The Special Effect of SpecialEffect

While at EGX last month, GameSpew took the chance to catch up with the team of Oxfordshire-based charity, SpecialEffect.

Affectionately known as “The Gamer’s Charity”, they were at the event for their seventh year to once again showcase the difference they make to the lives of gamers who have been afflicted in a way that prevents them from enjoying the hobby that we all love.

The most noticeable thing about them was the unassuming size of the booth. In one of the five halls of the NEC, each one the size of an aircraft hangar and all of which utterly consumed by the hustle and bustle of the EGX 2016 event, with vast posters and decorations, there was a single-sided, maybe 10ft long wall with just a couple of gaming stations set up. This contrasted hugely to the likes of Titanfall 2 or Battlefield 1, each of which boasted 64 playable stations and it was close in proximity to the PlayStation zone with dozens of units set up to play monstrously popular titles like Gran Turismo Sport or Horizon: Zero Dawn.

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This booth was worth looking for though; a real diamond in the rough. Having followed the rise of SpecialEffect for a number of years, this was the first time I was able to sample their wonders of game engineering first-hand.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What do SpecialEffect actually do? Good question. Their mission (which they chose to accept) is “to enable anyone, whatever their physical disability, to enjoy video games, leisure technology and communication”. They go on to stress that “we’re not just doing it for the sake of fun. By giving people the means to participate, we’re kick-starting rehabilitation, inclusion and confidence”.

“[SpecialEffect use] modified joypads or even eye-control to help people continue to play video games to the very best of their abilities”

By meeting with people with varying degrees of disability and assessing and discussing their needs, SpecialEffect can get to work constructing a custom-built rig, whether that’s using modified joypads or even, in some cases, eye-control, to help people continue to play video games to the very best of their abilities.

It’s tough to imagine, but say one day you woke up and couldn’t use a controller or a keyboard any more, like having your hands tied behind your back; I know that, for me, that would be heart-breaking. If I could no longer enjoy playing my favourite games or competing against my friends, that could be one of the most difficult things about my new life for me to get used to. But for some people, that has been a scary reality. Thankfully, the guys at SpecialEffect have been there to help.

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I tested out some of the tech they had available, which included chin-controlled Rocket League, to get an idea of how well it actually performed. Surely using eye-controlled Fifa couldn’t be as responsive as playing it with a controller? After a small amount of setup to adjust the device to your height etc., you take control of a cursor on the screen which represents where your character will move. Using this cursor, you can intercept the ball by looking where you want to go, and then when you want to shoot, simply blink (a slightly exaggerated blink of maybe a second) and the ball is fired towards the cursor. It was surprisingly accurate and really straightforward to use. Having played a few practice drills one-on-one against the keeper and after a few misses and saves, you quickly find yourself feeling like a natural. Aiming by looking became second-nature after just a few shots and some great goals were scored that I’d never be able to with my standard setup!

While this technology does exist without SpecialEffect, it is the knowledge and the passion that sets the charity apart. Their website has a number of testimonials from parents, partners and from the service users themselves who are all eternally grateful for the help they have received. We all know how attached we can become to our controllers, but one of their service users showed us just how important they are by profoundly saying, “The controller is amazing. It’s made me forget about my injury when I’m using it. Thanks for helping me gain a little normality back in my life.”

Even Tim Schafer, CEO of Double Fine Productions (the brains behind games like Broken Age, and Grim Fandango) said of SpecialEffect: “I am amazed and inspired by the great work that SpecialEffect does every day. I have always believed video games have the power not just to entertain, but really reach and connect. Thanks to SpecialEffect, they are able to connect even more people.” Since then, Tim has gone on to become one of the Vice Presidents of the company, helping to propel them to new heights.

SpecialEffect have been around since 2007 when they were founded by a specialist in assistive technology, Dr Mick Donegan. In the ensuing years they’ve come up with some great ways to raise money, including running sponsored marathons, gaming marathons and even benefitted from “One Special Day” where developers including Roll 7 and The Chinese Room donated some or all of their daily profits to the charity. It’s not always easy to raise charitable funds, so having the gaming community to support them has been immeasurably important to the work that they do. Especially helpful when big, well-known high-street brand GAME hold sponsored events, driving the message of inclusion and fun while raising money for a good fantastic cause!

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So where do they go from here? I spoke to SpecialEffect’s Project Manager, Bill Donegan and asked, aside from offering the face-to-face support that is already available in the UK and answering their hundreds of online requests from around the world, what current aspirations do SpecialEffect have? Bill revealed: “We’re also looking into developing games specifically for those with reduced mobility so that there would be games out there, designed from the ground up, with disability in mind.”

It sounds like there are exciting times ahead then and we here at GameSpew would like to wish SpecialEffect all the luck in the world with their future endeavours.

If you’d like to find out more information about SpecialEffect or the work that they do, you can check out their website, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.