In 2005, when my brother Euan was still a schoolboy, we used to play a lot of Tekken 5 together.
If you’re new to this famed video game series, it’s a one-on-one martial arts simulation - a ferocious yet endearingly flamboyant experience in which kangaroos trade blows with Bruce Lee clones, and winged demons grapple with Mexican wrestlers. And I’m fairly sure Euan is the most savage, unprincipled Tekken 5 player ever to lay his traitorous fingers upon a PlayStation 2 controller. Some combatants prefer to open a bout with a stunning punch to the lower body, but Euan was rarely that noble. “Wait a minute, I want to show you something,” he'd declare, scuttling out of reach. I'd dutifully wander over to his side of the arena, all patronising solicitude, and he'd kick me in the face.
Euan is a dirty fighter. But he's also one of the most fearlessly imaginative people you'll meet. And in its own small way, our shared gaming hobby is proof of this.
There have been greater feats of cunning than his Tekken 5 antics, but I like that this gambit ducks right under the question of manual dexterity. Because on those, purely functional and “sportsmanlike” terms, my brother has a bit of a mountain to climb. He has Down's syndrome, a genetic disorder that reportedly affects one in every thousand babies born in the UK each year, which often hampers development of fine motor skills. I've never been entirely sure what Euan thinks of his condition - if you're reading this, Euan, I apologise in advance for any stupid assumptions. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether his refusal to fight on terms that leave him at a disadvantage reflects something larger, a rejection of the role society wants him to play.
Video games v expectations
We expect “disabled” people – that’s to say, the vast spectrum of individuals branded as such for convenience’s sake – to be passive, unaware, content to live within tacit, carefully managed social nooks in exchange for support and guidance. We don’t expect them to recognise such overtures for what they are: well-meant, but limiting. We don’t expect them to break the rules. We don’t expect them to cheat.
By contrast, most video games outright encourage you to misbehave, or at least refrain from bringing down the gavel when you do: it's what makes them such wonderful, liberating escapism. Just look at Timesplitters 2, the work of Nottingham-based developer Free Radical Design. A deranged cartoon shooter, it tracks how each player conducts him or herself over the course of match, and offers an appropriate award. As a rule, I’d end up with something like “hypochondriac” (for picking up medical kits when you're unhurt) or “backpeddler”. My brother, meanwhile, walked away from each round with a toxic cocktail of judgments usually including “most cowardly”, “bully” or “ricochet king”. He's a sneaky player.
Euan and I don’t play Timesplitters 2 anymore, mainly because the disc has come to resemble a half-digested beermat. Nowadays we're fond of Gears of War: Judgment for the Xbox 360, a science-fantasy shooter in which granite-jawed marines scuttle around blasting hideous cave mutants with chainsaw-guns. It's an opportunity for Euan to flaunt his own, oddly 80s sense of machismo, equal parts Steven Seagal and The Village People – he's taken to somersaulting his character in time to a raucous rendition of Everybody Mambo. There's nothing in the game's world or fiction that accounts for this behaviour, of course. It's just his personality at play.
No man behind
Another favourite is Left 4 Dead 2 (also on Xbox 360), a brilliant riff on B-movies from Valve Software, the games industry’s indefatigable pioneer and prankster. Though a world apart from Timesplitters in most respects – the idea is to carve a path through hyperactive crowds of Danny Boyle-era zombies, from one safehouse to the next – Left 4 Dead 2 compares to Free Radical's game in that in effect it is a personality test. The nature of the threat isn’t pre-determined but protean, shifting in response to your traits and tactics.
Cower for too long at the mouth of a street, and Valve’s vaunted “Director”, a bundle of code with a Stanford complex, might sneak a few grumpy corpses into the road behind you, a none-too-subtle hint that you’re letting an unseen audience down. Split from the group in a fit of zeal and you’re asking to be pinioned by an elite nasty like the Hunter (imagine one of David Cameron’s huggable hoodies, cross-bred with a panther). Euan gets along famously with Hunters. He’s also well-acquainted with the Witch, a sinister, weeping apparition who won’t bother you, providing you don’t bother her. Suffice to say that we seldom leave a Witch to her own devices, and I'm usually the one who winds up a broken ruin in the process.
And yet - my brother has never once abandoned me to my fate. His delight at leaving me in the lurch is exceeded only by the satisfaction he seems to feel at being my rescuer: it's another way, I guess, of refusing to be the kind of individual he's expected to be.
Each of Left 4 Dead’s chapters or “campaigns” concludes with an all-or-nothing gauntlet run or final stand in the face of overwhelming odds. You might have to defend a rock stadium while waiting for a rescue chopper, using concert pyrotechnics to set the undead on fire, or refuel a car in the middle of an infested shopping mall. We're rubbish at these sections, but that's OK - dying in Left 4 Dead is often much more fun than surviving. The point isn’t so much to succeed as to share the experience of a protracted and hilarious failure, as best-laid plans fall to the Director’s tricks and only-human feats of incompetence or treachery.
