The UK charity helping people play games!
I can’t imagine my life without video games. But not everyone gets to enjoy building virtual houses and pestering Creepers with the happy abandon that I do. In fact, there are barriers that prevent some people from being able to play games at all, including Minecraft, and the majority of us probably don’t even notice. But SpecialEffect, a charity based in the UK, does. It makes games like Minecraft more accessible to those who want to play, but can’t.
“We help people with all kinds of physical disabilities to play video games,” says Mark Saville, who handles communications for SpecialEffect. “There are so many people out there who can’t play normal games, like football, cricket or rugby, and they can’t even play the online versions either. We’re trying to right the second half of that equation. We get them to play online.”
So, what are some of the closed doors they’re trying to crack open?
“There’s all kinds,” Mark explains, “and it depends on the disability. We see people as kind of projects. They’ll come to us with all kinds of disabilities and say, ‘Well, I’d like to play such-and-such’, and we do the best we can. Those disabilities range from people who may, for example, come back from a war with a finger missing, right through to people who’ve had strokes or who have muscular dystrophy, who may have very little movement or controllable movement in any part of their body. Our challenge is to try and match the game they want to play to the physical abilities that they have.”
Bill Donegan, projects manager at SpecialEffect, elaborates: “So, sometimes it’s adapting a controller for them.” For example, the buttons might be too hard to push, or the joysticks too difficult to move. “So we’ll modify it, make the joysticks lighter, maybe move some of the buttons around.
"We help people with all kinds of physical disabilities to play video games"
“Then sometimes it’s the opposite,” Bill continues. “Some people may not have very much fine movement but a lot of gross movement. So, we might need to spread the controls around, make them bigger and maybe give them more resistance.
"The challenge for us is to make those changes really, really personal. Somebody might have tiny movement of just several fingers; we’ve got to go in and look at that person and match up - to the millimetre - the little switches that we use. It’s not something you can just design a generic controller for, for accessibility. That’s never going to work.”
For some players, using physical hand controls at all is too difficult, so SpecialEffect have spent the last two years building an interface to work with a technology called Eye Gaze, which lets players operate the game with their eyes alone.
“The stage we’re at,” Bill says, “we’ve got a really good interface for advanced Eye Gaze users but now we want to make it usable by a wide range of Eye Gaze users, so if someone can’t select a very small icon on the screen, we’re making an interface that will work with bigger icons.”
SpecialEffect’s software is designed to work with lower-end cameras that cost between €70 and €100. It’s not nothing, but SpecialEffect is making significant strides toward more affordable accessibility.
“We’re absolutely reliant on everybody else for help,” Mark says, though he’s astonished by the way that the gaming community has embraced SpecialEffect’s mission. “Many people come to us and say, ‘Look, I can’t imagine life without games, how can I help?’ They really get what [we’re] trying to do.”
And how can we Minecrafters help? Mark has a lot of suggestions, and it goes beyond just donating money - although that definitely helps too! “You might want to join one of our events, like our GameBlast weekend in February, which is when we ask people in the UK and across the world to do a gaming marathon for us on that particular weekend, and we make a massive event of it. That’s superb.”
The games industry has really gotten onboard too. Recently, SpecialEffect have created an event called One Special Day, where games companies give all their revenue for one or all of their games, for that one day.
The charity also works with developers directly, offering suggestions and advice regarding accessibility, or demonstrating ways a game can be built so that SpecialEffect can more easily modify it.
“It’s things like trying to put in as many options for the control schemes as possible. Being able to remap button configurations or playing around with sensitivity for the camera angles and things like that,” explains Bill. “It’s usually specific to the game, but there are lots of things that can work more generally.
“With a game like Minecraft, which has quite a learning curve, a parent or carer might play alongside their child and they’ll split the controls between them. These little changes alone can make such a big difference. It seems people are just looking more towards accessibility, both for disabled gamers but also just generally for people.”