Visiting Special Effect

Sean Cleaver made the trip to SpecialEffect in Oxfordshire to find out a bit more about what the charity does to make their projects a reality
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Sean Cleaver made the trip to SpecialEffect in Oxfordshire to find out a bit more about what the charity does to make their projects a reality
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One moment I’m being driven up the long driveway of the Cornbury Park Estate and a short time later I’m playing DiRT 3 using only my eyes. I’m crashing because I’m so used to looking to the apex of a corner that I’m turning too early but, before long, I’m playing a game with absolute zero body movement.

SpecialEffect is a recognised name in the gaming industry now. Their work as a charity enabling people with physical disabilities to play games is astounding. I, however, wanted to know a bit more behind the scenes: how these solutions are found and what games work well with the technologies. But first I wanted to know why I’m out in Charlbury at a converted stately home?

“It’s for the disabled access,” SpecialEffect’s Mark Saville tells me. “It’s the little things like this that can make some of the most impact. The remoteness helps separate families from the potentially difficult environments of an inner city, or a busy industrial estate. The area is calm, easy to get to for accessible vehicles, big groups of families and potentially large wheelchair equipment.”

Dr Mick Donegan pops through and says hello and thanks me for coming. He’s off out of the office for a visit to one of the many people SpecialEffect helps. These visits are essential because it helps the team to work out exactly what they need to do and how they need to do it.

When visiting, many things will be discussed and taken into consideration. Every wheelchair setup can be different, every disability can require different needs for the customised equipment and not every home is the same. There isn’t a one size fits all solution to anything that SpecialEffect does and these visits help the team see the surroundings they need to make their equipment for, how easily it can be fitted or removed, and to take into account every perceivable factor, environmental or otherwise. 

I then got to chat with Bill Donegan, who is a projects manager, and fundraiser Nick Streeter. Firstly we talk about the most difficult or weirdest project they’ve had to convert a game for. “I think it would have to be Black and White, you know the god game with the big hand,” Donegan says. “It’s not one we expected, you know everyone asks for a Call of Duty and such but this person just wanted Black and White, so we found a way.” 

FIFA and some driving games are the easiest to adapt. “We’ve got a lot of experience in FIFA. It’s a game that is simple to play and easy for people to play with limited controls,” says Donegan. “I’d like to meet the person who put the two controller option into FIFA,” Saville explains. “You know, to him it was probably just something he did one morning but it’s made the game so accessible to so many, it wouldn’t be possible without that
one choice and the work that developer did.”

We tend to forget as adults that inclusion, like playing FIFA with friends, can be just as big a part of a recovery process from an injury or disability. So why is it that when I play using SpecialEffect’s Eyegaze tech, a special camera attached to a laptop that tracks my eye movement and acts as a game controller, that I’m playing a racing game?

“Racing games are really good for assists,” explains Donegan. “You’ve got things like auto brake, auto acceleration and auto steering, and you can also have a lot of customising options for control deadzones. These games, DiRT 3 and DiRT Showdown, have excellent options, especially for Eyegaze.” SpecialEffect has a wishlist on their website which is a guide for developers that want to make more accessible games. “We can’t expect developers to make games that specifically think of these things,” says Saville. “But it would be great if there were things they could put in so that we could work on the controls for these projects.”

“The amount of support we get from the industry is incredible,” says Streeter. “We get things to auction to raise funds and everyone in the industry is so supportive of getting our message and what we do out there.”

Shortly after I play a game of Rocket League against Donegan (which I lose) using the adapted analogue stick box for use with a chin, it’s time to go. Gav Raeburn of Playground Games said: “the dedication SpecialEffect show in making video games accessible to those who would otherwise not be able to play them is as inspirational as it is humbling.”

It is exactly that – Inspirational and humbling. This team of 18 people with many skills work tirelessly to make people’s lives just that little bit better, enabling the simple act of play for someone who couldn’t do so before.

I feel like I know a lot more about not only how they do it, but why they do and I implore everyone to find
out for themselves.

(Image curtosey of Special Effect)

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