People of the Year 2017: SpecialEffect

This year has been the video game charity's biggest and most important on record

By Christopher Dring.Published Thursday 7th December 2017, 10:56am GMT

Let us tell you a few stories that might make you cry.

Corey has hemiplegia down his left side. It happened as a result of a pre-natal stroke. For years and years, he would watch his brother have fun playing video games - games he could never play himself.

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"We used to give him a controller that wasn't connected just so he felt involved," said his father, Lee.

The family got in touch with SpecialEffect, which invited Corey to its games room, where the charity created a special control setup that allowed him to play.

"He's really enjoying it," smiles Lee, "It's given him a bit of independence to play the games himself. It's something else he can do as his disability restricts him in so many other ways."

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Corey enjoying his chance to play games independently

Here's another.

Lisa has Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita. It means she has has stiff joints and weak muscles, which leaves her with a limited range of movement in all her limbs.

She used to love the MegaDrive and the SNES. Super Mario Kart was her No.1 favourite game growing up. By the time the Nintendo GameCube came out in 2002, she accepted that she wouldn't be able to play video games anymore.

After seeing her nephew playing Assassin's Creed Unity, Lisa decided it was time to rediscover games and contacted SpecialEffect. After a short online chat, the charity arrived with a plethora of equipment.

The charity carefully positioned microswitches for her fingers, while Lisa used the left joystick with the back of her left hand and the right joystick with her chin.

"After a little while, I was actually playing Assassin's Creed Unity," She says. "I've been gaming independently since then."

Lisa and her modified Xbox One

And then there's Becky.

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She has severe quadriplegic cerebral palsy. She can't use her arms and fingers, so she uses eye gaze technology to communicate and access gaming though movements of her eyes. She's actually helped to test much of SpecialEffect's gaze-controlled work.

"My eyes become like the computer mouse, so wherever I look the cursor goes," said Becky. "And I can do a mouse click by staring in one place for a short time."

"Video games are so much fun, and I like immersing myself in a game as it helps me to relax."

Becky has been testing the eye-tracking in Minecraft

Let's finish with Paul. SpecialEffect managed to bring video games back into his life by simply remapping controls.

Paul lost the ability to play games due to a spinal injury. Being a huge Liverpool football fan, he was hoping the charity could find a way for him to play FIFA on the PlayStation 4 - his sister even promised him one for Christmas.

Paul had an idea of how it might work. He only had voluntary movement of his right arm, and would stretch his fingers across the controller to press the buttons and control the analogue stick using the game's two-button mode.

SpecialEffect remapped the buttons so that he could sprint in FIFA, too, and he was away. The firm also remapped buttons in Project Cars, so he could play racing games.

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Paul can now play FIFA more easily

As you can probably tell, the question isn't: 'Why is SpecialEffect in our People of the Year 2017?' But rather: 'Why isn't SpecialEffect in our People of the Year every year?'

"This year has been busier than ever," founder Dr. Mick Donegan tells GamesIndustry.biz. "The number of face-to-face assessments and support visits we've been able to make this year has increased tenfold since we started back in 2007 - approaching 400 this year - and we're now helping disabled gamers all over the world through online one-to-one support to join in with the rest of us. 

"Funds are actually still coming in from One Special Day, and we hope to announce a final figure early in the New Year"

"Because we're receiving more and more enquiries from people who want to help people with disabilities in their own country, we've rapidly increased the amount of training material available online, especially in the form of training videos."

He continues: "The increasingly generous support of gamers and the industry has been invaluable in enabling us to take on the extra staffing we need to keep up with the increasing demand, as well as helping to pay for the amount of equipment we need to loan out.

"In addition, the extra collaboration we've had with developers has enabled us to make some mainstream games more accessible. For example, we've collaborated with Double Fine to help to make both Day of The Tentacle and Broken Age completely gaze-controllable. Now, even those people who are paralysed and can only move their eyes - such as someone with locked-in syndrome - can enjoy these games by using a wide range of gaze-trackers, including the low-cost mainstream Tobii EyeX and 4C gaze-trackers."

Dr Mick Donegan

SpecialEffect has been securing big funds from across the industry and from fans; from marathon-running industry executives to big events like GameBlast and One Special Day.

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One Special Day is the most significant. It's where game developers and publishers donate a full day's revenue to SpecialEffect from select titles, whether that's free-to-play games or full game sales. Several major companies take part in the initiative, which happens in September.

"It certainly has grown significantly, both in terms of fundraising and awareness," Donegan says. "Funds are actually still coming in [for this year's event] and we hope to announce a final figure early in the New Year.

"2018 will see SpecialEffect go truly global"

"Central to the growth and impact has been the opportunity for the charity to work closely with the team at Seriously to reach out to mobile developers worldwide, with the mobile community enthusiastically embracing the event. Supercell, Playdemic, Rovio, EA Mobile, Zynga and many others are really taking the day and charity to their hearts. The growth of the day saw amazing cross-industry support with, for example, Sega and Relic donating sales of Company of Heroes 2. Companies also supported us with various events, as well as donating auction items and games for a Humble Sale.

"We feel that this year's event is a genuine game-changer in terms of unifying SpecialEffect and the industry to help more gamers with disabilities. What is particularly encouraging is that so many partners are already committed to the third One Special Day on September 28th, 2018, and we'd encourage any companies who might also want to get involved to get in touch."

2018 is going to be another significant year for the charity, Donegan says. It will be meeting more people, including professionals in other countries, and it is developing initiatives that can help people worldwide.

"In early 2018, we will also be launching a free onscreen interface to enable people who use gaze-control to be able to play Minecraft on Windows 10," Donegan concludes.

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"2018 will also see the launch of freely playable, browser-based, gaze-controlled games. It will give users of gaze-control and switch control a way to play games like draughts and chess, not only with friends and family, but to also play against anyone in the world. In a nutshell, 2018 will see SpecialEffect go truly global."

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