I recently had a chance to talk to Special Effect founder Mick Donegan, and to learn a bit about how he was motivated to help disabled gamers and their families make the most of the medium. Special Effect is a UK-based charity which specialises in helping people with serious disability to use eye-control technology in their gaming (which is something you'll be able to try out if you are attending the Eurogamer Expo in September). The charity does plenty more than just help out with expensive eye-control technologies, however, seemingly taking every route possible to try and give access to gaming to people who might otherwise be denied it. It's amazing work that they're doing, and I think it's a charity that needs deserves support from developers and the community to make their job easier. Read on to find out a bit more about what they get up to. (And watch a video pinched from Eurogamer, too.)
RPS: Can you tell us a little bit about how Special Effect came to be, what it does, and how you became involved?
Donegan: Well, I'm the founder of the charity, and having worked with people with special needs for many years I realised that there's a real need for someone to focus specifically on helping these young people enjoy themselves through videogame technology. A lot of young people with disabilities can't not only not get out there and play real games, they often can't play videogames either, because the controls are too difficult, or the games too quick, and it seemed to me that there's a big gap that needed to be filled by a charity with specialists. A charity that focused on young people with disabilities and helped them to play computer games more successfully. We founded the charity three years ago and we're slowly growing. But it's important that we are specialists: Bill here is a design specialist, we also have a technical specialist, and my background is in assisted technology, from switches to special joysticks, to brain control - any way in is my background. Bill Donegan specialises in all those things and also has a good knowledge of games, too!
The most important thing we do is provide information to people about accessible games, particularly through what we call the Game Base, where we provide information and videos of games which either we make accessible in some way, or that we find are accessible in some way. By accessible I just mean that there is something about the game that makes it accessible to people with disabilities. For example, we might say "if you are using a head-mouse look at this group of games here", and people can look under that category and have a look at the games they might want to play. We also provide links to demos and free games.
We also give advice over the phone to help people find out about accessible games, and people can also arrange to visit us at our centre in Oxfordshire, where we have a games room set up where people can try out the different technologies. If it's difficult for them to travel, they might be ill for example, we can arrange to go out and visit them. We provide loan equipment, because people can make very expensive mistakes if they buy the wrong thing. Games control systems, even plugin ones, can be over £5000, so we don't want people to make those mistakes. But then, equally, we had one chap come back from Afghanistan only having the use of one hand, and he wanted to play games, and so we were able to find five one-handed controllers in our library and allow him to select the one that suited him best, and that was only £50. The thing that connects £50 controller and the £5000 eye-gaze system is our expertise: we are able to narrow down the kinds of games and devices that the person wants to play, and get them playing them.
RPS: How did you come to the realisation that games are important to people? I mean it will seem obvious to many of our readers, because they live gaming, but what made you realise that something needed to be done to improve access to games for people with disabilities?
Donegan: Two main things made me start the charity. The first was a project that I did with my first charity - which was all about communication and education - that project was just testing the waters of accessible games. We used to do assessments of children with disabilities to help them communicate, and to provide technology to help with their learning, and at the end of the day the parents would come and say "that's great! But what can they do when they get home? How can they play games with their siblings? How can we play games with them? How do they join in?" It was the parents of the kids asking that led me to do a project and find out how needed this kind of access was. I found out that there were lots of people with disabilities out there, but didn't know how to.
Also, I personally did a Phd which aimed at looking into the conditions for success for children using technology to help with their education, and I was really surprised, when I was following these young people's education, how important games were to them. It was a way to motivate them, a way to allow them to be creative, and way to make friends. For example, one girl was in an electric wheelchair, and she would struggle to keep up with the other kids at playtime, but when it was raining, she was the centre of attention because she was the one with a computer to help with her learning. She had games on there and she could play games, competing with others. And she made friends that way.
One final example: I was responsible for a study into user requirements in a European project on controller technology, and I did interviews with a lot of people. One chap I interviewed had been a business before he had found himself disabled, and I asked him what he would do with a computer that had eye-control technology. I expected him to say "get back to business!" but he said he wanted to play games. When I asked why, he said "I broke my neck coming off a mountain bike, and I've separated from my wife. I have a son, if I can't play games with him, why will he want to come and see me?" So that brought home to me the reality of games as a way of communicating and interacting.
Visiting the Eurogamer Expo last year was our first real exposure to the mainstream gaming community, and people who were gamers fully understood the importance of what we do. People we spoke to would say "if it ever happened to me, where I had a disability where I couldn't play games, a huge part of my life would disappear." And it's funny because when we speak to other people who are working with people disabilities, and you tell them you are helping people play computer games, a lot of them look at you with a look that says "...and?" But if you tell gamers, or the parents of kids with disabilities, then they understand immediately.
RPS: So how would the parent of a child with serious disabilities go about getting help from you to get their child playing games?
Donegan: I'll hand you over to my colleague, Bill [Donegan], for this. But I just want to emphasize that we do not charge for what we do, we are a charity. Some of the people were work with are very seriously disabled, and they often require us to work with them for a long time, really for as long as it takes for them to be successful, and if someone had to pay us for those services they would probably not be able to afford it. We do not charge game developers for consultations, either.
Bill: Most of the people who comes to us tend to have been referred to us from somewhere else, but we are currently doing projects around the UK in hospitals, where the hospitals can refer patients to us, and also previous patients from checkups at things. We also work with people through our loan-library project, often people who have contacted us through the website, and we talk to them about what they might need, and what we can do for them. We look at how they might control games at the moment and try to match games with that, or perhaps they want to move on to other game systems so we will try to find alternative hardware.
The other way people can find information is at gamebase.info, which is where we have forums and other collected information that helps them find out about games and hardware. People finding out information on there can often lead to people working with us via the loan library and so on. It can be overwhelming for people, so we can try and answer questions, but it really depends on people's requirements.
RPS: How would people go about helping raise money for you?
Donegan: There are details of how to contact us on the website, and people can let us know whatever they might want to do to help us. It's been amazing what people have done, particularly people from the games industry. Twenty people did the 10k for us dressed as games characters, it was just brilliant. They raised about £15,000, which is a huge boost to our funds. A brewery locally donated a barrel of beer that was sold off at the beer festival for us. Popcap did an auction of their artist's designs, paintings and pottery of their characters on Ebay, and split between us and another charity. Totally their idea, they just asked us if they could do it, and they did it. That's brilliant. We'll do whatever we can to support people's ideas. There's lots of information about where the funds go on our website. However or or however little is raised, it will have a direct impact on the people we support.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Special Effect will be holding an event at Eurogamer Expo, from 22nd to 25th of September, "to set a new Guinness World Record for the fastest time lap time in a racing game using only eye-movement sensing controllers." Make sure to have a go if you are going to be there.