SpecialEffect: one charity's mission to help disabled gamers

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Article written by Andrew Tsai.

“Think about how important gaming is to you or me” said Dr Mick Donnean, founder of SpecialEffect. “Then think about how important gaming would be for someone who is disabled and is unable to play with their friends.”

Dr Donnegan, formerly a teacher specialising in assistive technology, created the charity SpecialEffect back in 2007 to help both children and adults with disabilities. SpecialEffect provides expert advice to help their clients get into gaming. They help people like five year old Tiago, who has with cerebral palsy, and Lloyd, a young war hero who lost both legs and some of the fingers on his right hand while serving in Afghanistan. Thanks to SpecialEffect's help and advice, Tiago now uses eye gaze tracking to play games like Peggle and Lloyd plays Battlefield online with the aid of a customised one-handed controller.

I took a trip to the charity's home in rural Oxfordshire to meet Dr. Donnean and take a closer look at the work that SpecialEffect does.

The charity give visitors hands-on access to a wide variety of equipment in a studio they call the "Game Room." It's a large open plan space filled with PCs, consoles and hundreds of different controllers, adapters and input methods. Here, SpecialEffect ply their expert skills in adapting and customising all manner of control methods. They have honed a talent for discovering potential new inputs from any part of the body: a tiny finger movement could be used to control a high-sensitivity key, or a button could be installed into the headrest of a wheelchair. Almost any physical movement, no matter how minimal, can be converted into an input that is recognised by a game.

Bill Donegan, a technical specialist who helps perform assessments and provide gaming accessibility solutions, demonstrates for me some of the advanced control schemes they use. I was amazed by the IntegraMouse, a mouse which can be controlled with one’s mouth offering full directional mouse control as well as ‘sip’ and ‘puff’ inputs. For someone who has limited movement below the neck, the IntegraMouse can be accurate and responsive enough to be used to play through competitive first person shooters like Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty.

Bill helped to set me up with a copy of Dirt 3 using the eye gaze camera which is a Kinect-like device that slots into the USB port of their PC testing rig. The eye tracking technology, not originally designed for gaming but for communication, allowed my eyes to control the position of the mouse cursor, and software running in the background seamlessly converts the mouse position into keystrokes to racing game Dirt 3. Gazing into the horizon of the game accelerated the car, whilst looking to the sides steered it. I was surprised about how intuitive and simple the control scheme was, and within 30 seconds I had already gained a full grasp of the driving and was speeding through the corners.

I was impressed by eye gaze control, but SpecialEffect are capable of setting up far more complex control schemes that are tailored to individual needs. For example, they have been able to adapt technologies like IntegraMouse and voice control to be used on their Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 so that their clients can join in where their friends are playing. These control schemes may involve delicately combining multiple layers of technologies that were not designed to be used together. This requires the expertise of SpecialEffect to help with setting up the complex interface and to ensure that the interface suits the needs of the client.

Specialist controllers can be extremely costly and risky for clients to purchase on their own, as they have no guarantee that it will work for their situation. For example, controllers like the IntegraMouse cost up to £1,700 and eye gaze technology can cost up to £3,400. For those who cannot visit the Game Room or attend one of SpecialEffect’s many road-shows, there's the "Loan Library." This is where a SpecialEffect technical specialist and an occupational therapist visits the home of a client and loan out, as well as set up, appropriate pieces of equipment for the client to test out for themselves.

The Game Room is filled with controllers that can be modified for all shapes and sizes.

The Loan Library provides an excellent opportunity for users to see how complex and expensive control schemes work in their own home before they commit to a big purchase. Despite the high cost, Mick revealed to me that nearly every client will nearly always buy the specialist controls after taking out the loan from SpecialEffect, which goes to show how much value that these clients place on gaming. As with all of SpecialEffect’s services, the Loan Library is provided free of charge and is available to any gamer with any disability in the UK.

Games are rarely designed with accessibility in mind. There is frequently little regard for even the most basic provisions for colour-blind or left-handed players. The lack of options for re-bindable keys and windowed modes often means the difference in whether a game can or cannot work with the accessibility tools that SpecialEffect use. However, game developers are becoming more aware of the issues, and things are improving.

Improved accessibility can be as simple as providing additional control schemes. For example, FIFA 13 caters well to disabled gamers by providing options such as mouse control as well as a ‘Two Button’ control scheme, which fits the full range of control options into just two inputs. Of course, not every game can be made accessible for every individual, but it would be good to see developers thinking carefully about including as many options in their games as possible.

The IntegraMouse is connected to a laptop, where software converts mouse movement into joypad movement to the Cronus adapter which is connected to the 360 running CoD: Black Ops 2.

“There are some encouraging developments in gaming accessibility” according to Mick. SpecialEffect have been consulted by game studios such as Splash Damage and Bossa Studios to advise on accessible game design, and hope to do further collaboration with other studios in the future. SpecialEffect’s Wish List is available to help guide developers to accommodate gamers with special needs, which includes provisions for game difficulty controls and fully accessible menus.

The demand for SpecialEffect’s services has steadily increase since its founding in 2007, and the charity has grown from 2 to 11 members of staff in this short span of time to meet the increasing demand for accessible gaming. My hope is that more people begin share in the vision that gaming is not just a trivial pastime, and gaming is something that can greatly improve the quality of life in disabled and non-disabled gamers alike.

To find out more about SpecialEffect, visit the SpecialEffect website.

Andrew Tsai is a gamer who loves PC game hacks and fixes, and runs the PCGamingWiki, a collection of bugs, fixes and workarounds for every single PC game.