a controlled setting. When you are playing a game there are things that you can do and ways that you can act and interact with others that aren’t possible in life. I love how games give a safe environment for people to express themselves and learn about the world. There is no other medium that can challenge you, entertain you and teach you like a game can.

Why did you decide to become a games designer?

After leaving university I worked a retail job for nine years. It was fine, a decent job with some good people. However, I never saw a future for myself in that industry and eventually I reached a point when I said to myself I wanted to do more. Games had always been of an interest to me and the idea that I could have a career where I create things that give enjoyment to others was too tempting not to take.

What do you do as a game designer?

So when I tell people I make games most at first think that I either do the programming or the artwork. What I really do is write the rules of how the world works. Take Super Mario as an example. The designers on that needed to define how fast he could run, how high or how far he could jump, how fast he would fall, where the enemies in the level were, what power-ups he could have and so much more. Game designers are responsible for giving the world its rules.

You have been involved in making multiple games. How did you find the experience?

Always fun and always challenging. I’ve worked on games alone, whilst studying, and professionally. Every game I’ve worked on has taught me something new and I love that. The best part about it for me though is when I am directly working with others and we talk at length about how a certain game mechanic should work.

What challenges does game designing create?

Oh so many! You need to take so many different things into account when you are designing a game. Take a simple thing like having a footballer kick a ball in FIFA17. You can start with how far should the ball go, which is easy. But then how fast is the ball, which can’t just be anything because the animation of the ball has to match it. Then how does the player determine the distance it will travel? How do different game characters react to the ball and do some react differently? There are so many variables and just having one slightly off like having the ball be too slow or too easy to overkick can seriously impact how the game plays.

What would be your advice to budding game designers?

Make games. Portfolios are incredibly important in this industry and you will find it near impossible to get even an interview without something to show first. If you can, try and find a small independent team who are working on a project and see if you can join them by doing quality assurance, even if it is for no money. You will get to see how a game looks as it is being built and will be able to provide feedback on the game and what changes you feel should be made.

Many people who play games are put off making them because of all the coding involved. Do you enjoy coding or do you see it as an occupational hazard?

I have certainly met many people who have absolutely no coding skills at all. While I can code, I certainly do not have the skill to code at a high professional level. But coding is important for game designers to know, or at least the fundamentals of it. I have heard too many stories from programmers who have been asked to do something which to a designer seems easy, but for the coder could be many hours of work. I have a lot of respect for the programmers because they do so much to make the games we love.

Does having to consider gaming as a profession make it any less fun?

Absolutely not. Now that I am making games, when I play them I look at them in a different way. I like to understand how the game works and what mechanics are involved. Playing games is an essential part of the job because the more I play the more I learn and the better I can become.

Why did you volunteer for The Aidis Trust?

I used to work part time as a play support worker in a youth club for 6-12 year olds, but unfortunately it had to close down due to lack of funding. I really miss working with those kids. I was also raised in a very charitable home. When I was younger my parents along with some friends and family would put on shows and raised money to support Cancer Research, Guide Dogs for the Blind, St. Luke’s Hospice and many more charities. So I was very happy when I found the Aidis Trust, learned about what they did and that they wanted volunteers to help out with their gaming days. The opportunity seemed too good to be true.

You have helped out with several gaming days so far. What games did the participants play and how were they adapted to meet their needs?

Colin McRae’s Dirt is always very popular. It is a racing game and we have a wheel with foot pedals which makes it a lot easier to play for those who have difficulties with fine motor controls. Plus the game has driving assist features which corrects them and stops them from driving off the track too much.

If that is too much we have the eyegaze. It tracks the user’s eye movement so even somebody who was severely paralysed could play it. Looking to the left or right of the screen would steer the car and looking at the top would accelerate. It is an amazing setup and I am curious to see more of it.

The VR experiences are popular too. Thrills & Chills simulates a roller coaster, which is something that a lot of the children will never get to experience. Sometimes we let their parents try and some of them find it scary.

We also have this setup which plays games designed to work with a single button. It’s a big red button so no matter the capabilities of the person, anyone can play it. The games are very simple sports games like hurdles or curling so they understand them very quickly.

Do you have any ideas of how other games could be adapted to be accessible for disabled people in the future?

I feel that first person shooter games could be adapted quite easily. If we could have a setup similar to arcades with a gun that you aim at the screen and a trigger to pull then they would be a lot easier to play. Or even using the eyegaze which can be setup so that by winking it would act like you’ve clicked a button. Then the user would just need to look and wink to shoot.

I would like to see more puzzle games being adapted though as some of the children are perfectly capable mentally, they just have physical disabilities that inhibit them from using standard controllers.

Do you feel the events are beneficial to the participants?

Games can teach children so much and are a great form of entertainment, I would hate to think that there are children being deprived of that. Playing these games can help them, even with something as simple as Pong. It can teach spatial relations and to detect patterns, as they predict the path of the ball. Help improve their motor control, no matter what type of controller they are using. They can even learn sportsmanship whether they win or lose. There is a reason why children love playing games, they are fun, they can teach and they are something you can do with others. So providing disabled children with these experiences can only be of a benefit to them.

Did you feel the experience of volunteering increased your awareness of people with a range of disabilities?

Yes. I didn’t really know much about the specifics of disabilities before I started working with Aidis, and how the same diagnosis can have completely different effects on different people. Learning that each person needs to be specifically catered for and there is no catch all solution to help everyone has been quite eye-opening, and I look forward to learning more in the future.

What do you think the gaming industry at large could do to make playing games more inclusive for people with a variety of disabilities?

There are many simple features that can be added to a game to make them playable for a wider audience. Being able to change how the controller works and what the buttons do isn’t overly complicated and appears in a lot of games. This allows anyone to adjust the layout for their particular needs. Also adding assist modes or easier difficulty settings will allow someone who would typically struggle to still play the game. They can progress through the game comfortably, avoid unnecessary frustrations and go on to finish it.

If you’d like to find out more about the Everyone Can Game project, please contact Aidis Trust

Have you participated in a gaming day? How did you find the experience? Have you played an accessible game? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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