Accessibility June 16, 2021
SpecialEffect designs customised solutions to enable physically disabled people to play video games
Playing video games helps increase creativity, build teamwork skills, and develop problem-solving abilities. People with physical disabilities have limited opportunities to enjoy video games given the accessibility challenges. UK charity SpecialEffect is out to change that by devising specialist game control setups for physically disabled people.
Kati and Lucinda live nearly 2,000 miles apart. The distance and their physical disability makes it difficult for them to travel but that doesn’t stop them from enjoying a game of ‘international gaze-controlled chess challenge’.
Kati, who lives in Finland, started using eye gaze or head movement to communicate and access technology after experiencing a severe stroke 25 years ago while Lucinda started playing chess internationally while in school in Sussex, England.
Kati and Lucinda play on the Eye Gaze Games website, the world’s first online multiplayer fully eye-controlled web games developed by UK charity SpecialEffect. The Eye Gaze Games website enables eye gaze users to meet and play against almost anyone across the globe, anonymously, and on a level playing field. It’s a place where people can play free and accessible web games together on a level playing field.
The team at SpecialEffect have many stories like these. There’s Keren from the United States who loves playing video games with her eyes. Keren has severe cerebral palsy and her eyes provide the only reliable movement she has. With a customised software setup and ongoing support provided the SpecialEffect team, Keren is able to compete against her friends and family all by herself.
Then there’s Dong Yong who loves to race against his friends and Becky who plays Minecraft through eye gaze control.
Bridging accessibility gaps in gaming
SpecialEffect was started in 2007 by Dr Mick Donegan, who worked as IT head in a special school followed by the deputy directorship of a children’s assistive technology charity. Both stints led him to become aware of the huge accessibility gaps in gaming for physically disabled people.
“There was a largely unfulfilled, yet crucially important need amongst severely physically disabled people – the need to play”, says Mark Saville, Communications Officer, SpecialEffect. “Over many years, more and more parents of the children he was helping said ‘Thanks for the help you’re giving my child to use technology in school – but do you know where we can find technology to enable them to play? Is there technology to enable them to relax and play either by themselves or with friends when they get home in the afternoon? How can they play with their brother and sister? How can they play with their grandparents?’ Video games offered the opportunity to level the playing field, to be included as an equal”.
The SpecialEffect team encounter a range of challenges in creating customised setups to meet the individual needs of gamers.
It can take a lot of time to match up the right pieces of equipment to suit someone’s physical needs as well as their personal goals in terms of which types of games they’d like to be able to play. The trickiest setups involve a mashup of all different types of access – eye control, switches, voice control – and it’s therefore crucial to ensure that they all work together seamlessly and reliably within the person’s environment. – Mark Saville, Communications Officer, SpecialEffect
Empowering physically disabled gamers worldwide
The transformation SpecialEffect has enabled in the lives of so many physically disabled gamers are simply amazing.
Like Elliott, a fan of Xbox, who has cerebral palsy. “It just makes him the same as everyone else,” says Elliot’s mother. “He’s naturally competitive, and this puts him on an equal footing.” For Ajay, a 35-year-old IT support analyst with spinal muscular atrophy, the SpecialEffect team created a chin-controlled, voice operated control system for him. “It’s something to look forward to when I come home from work,” says Ajay. “When I come home, or on the weekend, there’s not much to do and I used to get bored. For me, video games are about escapism. You can get away from your problems for a little while.”
SpecialEffect also shares these learnings to enable physically disabled gamers around the world to participate as equals in competitive gaming environments.
“Every assessment represents a learning process, and it’s a privilege to be able to distil this accumulated experience and knowledge for sharing globally through our free accessibility resources”, adds Saville. These include EyeMine, gamesaccess.info and Eye Gaze Games. SpecialEffect also shares the accessibility experience with developers to help make their games more accessible worldwide and collaborates with manufacturers like Microsoft in the creation of internationally available accessible products like the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
Pandemic forces change to virtual
The Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to SpecialEffect’s outreach programmes like face to face assessments and support visits. The team switched to video calls and online support. Fundraising too was impacted with many events and appearances cancelled. The charity is now focusing on virtual fundraisers and events. The London 10k, SpecialEffect’s longest standing fundraising event, is being offered this year as choice for people as a London or locally-run event. Recently a group of students from Coventry College’s Esports team, Coventry Crosshairs, raised more than £1,100 at a live streamed event called the Coventry Crosshairs Arcade Festival. This was done as part of the charity’s day long gaming marathon event called GameBlast 21.
Testimonials like these have kept the team at SpecialEffect inspired and motivated through the years.
“SpecialEffect is more than just a charity which helps people play video games”, says Alex Kostov, who started gaming again thanks to SpecialEffect. “They change lives. Through their knowledge and expertise, people like myself can now join in on the fun and play with friends on an even playing field, experiencing all the benefits of social interaction. It may be hard for some to imagine but being included in such activities makes a huge and positive difference in our lives.”
“So many things in life are limited because of my condition,”, says Tom, “like my inability to play football. But when I play a video game, I’m in a world where the only limits are the ones that I allow to be there. Thank you for giving me my life back.”