Rebecca Armstrong: Ignore anyone who says video games are useless

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The Independent Online

"Hello, world. I am tony nicklinson, I have locked-in syndrome and this is my first ever tweet. #tony." When I read Tony Nicklinson's tweet, which the fully paralysed father of two sent last week, it made me think about Twitter in a different way.

For many people, the social network is a great way to waste time, a place to follow celebrities and somewhere that isn't really "real": hence the number of people who seem to think they can get away with the bullying behaviour that has given us a newly ubiquitous word – trolling.

But for Tony Nicklinson, using a computer that he operates with his eyes, Twitter is somewhere he can talk to people, in a way that he can't in real life, and, at the time of writing, he can talk to more than 8,000 of them – the new followers who want to hear what he has to say about his life and his right to die.

Like spending hours fooling about on Twitter, playing video games is also seen by some as the ultimate time-waster. What's the point of sitting in front of a screen, shooting aliens or driving racing cars? But I've just spoken to a lovely man called Dr Mick Donegan who thinks games are absolutely vital in helping people to live fuller, better lives, plus good fun too.

Donegan is the director of a small charity called Special Effect that helps people with disabilities to enjoy games. Since its inception in 2007, Special Effect has given children and adults the chance to play on a level – if virtual – playing field with their friends and families. In some cases the playing field is so level, Donegan explains, that he and his colleagues get utterly thrashed.

"There's one guy we visited last week who plays using an ordinary joypad but using his mouth, as the rest of his body is paralysed. He beat all of the team at Fifa – one of my colleagues is still sulking".

Donegan was originally involved in a European project working with gaze control (like that used by Tony Nicklinson) and asked people with severe spinal disabilities what they'd like to use the technology for. "I expected people would want to get access to email, but one man I spoke to wanted to play games so that there was one thing he could do with his son. This isn't just about people sitting in front of computers – its about motivation, it's about friendship: it's important."

Like me, Donegan is thrilled about Tony Nicklinson's use of Twitter, saying that "it's incredibly empowering". He has made a video (vimeo. com/40162280) about similar technology. As one of the video's subjects, Marco, says via gaze-controlled software, "without this equipment, it would be as if I didn't exist".

When I was banging on about charity sponsorship in last week's column, it was because I'm fundraising for Special Effect. I think what it does is pretty special – and that Twitter and gaming can be powerful forces for good. For more information, go to