This month SpecialEffect, a charity pioneering access to video gaming by people with disabilities, won top prize in the Accessibility category at the national Technology4Good Awards. Here, the organisation’s head of communications Mark Saville talks to E-Access Bulletin editor Dan Jellinek about how it goes about bringing games to everyone – and why this matters.
– How would you summarise the work you do?
SpecialEffect is a charity that is helping people with physical disabilities to enjoy video games for fun, inclusion and rehabilitation. There is no one-size-fits-all way of doing this, so we visit people to find out exactly what they want to play, and what they need to play it. We will then match, modify or create equipment to lend to them, and give support so they can get the best out of it. It takes time, patience and expertise, but it opens the door to self-esteem, confidence and a better quality of life.
- Why is access to gaming important?
For a whole bunch of reasons, not least to level the playing field. The people we see often cannot play real, physical games with their friends and families, so virtual games offer an important opportunity for inclusion. It is also the case that, love them or loathe them, video games are here to stay and are a huge part of modern life. It is estimated that more than 50 million people in the UK have played video games at one time or another, whether that be the latest [XBox or PlayStation??] shoot-em-up or a few minutes of fun on a smartphone. And this figure is only going to rise, along with the number of potential players who cannot join in because of a disability.
- Why is it so important to customise gaming support for each individual?
In the six years that we have been around, no two people we have seen with the same disability have had exactly the same physical abilities. And that matters when you’re talking about getting to grips with a standard handheld games console controller with a couple of small joysticks and around 10 tiny buttons and triggers on the front, sides and sometimes rear of the unit. People also want to play different games, so there is a big variety (and speed!) of button and trigger combinations to factor in.
When abilities change over time – for example with muscular dystrophy – we will make several visits to adjust or change the technology if necessary, so video games can be accessible for as long as possible for that person.
Our occupational therapists play a massive role in everything. They bring a huge amount to the process, including making sure the mounting and positioning of the equipment is safe, and sometimes enabling tiny extra finger or hand movements which can make the difference between a particular individual being able to play games, or having to just sit and watch. They have a whole assortment of wonderful stuff in their boxes, from padded garden twine to heat-mouldable resin, and different types of Velcro… all useful in some way, at some time or another.
- Do you receive much recognition and support from the mainstream gaming community?
We do not charge for our help, so we are 100% reliant on the goodwill and generosity of people to keep going. We are very fortunate in that many in the gaming community do understand what we are trying to do.
We encourage game developers to get in touch if they are interested in learning more about how their games could be made more accessible to a greater number of people, and that is beginning to happen. However, because of the complexity of video games and their controllers, we took the conscious decision not to prioritise the advocacy of accessibility within video games directly. Instead we put our efforts into working with individuals with disabilities, and by demonstrating the difference in quality of life that this level of personalised support is able to bring, we hope to inspire developers to make their games more inclusive.
- Are the techniques you develop useful in other areas of digital access or communication?
We are mixing, modifying and matching hardware and software all the time, and yes, there is often overlap into other areas of digital access. To take an obvious example, if we enable someone to access a drop-down menu in a video game, then that might have implications for other areas of computer control for that individual. It is the same for eye gaze technology, and there is plenty of crossover there in terms of using the same technology for both games and everyday communication.
- What new technologies are the most exciting for future access possibilities?
We have pretty much got our hands full trying to keep pace with the constant changes and innovations in mainstream video game control technology, but we are also currently keeping tabs on development of brain control interfaces and other biosignal systems. We’re also looking at facial and other gesture recognition systems. These all offer interesting potential for future access to video gaming.
- Why is recognition from an award such as Tech4Good important?
It was an honour and a privilege to receive the Tech4Good Accessibility Award this year. I think it is a recognition of the positive impact that our work is having on individual lives, and is a real encouragement to us that we’re doing the right thing. I also think it is a recognition that video games are becoming a huge part of society.
We are not just helping people to play video games for fun, we’re increasing their quality of life by opening the door to integration into a massive digital social network. We have often heard people say: “I can’t imagine life without video games.”