Game On For Everyone

Nestling amongst the latest upcoming titles being displayed at the recent Eurogamer expo was a row of monitors belonging to a small charity called SpecialEffect. As excited as I am about the likes of Fable 3, it’s my brief experience on the charity’s games that was the most memorable moment of that weekend for me. I tried a game first that was controlled using two joysticks and the second game, a racer, that was guided using my eyes only. The retina-tracking technology behind this was astounding and something I had never encountered before. After some quick configuration I was steering the car simply by looking in the direction I wanted it to go. Although I crashed and burned too much for my liking (a lot like my standard driving with an Xbox controller to be fair!) it was genuinely fun.

Afterwards I talked to Dr Mick Donegan, founder of SpecialEffect, who seemed delighted by the response their work had received at the expo. Us gamers can be rather passionate about our hobby but it’s also something we can take doing for granted and I believe the thought of an accident or illness leaving us unable to use a controller will strike a chord with most of us.

SpecialEffect help people with disabilities find enjoyment through gaming by developing and modifying cutting-edge technology (whether adapting controllers or utilising the eye-control tech); supporting schools, hospices and hospitals in finding the right technology for youngsters who need it and also loaning this equipment to people who have had a sudden illness or injury. Some software is created especially for youngsters, an example being five year old Lewis who the charity has helped. His body has deteriorated since the age of two due to an undiagnosed condition and leaves him unable to speak or control his movements, however the one thing he still has control over is his eyes.

The charity designed a piece of software using Lewis’ favourite Cbeebies characters which works by using gaze-controlled technology I experienced at Eurogamer. Lewis uses the computer regularly and is sent new games by the SpecialEffect team that allow him to enjoy playing both with his family or independently. The StarGaze Project is an appeal, launched by SpecialEffect and it’s patron Matt Hampson who suffered a spinal injury while training for the England Under-21 rugby team in 2005. This technology is very expensive but they hope to loan out three of these special computers at a time. Being able to borrow the equipment allows somebody to discover how it works and aims to improve their quality of life immediately after an accident. They can then decide if they’d like to fund-raise for themselves or apply for statutory funding to purchase a computer.

It isn’t only self-created games that SpecialEffect can provide but they also hope that developers will be open to helping make their games more accessible to those with disabilities at the “drawing board” stage. Currently they can only adapt more mainstream games once they’ve hit the marketplace, for example, by using large pads or sticks that are easier to control than the numerous triggers, d-pads and buttons that we’re used to. The examples of modified games that were on display at the expo included Forza, F1 2010 and Live For Speed. Often something simple sounding such as allowing buttons to be remapped on a standard controller or slowing down the gameplay could make a huge difference to someone being able to play a game.

The industry is starting to become receptive to making these additions or adjustments. PopCap released Peggle with a colourblind mode, Bayonetta has an option for simplified controls and Star Trigon had a one-button fully accessible menu. Playstation Move and the Xbox’s Kinect system also have the potential to open up gaming to a wider audience, including those with disabilities. SpecialEffect have a specialist occupational therapist who is on hand to give advice to developers on the type of movements that disabled people can make therefore allowing as many as possible to join in with the gaming.  In an ideal world there should be a broad spectrum of games available regardless of a person’s physical capabilities.

A part of the charity’s work includes the GameBase site, a list of more accessible games divided into sections by console type, PC, eye-gaze etc and is a great free resource. It can be found here – http://www.gamebase.info/magazine.html

Fundraising enables the charity to continue helping people with disabilities find enjoyment through gaming and has also helped to create and maintain the world’s first fully accessible computer games suite at the Helen and Douglas House Hospice in Oxfordshire. If you’re interested in learning more about SpecialEffect or wish to donate to this fantastic cause then please visit http://www.specialeffect.org.uk/

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