Lee is a lifelong gamer; he also has spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that causes progressive muscle weakness. When his condition meant that he was no longer physically able to play games, he became depressed – he felt like part of who he was had slipped away. Now, with a combination of a mouth-controlled joystick and a series of micro-switches he is playing again. He has just completed Grand Theft Auto V. “There are no more limitations,” he says.

The staff at SpecialEffect have dozens of stories like this. Set up in 2007 by Dr Mick Donegan, a specialist in assistive technology, the charity uses a range of specialist interfaces to help people with disabilities who want to play video games but can’t use standard controllers. They have palm and chin joysticks, they have button pads that can be pressed with feet, and voice control systems. Some setups implement technologies developed by other organisations, some are custom built by resident engineer Barrie Ellis and his small in-house team, who’ll often happily rip apart standard peripherals before reconfiguring them into more accessible gadgets.

“Sometimes part of the interface is PC-based in order to run software to change how the joysticks or buttons behave,” explains SpecialEffect communications officer, Mark Saville. “For instance, we’ll remap buttons or change the joystick sensitivity. For other controllers, we use software to incorporate inputs such as voice control. If something doesn’t exist or is prohibitively expensive, we make modifications to hardware ourselves.

“Our job is to join the dots by connecting a person’s abilities with the tech, often in combinations – voice commands, muscle twitch switches and eye control, for example.”

One of the specialist controllers used by SpecialEffect to help people with disabilities to get back into games. Photograph: SpecialEffect

From vending machines to monsters

One recent collaboration is particularly interesting. Working with confectionary company Mondelez International, SpecialEffect combined the PC life simulation game Spore, with an eye-tracking system and a 3D printer. Players with severe physical disabilities are able to design monsters in the game using their eye movements to control the cursor, then have their creations printed out as models. Mondelez usually uses its 3D printing tech to prototype vending machines. Now it helps people build monsters.

From modest beginnings, the charity has garnered huge support within the industry, recently announcing Tim Schafer the co-creator of the legendary Monkey Island games as a vice-president, along with Labour MP Tom Watson and BBC technology reporter Kate Russell. With greater visibility comes greater demand. “It’s been a crazy year for us,” says Saville. “The number of people contacting us for help and support has shot up as word has spread. With gamers increasingly moving to the next-gen consoles over the last year this has also added to the demand for our work and created some interesting tech problems. Finding solutions has been challenging, but it has had a huge impact on those we work with.”

What’s being recognised at the heart of this is the fundamental importance of play – and the joy of video games. In a video interview SpecialEffect posted on YouTube, Lee talks about the loss of identity he suffered when he could no longer play games; it’s not just about losing out on fun, it’s about relationships. Lee can now play Fifa 15 with his brother, even though they won’t be able to have a real-life kickabout together. Games can help rebuild sections of relationships that some of us take for granted. In another video we see a girl named Ceyda, who has cerebral palsy, playing the action adventure game Disney Infinity. Her delight is palpable. “It’s something she can play with her friends and not be excluded,” explains her mum. “Her first words were: ‘I’m now a gamer’”.

Matching players with game systems is a complex undertaking. Donegan often talks about how every person the charity sees is effectively a separate project: everybody has different needs and abilities that the modified hardware has to fit in with. “We have a games room at our Oxfordshire HQ,” says Saville. “People can visit to try out controllers with friends and family in a relaxed setting with our staff, who are specialists in getting the most out of the technology. But most people we see are unable to travel, so we visit them at their homes, sometimes multiple times.”

With degenerative conditions, the controllers often need to be modified or rethought as the condition progresses. The charity also has occupational therapists who work with gamers, testing their abilities and ensuring comfort. “They’re also brilliant at coming up with great low-tech [controller] solutions,” says Saville. “I took a look in one of their kit bags the other day and saw an assortment of weird stuff including garden twine, table tennis balls, Blu-Tack and, rather disconcertingly, a tube of tile grout. I’m assured it’s all useful.”

Gamers are able to borrow expensive specialist hardware like an IntegraMouse or Eye Gaze eye-tracking camera, have it set up and ensure it works for them before they purchase their own hardware. “It’s a genuine privilege to be able to witness the moment that it all clicks into place,” says Saville. “The smiles, the laughs – it makes it all worthwhile.”

The Gameblast weekend

This weekend, the charity is running its biggest fundraising event yet: GameBlast, a sponsored 48-hour gaming marathon with people all over the country streaming footage of themselves playing games for the entire weekend. SpecialEffect is also hosting its own telethon on the online channel Twitch, where viewers will be able to see game developers playing and chatting about their latest projects.GameBlastLive is being shown via Twitch, from 10am on Saturday.

Often when games are written about in relation to life or culture, there will be a smattering of comments about how they’re a waste of time, how there are so many better things to do. But SpecialEffect’s work illustrates rather profoundly how games can facilitate social contact and creativity; they provide a ‘magic circle’ in which physical limitations can be cast away in the pursuit of fun.

After the hectic GameBlast weekend, work will return to normal for SpecialEffect, matching gamers with the equipment they need, exploring new control options. Technology continually evolves to allow fresh possibilities. “We’ve even been looking into brain control as a future option,” says Saville. “We’re following developments closely.”


The Guardian