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Play Expo attracts 5000 to Blackpool - and is a big win for carers' centre

Ever since he was a young boy Andy Brown played the video games of the seafront amusement arcades - now he's leading 5000 gamers to Blackpool.

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 Play Expo attracts 5000 to Blackpool - and is a big win for carers' centre

"My brother and I don't have much in common to talk about - but we bond over a computer game. It's a family tradition."
Liam Quinn

The BBC’s DIY SOS makeover for Blackpool Carers Centre was a game changer for the charity this time last year.

Now Blackpool gaming entrepreneur Andy Brown, 42, is calling for another game changer.

He’s urging the local business community to back the charity’s campaign for a respite lodge for young carers and help sustain services at Beaverbrooks House on Newton Drive.

Andy, the businessman behind Play Expo Blackpool at the Norbreck Castle this weekend, is already fighting the charity’s corner.

His company Replay Events expect 5000 gamers from across the UK to gather in Blackpool, 70 per cent of them staying in hotels and guesthouses.

The weekend’s fun includes fundraising for Blackpool Carers Centre which will also have a contingent of players there.

 Last year they went to the Manchester Expo – one of 14 events organised by Replay Events across the country each year – and braved the Escape Room.

Former young carers champion Liam Quinn, 18, now an apprentice respite worker for young carers (aged 5-16) reckons video and computer games get an undeserved bad press.

Liam, who nursed his mum right up to her death when he was 16, adds: “For a lot of young carers they’re a form of escape. You can’t go out because you’re looking after someone but you can escape through games.

“Before the carers’ charity found me, these games helped me.  Great story telling, all about choices, learning from subtitles too – how to spell and so on.

“My brother and I are complete opposites, we don’t have much in common to talk about – but we bond over a game. And it’s family tradition for us to play Call of Duty. You can be aggressive or defensive – and the hero.”

 Last year Liam was named Carer of the Year in The Gazette Best of Health awards having drawn on his own experiences to speak up for other young carers in town.

 After his formal interview with the charity for the respite worker apprenticeship operations director Nigel McMurdo described him as “very impressive.”

The charity has also impressed Games Aid members. Last year it became one of 10 charities to share a £954k bonanza - £94.5k each.  The big win enabled the charity to fund an additional full time worker and buy a 7-seater Citroen C4 Grand Picasso (people carrier) in Games Aid livery to pick young carers and young adult carers up from their homes and take them out and about.  

It’s saved just under £1k on cab fares a month, reckon staff, and more volunteers prefer to drive the car than the charity’s mini bus.

“It feels more like a family trip, less institutionalised,” says Liam. “You’re more isolated on the mini bus. People chat in the car. The respite begins there.”

 Games Aid is now inviting members for nominations for the next round of cash awards by the end of this month – and voting will start once the shortlist is agreed.

 This time the charity is campaigning for a respite lodge for young carers from across the country.

Andy adds:  “My wife Helen opened my eyes to the good work done at the charity.  DIY SOS was a game changer but now it’s all about utilising the building to its full potential – because it’s available for the whole of Blackpool to use.

“The respite lodge would assist young carers at a national level and be another feather in the charity’s cap.

““The charity now has this fantastic centre, thanks to Beaverbrooks and DIY SOS, but services still cost money and it’s about sustainability too.

“Games Aid is quite south-east centric but we have games companies and games makers in the North and a very good agency Jelly Media – which tells their stories – in this area so I think the local and North West link really resonated with members.

“But it’s not just about Games Aid. We’ve shown a small local business can make a huge difference through collaboration with others.

“Most businesses have charitable boards, foundations representing their industry or trade.”

 Faye Atherton, head of services at the charity, agrees:   “We’re really grateful to Games Aid for funding another full time worker too.  Referrals have been nonstop since DIY SOS which is good but we need people to pick that up – and it’s ongoing. 

“The car makes everything more accessible and affordable.  Young carers love the car. It also helps build brand awareness when we’re out – people come up and talk about the car, and the charity, or DIY SOS.”

Andy adds:  “It’s fantastic it has made such a huge difference. “

 Andy’s come a long way himself since sneaking off on his bike to play the arcade machines when he was a kid.

“Rules and regulations were more lax then. My parents just thought I liked long bike rides.   Some guy was telling me how I had a dream job and my dad piped up and said it was thanks to them buying me a computer – a Commodore – when I was seven. They thought I was going to be a great mathematician. I just played games on it.”

Having sold video games and old consoles as a sideline for many years he eventually invested redundancy cash – from a defunct civil service IT role – in the events business.  

“I didn’t choose to have a business, I wasn’t brave or bold, I just fell into it.  My degree was in computer science; I had a very dull job in the civil service, and started selling games and consoles when eBay started.  The events company was a natural progression.”

Replay Events run 14 events across the country a year but Play Expo Blackpool is closest to Andy’s heart because it’s where his love affair with gaming started.

In the midst of all the modern games and virtual reality, fantasy role playing, and tournaments there are classic arcade machines and pinballs in a nod to the seaside’s role in the origins of video games.

The Retro area has won more than 20 per cent more floor space this year with 150 consoles and computers enabling families to replay the originals or revisit classics.

“It’s an update on families sitting around playing table top board games together,” says Andy.  “I still like the rudimentary games. They don’t have the flashy graphics of today but the game play was very addictive, which is possibly what today games lack.  In spite of how impressive they look some of the core values of what gaming should be, how much fun it is, gets lost.”

 Some of the biggest names in the gamer world are heading for the Norbreck Castle – and Pacman record holder John Stoodley is out to set a new world record too.

“We get the developers who have been in the industry 30-40 years coming to our shows and it’s like getting rock stars along – they are just stunned by the queues of people waiting to meet them because they wrote the games they played as kids.

“It winds me up when games get a bad press. They are immersive and engaging and the only medium where you can be the protagonist and take the path you want. In books or films or TV stories are linear, you can’t deviate from what the writer or author wants. In gaming you call the shots, make the right or wrong choices, and learn from the consequences.

“It’s outdated to think of kids in their bedroom playing games alone.  Gaming is a more popular family thing, dads showing kids consoles they played on and because of the more simplistic nature kids figure it out and get the same reaction we had years ago and see past the fact they don’t have flash graphics.

“Come to Play Expo Blackpool this weekend and wander round and you’ll see families playing together.  Yes, you can play someone the other side of the world online but it’s not the same as being there, playing sat right next to family and mates.

“The table top community is a huge growth area too, lots of video games have crossed over into table top games too.

“When I was a kid it was all about too much telly having a detrimental effect.  For the older generation it might have been too much reading. People demonise what they don’t understand.”

Jacqui Morley