Why Special Effect wants your help to make gaming more accessible for the disabled
In a set of buildings in rural Oxfordshire you'll find a team of people who are quietly changing lives. Helping a small girl who can't move play table tennis, providing the equipment that allows a man with a degenerative condition to spend his last days at home and making it possible for a father and son to play a game together for the first time.
That's what makes it hard to sum up what SpecialEffect do in any sort of concise way: their motto is "whatever it takes". Essentially, they improve the lives of the ill and disabled by giving them access to technology and software that allows them to play, express themselves and in some cases even communicate.
Gaming can seem like a pastime, rather than an essential part of life, but for a small child entirely paralysed, unable to speak, video games may be their only way to play. And, as founder Dr Mick Donegan points out, that's as important as any other part of their care and rehabilitation.
If a child can't play we should be as worried as if they can't sleep or eat.
Dr Mick Donegan
"There's a great phrase, I picked it up from a hospital in Leeds," he explains. "It said if a child can't play we should be as worried as if they can't sleep or eat."
The same goes for the adults that the team work with, giving them something to enjoy when so many activities are now inaccessible to them, and giving them a way to play with their friends.
"It's just so important to people's quality of life and their rehabilitation in a lot of cases, as a part of being normal again."
Mick has spent 25 years working in cutting edge assistive technology, and he is often found travelling around the UK and Jersey, visiting clients and supporting them as they learn to use the more complicated technologies like Eye Gaze, where a computer or game can be controlled by tracking the eye movements of the user, and tailoring it to their specific needs.
GamesIndustry.biz also met Bill Donegan, Mick's son, who looks after research and development, and Nick Streeter, the man charged with public relations and spreading the word about the charity, both to those who can help and those who might need it.
Together they provide a loan library of games and equipment that disabled gamers can access, which helps around 2000 people a year. There's also the GameBase, a website where SpecialEffect shares information, like which games are the most accessible, and hosts a forum for questions and problems.
"It would be nice to have a typical day," laughs Bill when asked about his.
"Everything takes so much time. Preparing for people, you need to organise it, get someone to build the controller, it takes a mix of stuff at the office, contacting people, researching and then actually trying stuff with people."
"So at the moment everything is new and different, because everyone is different. They want to be able to do different stuff."
Suffering from charity fatigue? All of that is blown away after 30 minutes with the team, as they show you videos of children playing games, some for the first time, or share their stories. And Mick and Bill have hundreds of stories about the people they've met and helped, it seems there is no one that falls outside of their remit, be they a desperately sick child, a frustrated disabled gamer or an older person to who their expertise could be life changing.
There's five year old Lewis, completely paralysed by an insect bite, unable even to speak. SpecialEffect created custom games for him that he could play using one of their Eye Gaze systems. Or Lloyd, who lost both his legs serving in Afghanistan and who needed help finding controllers so he could start playing games with his mates again.
Mick told the touching story of an elderly gentleman with motor neurone disease, which had robbed him of all movement, confining him to a chair in his living room that he would be hoisted in to in the morning, and hoisted back out of at bedtime. There were three simple things he wanted. To play Sudoku, to have control over the television, and to be able to speak to his wife. SpecialEffect made that happen.
There's five year old Lewis, completely paralysed, unable even to speak. SpecialEffect created custom games that he could play using an Eye Gaze system.
" If we hadn't been able to help him he probably would have had to go to hospital," Mick says.
"But because he was able to communicate and tell his wife exactly when and how he was uncomfortable, when he might want his lips wetted or to actually have a drink, it meant that she could continue his care for the whole of his life," he continues, clearly touched by the story. The man had passed away just two weeks before.
The Stargaze Plus project, which centres around this sort of Eye Gaze technology, is at the extreme end of what the team do, both in cost (a unit can cost anything from £6000 to £20,000) and capabilities. Some of their other clients are just gamers who have struggled for years, or people who have been recently disabled and want to return to the pastime they enjoyed so much prior to their accident or illness.
Recently Bill has been working with a client who was disabled racing in the Isle Of Man TT event, and argues that while he needs less time and equipment than someone using one of the Eye Gaze systems, he's just as much in need of help.
"Since he's been home from the hospital he's been playing games, but on each of his games, he showed me, he's stuck at a certain level because he needs a little bit more dexterity to get past that certain bit of the game," explains Bill.
"So we're just finding a way to adjust the controllers so he can reach some new stuff. Like moving triggers round to the side so he can actually use them. So for some people its just a case of tweaking a controller, but for me they're just as important, as a gamer."
Mick agrees, showing me photos of a small girl called Ellie whose spinal condition meant the Wii controller was too heavy for her, so they adapted it by removing the battery pack.
We're interested in the leisure side of things but also the therapeutic benefits.
Dr Mick Donegan
"For some people it's kind of everything, from being able to do nothing at all to all of a sudden being able to play computer games, but in a way it's just as important for people who have always been frustrated at not being able to play at the level they'd like to, to really look in detail and take it up another level, is also hugely important."
And in some cases there can be unexpected bonuses that come from the team's hard work. Matt Hampson, the charity's patron, was an England Under 21 player when a training accident left him paralysed from the next down. Since learning to control games with head movements, he's noticed an improvement in the strength and tone of his neck muscles.
"We're interested in the leisure side of things but also the therapeutic benefits," points out Mick.
"Bill's working with a guy at a rehabilitation hospital for children where we're looking at controlling a computer as a way to improve their control, their ability to move their hands.They finding that far more motivating than going to the physio and doing exercises, and that's what its all about."
Looking at all the hard work, the busy days, the travelling and the frustrations of so many people to help with limited resources, and you have to ask yourself why anyone would do this. For Mick the answer is simple - people needed it.
