Participation is a word that we often hear in various contexts, such as education, work, politics, sports, and social activities. But what does it mean to participate? And who gets to decide how we participate? Our Head of Learning and Participation, Cameron Bray, looks to their past for an example of why we do not need to find one size that fits all.
It is currently LGBTQ+ History Month in the UK and, for many people in the community like myself, participation can be a challenge. Like most people who are marginalised or discriminated against, we face active barriers or passive exclusions that prevent us from fully taking part in society. The ways that we have learned to express ourselves, communicate with each other, and entertain ourselves are not recognised or valued by wider society. We often face pressure to conform, hide, or change who we are in order to participate. Despite working in the borough for over four years, and feeling relatively out about my identity, I had a very recent experience where someone claimed that no-one in the room was LGBTQ+. Given that I also knew at least two other people at the table openly identified as LGBTQ+, it further underlined the barriers we face in just trying to be seen as we are.
If we assume that participation from a certain group or type of person needs to look a certain way, then we risk pushing people out of conversations that they are already in. Participation doesn’t need to look the same for everyone, so if we think people aren’t participating in one way then we need to create different opportunities as part of our offer.
Next Wednesday sees the release of remastered versions of the original Tomb Raider trilogy, which were a series of popular games from the mid-1990s starring Lara Croft as the eponymous Tomb Raider, a brave adventurer searching for hidden treasures across the world. I’m sure you’re thinking, “surely Cameron can’t work video games into two consecutive BD Giving Notes and use them to make a point about participation?” but just watch me.
The original Tomb Raider was released in 1996 for the PlayStation and was the first game I owned on that console. At the time, I was quite small and the game was beyond difficult for me. My mum, an avid gamer herself, had no such issues and proceeded to zip through the game while I struggled to make Lara Croft do even the most basic actions without falling into a pit of spikes. She may have a different recollection, but my memories of this time are of excitement, not frustration.
As the comedian Dara Ó Briain has pointed out, gaming is perhaps the only art form where you might not be good enough to access all of the content. While you might not have all the knowledge to really ‘get’ a film or song, those things do not stop part way through and make you do a skill test to see/hear the rest. You can easily find yourself stuck with no way forward and no way to improve your skills.
In a masterful stroke of ingenuity, my mum would task me with reading the walkthrough booklet that she had bought. As the name suggests, it is a guide that tells you what you need to do in a game, including any secrets or shortcuts that you might have missed. I would direct her when she was stuck, alert her to any upcoming dangers, and ultimately function as her ‘Mission Control’. Over time, I grew more confident from watching her and she would encourage me to try things out. Looking back as an adult, I realise that she may not have been wholly honest when she said something was too difficult for her and asking me to give it a go. Through this, I found my own love of gaming though I’m still developing my mum’s patience when trying to introduce others to the medium…
To some extent, whether I ended up as a gamer feels somewhat immaterial – what I experienced was a really nice time with my mum. I was able to share an experience with her and participate in a way that felt meaningful to me, and helped her play the game. Along the way, I learned from watching her and then stepped into the games when I felt I could do it.
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As technology and society have progressed, the gaming world has reacted to a lot of these issues by introducing different accessibility features, such as removing the need to tap a button repeatedly or hold it down for long periods of time to perform an action. There are an increasing number of games that allow players of the same game to have independent difficulty settings or be responsible for performing different tasks. It is a shame that so many people did not have the ability to access gaming but it is a good thing that we now have more options.
Over the next year, BD Giving is going to take a number of exciting steps forward that will see us begin new ways of engaging with our community. Our team has grown and we have worked hard to secure new resources for the borough and our participatory work. It is an important part of our journey that we follow through on many of the ambitions that we had, to revisit the points along the way when we wanted to try a new way of participating but found ourselves unable to meet that ambition.
We have always been adaptive and tried to make the best use of the resources we have at the time, and even people who fail to secure funding from us describe our processes as the most transparent and accessible they have experienced. A big part of that transparency has been to acknowledge when we are not able to meet someone’s needs for whatever reason, and to make sure they know that it is our problem and not theirs when this happens.
I have never completed the Tomb Raider games myself but the same could be said about my mum. It would be wrong to say that she had the ‘true’ Tomb Raider experience because without my help, she might have given up after falling into a spike pit she did not know was coming. The same needs to be true about our participation offering, with no one single way of enacting meaningful change in our commnunity. Participation is a dynamic and evolving process that depends on the context, the situation, and the individual. While we may only be able to offer a limited range of options at a given moment in time, it is important that we do not mistake those for being the only possibilities.