Video games, Down’s syndrome and my brother – a personal story

Playing with my brother is one of many ways he reveals himself not as a ‘disabled’ person – but simply as his own person

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.