Clegg v sense
Games like Left 4 Dead can be every bit as exhilarating and convivial as a real-life sport. It's frustrating that so many people continue to regard them as degrading and desensitising. Parents should “ration” a child's consumption of “corrosive” videogames, father of three Nick Clegg observed on LBC in September, adding that players “occupy a sort of hermetically sealed world really of their own, and that can have a very detrimental effect”. The idea of joining in, much as you'd join your kids for a game of football, doesn't seem to occur to Clegg – but how are we to lure people out of that “world”, assuming this is necessary, if not by comprehending what makes it so enticing? And what possibilities are we dismissing in the process?
My brother has been playing video games for well over a decade. If this has had “a very detrimental effect” on him, he hides it very well, though I suppose there is that slightly unnerving fixation with James Bond. This has been the cause of some strife: I'll travel home for the weekend armed with a critical darling like Bioshock Infinite - think Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York meets David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas - only to discover him tucking into his battered old copy of Quantum of Solace, a middling adaptation of the Daniel Craig film. I've hidden the disc on occasion. Not proud.
The value of Bond
My brother’s dedication to Quantum of Solace may actually have been constructive, much as I hate to admit it. Years ago, he'd ask me to help out with the game's number puzzles (hacking into an electronic door lock, for example) and Quick Time Events - “on rails” sequences that are shot and edited like the action bits in any garden-variety blockbuster movie, where you tap buttons on cue to make it through unscathed. Nowadays, Euan is able to perform these without assistance. Is this evidence that his time in 007's shoes has honed his reflexes and improved his numeracy? Possibly. There's growing support for the idea that far from damaging youngsters, games can actually aid cognitive development and have educational benefits.
Equipped with tools, objectives and obstacles, a game is analogous to a classroom, a crucible in which to test out and master all sorts of principles. That the principles transferred (eg where best to punch a kangaroo) may not be worth the trouble is no argument against the medium’s efficacy. Among the organisations that acknowledge this is the National Security Agency: in documents published by the Guardian in November, our friendly neighbourhood G-men note that both the US army and Lebanese Hezbollah have developed games for training and recruitment. I like to think that the NSA has a file on Euan. He could certainly teach them a thing or two about underhand tactics.
It's possible that children with Down's syndrome have more to gain from “edu-tainment” software than they do traditional teaching methods, as I learned during a conversation with Gillian Taylor, an occupational therapist at UK gamer's charity Special Effect. “People with Down's syndrome are very visual learners,” she tells me. “So they learn much better from visual materials than auditory materials or other learning styles. If you think about how much computer games give you visually, I think that could be a real benefit.” This may be especially true of touchscreen games, which allow players to meddle with an image without first mastering a control device.
I'm not trying to claim that every child born with the condition belongs in a virtual reality booth. In Gillian's view, “people with Down's syndrome are as different as people generally, in terms of the spectrum of skills that they have” - some will go to college, like Euan, others may not, and blanket solutions are of use to nobody. But where a real classroom may seem threatening to a person who isn’t as literate or socially adept as his or her peers, games at least offer a controlled environment in which to hang out and experiment with concepts.
Learning something isn't necessarily the point - success of any kind is good for you, whether you experience it in the real world or not. “Motivation can be a problem for people with Down's syndrome,” Gillian observed. “If they're not getting any success with things, they're not going to develop the self-esteem, and they're not going to want to try, and therefore the skills aren't going to build. The right game can offer the right challenge, enabling them to enjoy success, which in turn motivates them to progress further.”
Freedom and control
The right game can be hard to find, unfortunately, which is why Special Effect puts on roadshows throughout the UK, where players of all abilities can try out the charity's colossal library of tailor-made control devices, many of them based on commercially available hardware, like Sony's DualShock pad. Examples include a peripheral that allows you to drag and drop virtual chess pieces with your eyes, and an intricate device that makes it possible to play a 3D shooter using chin movements, voice commands and a switch mounted on the side of a chair.
“Our role there is as facilitators to help them experience a range of games with different speeds, cognitive levels and control complexities,” says communications chief Mark Saville. “The magic happens when they experience games that match their abilities.” These events are also on opportunity for friends and loved ones to experience these titles; in helping those with disabilities get to grips with a game, Special Effect is helping to lower the entry threshold across the board.
Perhaps the leakiest preconception about video games right now is that they can't be shared - that gaming is an adolescent cult practise, inaccessible to any except card-carrying enthusiasts. But a world is only “hermetically sealed” if you insist on being outside it - and ultimately, the loss is yours. Playing games with my brother has made me more conscious of his spontaneity, his guile and resourcefulness, his intellectual independence and irreverence. It’s one of many ways he reveals himself not as a “disabled” person but simply as his own person, as hell-bent on deciding his own destiny as anybody else.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Scott Akerman