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From PM to Players: The Word Is Out On Accessible Gaming

A special afternoon for a four-year-old girl and a momentous 48 hours for British gaming charity Special Effect

While the great and the good of gaming were slipping on rented tuxedos and clipping on bowties last Friday for the BAFTAs, something great and good was happening in Oxfordshire - with a speaker even the Academy would struggle to get on its guestlist.

After strutting around the White House and living it up on Air Force One with Barack Obama, David Cameron's first public speech back on UK soil took place in the somewhat less presidential surroundings of the Blue Boar pub, Witney.

By now I'd like to think you will have heard about Special Effect, the amazing charity whose mission is to help people with disabilities to play and enjoy video games through accessible technology. I'm a vice president, and it's an enormous privilege to help get the message out about the life-changing work the team does.

That's what's special about Special Effect. It's not one product you're rolling out for everybody to use, it's a huge amount of individual effort to create that magic moment."

David Cameron, PM

British Prime Minister he way be, but to the people of West Oxfordshire, where Special Effect is based, he also happens to be their local MP. On Friday he heard all about an incredible little girl called Charlotte Nott - and watched this video.

When Charlotte was three she contracted meningitis, which resulted in her losing all four limbs. But that's not enough to stop her gaming, as that short clip so powerfully demonstrates.

Moreover, it highlights in a little over a minute the importance of Special Effect's work and stresses the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all solution - every disability is different, and every person the charity works with receives technical assistance tailored specifically to their unique needs.

The results, though, are always the same: joy, and the liberation of being able to enjoy something alongside everyone else - crucially, on a level-playing field.

It doesn't hurt to have the Prime Minister as your local MP. But, whatever you think about his politics, Cameron has taken a keen interest in Special Effect because he knows all too well the difference its work can make.

"As someone who spent six years bringing up a severely disabled child, when you've found something they can do and they can enjoy and can be made to feel included it's a magic moment," Cameron said to his small audience at the Blue Boar. "And what Mick and his team do is to provide magic moments all the time."

Cameron's son, Ivan, died in 2009 aged six. "And I think that's what's special about Special Effect," he added. "It's not one product you're sort of rolling out for everybody to use, it's a huge amount of individual effort to create that magic moment."

The event came in the middle of a remarkable 48 hours for the charity. Special Effect may have friends in high places, but it's a small outfit dependent not just on the superhuman efforts of its team, but also the generosity of individuals in raising both awareness and money.

If you're on Twitter and following people in the UK games industry, on Friday you might have seen avatars suddenly change to that of a child's face over a yellow background, with the hashtag #Game4Charlotte in heavy use.

The girl in question I've already mentioned, while the game part was Saturday's clash between local football side Oxford United and Rotherham. In a huge show of support, the Yellows wore shirts with Special Effect's logo on it, auctioning off each one after the match, while urging fans during the build-up to dig deep to help children like Charlotte.

I went to the match and met the gorgeous, grinning Charlotte. Cameron talks about "magic moments". One of those happened just before kick-off when Charlotte scampered into the centre circle to have a kickaround in front of 6,000 supporters and the local press. Witney TV captured it all on camera.

The club's announcer then called on fans to take out their phones, tap in the Just Giving code and an amount, and click send together. Over £3,200 has been raised as a result, with the shirt auctions raking in close to £6,000 as I type.

Alex is able to play games like Football Manager and Star Wars The Old Republic using a combination of eye-gaze, voice control and a simple switch

All terrific stuff and money that will make a difference. But the bigger win has been in raising the charity's profile. It was thrilling on Friday to see my Twitter stream filled with identical avatars in support of Charlotte. Gamers rallied around to ensure those who might not come across Special Effect by other means had it there before their eyes.

As late as yesterday, I had one of the Sunday Times' senior writers ask me: "Why is everybody turning into babies?" Meanwhile, the story was covered on BBC 5 Live and in the Guardian. There's no question that more people now know about the charity than did just a few days ago.

That's massively important, of course, but not just for the obvious reasons. You see, so many of the children Special Effect has helped to play video games so far only found out about the charity by chance.

Take Ellie, a young girl whose disability meant she became too weak to hold a Wii controller and play the games she loves. Her aunt saw an interview with Special Effect marathon runners and made contact. Now Ellie has a specially modified Wii controller and she's back thrashing friends and family at Mario Kart and Just Dance.

And then there's Alex, a young man with spinal muscular atrophy. Special Effect's name came up in a casual conversation with a therapist. Now, Alex is able to play games like Football Manager and Star Wars The Old Republic using a combination of eye-gaze, voice control and a simple switch. He's even enrolled onto a game design course.

How many more disabled people are out there who don't know about accessible technology, about how it could change their lives?

Awareness within the games industry is vital, too, for reasons other than the obvious. Accessible tech can work wonders, but developers can do their bit too, by making controls within games as configurable as possible; and by adding a 'simple' control option that does not require multiple simultaneous button presses.

That last one is a big wish of Gareth, who has cerebral palsy and yet, thanks to a controller modified by Special Effect, can still play games using his chin. But games with more complicated control systems, plainly, remain an issue.

As a developer, you may think your title is "accessible" to a wide audience. But is it truly accessible? I've watched Alex play FIFA 11. He's better than me at it. But he tells me he can't play FIFA 12 because there's no mouse control option in the PC version that would enable him to control it with his eyes.

That's why it was such great news when Sports Interactive's Miles Jacobson and Splash Damage's Paul Wedgwood joined Special Effect as fellow VPs. As well as ensuring their own games are fully accessible, they can help get other studios on the same page.

I wrote last week about the mood of fear and uncertainty across all sectors of the industry. Even at its grand night of celebration at the BAFTAs, no amount of free booze could distract from it, sponsored as the Awards were by retailer-in-crisis GAME.

Accessible tech can work wonders, but developers can do their bit too, by making controls within games as configurable as possible

But if there's one thing everyone in the industry can unite behind and see certainty in, then surely it is accessible technology as an inspiring example of video games for the social good.

At the Blue Boar, David Cameron paid tribute to Special Effect director Dr Mick Donegan, joking that with his knowledge and talent, "he could probably be writing the next Grand Theft Auto if he wanted to and make lots of money.

"Instead he has dedicated himself to the extremely hard work of finding these custom made solutions for very different people with very different levels of disability and very different ages and very different needs. It's a brilliant way of including people in the mainstream of life and a brilliant individual effort."

And you know what's also brilliant? Every one of us can help simply by telling others about it.

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Johnny Minkley avatar

Johnny Minkley


Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.