"I did a project with another charity to see whether it was needed or not, to see how much this kind of technology was needed and basically we were overwhelmed by people who were desperate to play games. I decided that we must start a charity to meet that need."
His experience meant that he knew what technology was available, and the best way to adapt it for gaming. But, for an industry that appears cutting edge, games is lagging behind the assistive market.
"I realised actually gaming for people with disabilities is actually quarter of a century behind, other kinds of technology. Whether you look at wheelchair technology, or whether to you look at communication technology for people with disabilities, there's some serious catching up to do."
Not that he's pretending that it's all halos and smiling children, often the team's work means dealing with very ill people, or those who have just been in a life destroying accident and are at their lowest point.
"It's really demanding," he admits.
"It's demanding physically, it's demanding emotionally as well, I mean it really hit me when the guy with motor neurone disease passed, because it came completely out of the blue."
"But you get a high from people when you can help them, and you get a high from the people that support you."
And supporting them is so easy to do, especially when you're already part of the industry. Helping doesn't have to be a case of just signing a cheque or running a marathon. The team are keen for any sort of assistance the people can offer, starting with something as simple as putting them on a mailing list to receive promotional copies of newly released game, a simple move that can save them up to £50 a time.
"We don't want 15 copies, just one or two for us to be able to test, and then to loan out," says Nick.
And while fund-raising is vital to continue to the charity's work and to provide new equipment like the Eye Gaze systems that can cost up to £20,000 a time, the team also have another, simple request of developers.
One thing, to help the people that we're trying to help, is to just contact us.
Dr Mick Donegan
"One thing, to help the people that we're trying to help, is to just contact us," ask Mick.
"If they're interested in either when they update a game, or if its FIFA 2013 for example, they can get in touch before it comes out so that we can make some suggestions or at the point at which they're developing a game."
He points out the actual time and effort to make these tweaks is often minimal, but can make a huge difference to the levels of accessibility for disabled gamers.
Right now developers can access documents on the SpecialEffect site that list five simple steps for making a game accessible, with simple steps like adding new speed or difficulty settings, visual and audio aids, control schemes that can be easily remapped to suit special controllers and making those accessibility features clear to consumers.
One developer that is already working with the charity is Splash Damage, who most recently released Brink. After some request by disabled gamers for specific features to be added to their titles, they decided to approach the team about doing more.
CEO and game director Paul Wedgewood explained why he had made the decision to investigate the charity and to start working with them.
"There's a whole political angle," he explains, "which is we're required by law to put ramps next to staircases, so we already know that in the West we have a moral obligation to solve this."
"The simple fact is that its easy to make your games accessible for people whose motion or movement or hearing or sight is impaired, and there's not really any excuse for developers not to do it, it's just a really straight forward thing to do."
Splash Damage is best known for its multiplayer games, so the team are looking into running game servers for future releases that are set at a slower speed. And he acknowledges that while the demand for those type of things might only come from 0.01 per cent of the fan base, they're so easy to set up that there's no excuse to exclude anyone.
It's easy to make your games accessible for people who are impaired, and there's not really any excuse for developers not to do it.
Paul Wedgewood, CEO, Splash Damage
The company has already committed to allowing SpecialEffect to access its collection of games for the loan library, and asking the charity for feedback on Brink so they can work it into future development plans.
"We're going to write up our designs and considerations for control remapping that we did in Brink, to create documentation that can help to show other developers what was involved in the accessibility," he says.
"Because none of this is proprietary, it's not a feature that's going to sell more copies of the game, it's not knowledge that we need to protect, it's knowledge that needs to be shared."
And Wedgewood's ambitions go beyond sharing what they learn from working with SpecialEffect to creating a whole community of developers pooling their expertise to help make games more accessible.
"If there are other developers out there that are thinking about speed or difficulty settings they could write that bit of the documentation, if someone was working on digital aids they could work on that bit of the documentation, audio aids they could write that bit, the display accessibility features could be contributed by somebody."
As for the future? The team spend half their income of equipment alone, so fundraising is always a major concern. To allow them more stability they'll soon be launching way for people to donate in a more regular way, as well as making it easier to make one off donations.
"In terms of context, if we can have six thousand people who care about games to give us £2 a month then that would pay for our loan library each year," points out Nick.
"People think we're bigger than we are. They see David Cameron, they see the eye control, and they think we must be a million pound charity. That's not the case."
More money also would mean more staff, like occupational therapists and people to work in research and development, to help the team expand the work they're already doing.
They've planned at a number of roadshows to institutions like Great Ormond Street Hospital and The Helen and Douglas House Hospice, training therapists and care worker in the use of specialist equipment, and giving people the chance to see the support on offer to them.
The loan library continues to grow, and needs to, because the team won't take equipment away from someone until they can afford to buy it for themselves, so the biggest frustration is forcing someone to wait for the equipment that could so drastically change their lives.
"There's a huge need out there," said Mick.
"I mean one of the reasons I had a rant this morning was just out of frustration that there are some really needy people out there who need our time and systems, some very disabled people out there, and its so frustrating not being able to help them out straight away."
One thing is clear, and that's that SpecialEffect won't stop all their hard work, partly because the differences they're making are so important to the people, and the families of the people they're helping, and partly because they it's clearly just a part of their nature. They are good people, and as long as there are people they can be helping, they'll keep giving up their time and expertise.
"I think Mick has done charity work for such a long time I don't know if he knows another way to exist other than to be out there helping people," says Wedgewood.
Mick explains that they're sometimes asked why they don't charge for their services, but despite the cost of the equipment, the labour intensive nature of the work, the constant travelling, the idea seems ludicrous to him.
"You start charging, then at the end of two hours payment you're off. We don't work like that, people don't stop having a disability after two hours," he explains at the end of our visit.
"If we're doing a good enough job, then somehow, people will want to support it."