Meet the Charity That’s Helping the Disabled Get Into Video Gaming
SpecialEffect is a British organisation helping disabled people enjoy the video games we all take for granted.
Ceyda is nine years old, and she's got cerebral palsy.
While her mates are all bonding through the rough and tumble of physical activity, she can only watch from the sidelines. She's always wanted to play video games, but due to the nature of her condition, that's not something that comes particularly easily.
Enter SpecialEffect: a British charity that specialises in bridging the gap between video games and the disabled. They found a large joystick that she can use really well, and identified the perfect size and arrangement of buttons that replicate those on a control pad, making it possible for her to play games properly for the first time.
Now, she sits and plays Disney Infinity, beaming from ear to ear, beating up bad guys and interacting with her friends in a way that would otherwise never have been possible. Ceyda's first words after using her cutting-edge new equipment?
"I'm a gamer now."
"The aim isn't just to bring back fun, it's also about inclusion and making a massive difference to their quality of life," Mark Saville, communications support officer at SpecialEffect, tells me. "The whole meaning of that word, 'gamer', has changed so much over the last ten years. It's now massively socially relevant, and has become a byword for inclusion across a huge demographic."
Ceyda's not the only person whose life has been transformed by SpecialEffect. Ajay's a 35-year-old IT support analyst and avid gamer. Like many of the people who've been helped by the charity, he suffers from spinal muscular atrophy – a genetic condition that causes deterioration in his movement. Around the age of 17, he lost the ability to use a control pad. His gaming career was done.
SpecialEffect created a chin-controlled, voice operated control system for Ajay to use, giving him back the hobby he lost all those years ago. "It's something to look forward to when I come home from work," Ajay explains. "When I came home, or on the weekend, there's not much to do and I used to get bored. There's only so much TV you can watch, or listen to music. For me, video games are also about escapism. You can get away from the problems for a little while."
"Many traditional funding bodies don't see video games as a priority. It's a bonkers business model." SpecialEffect's Mark Saville
The charity also developed a solution for six-year-old Xbox fan Elliott. "It just makes him the same as everyone else," his mum told the charity. "He's naturally competitive, and this puts him on an equal footing." Through their modifications, SpecialEffect made it possible for him to play couch co-op with his sister for the very first time.
For people like Ceyda, Ajay and Elliott, video games mean something bigger. It's not just about the simple pleasure of being able to bomb it down the track on Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, or faff around on the latest FIFA. They're a means of escaping the ennui and struggle of everyday life, a way of feeling included and being able to compete against and communicate with other people. It seems that when everything's stripped away, video games take on a profound new meaning. It's about being able to feel the magic. And the positive impact this technology has on their lives is immeasurable.
I bumped into SpecialEffect at this year's Eurogamer Expo, where CEO Mick Donegan and some volunteers were demoing a lot of their tech. I was very impressed. "The vast majority of work we do is led by what people want to play," Saville reveals. "Let's say, for example, that a committed gamer with muscular dystrophy has found over time that he's losing the strength in his hands and fingers, and can't use a normal controller any more. We'll ask him what games he wants to play, and spend some intensive time with him looking at just what physical abilities he has that we can harness. Might be a couple of millimetres of movement in some fingers, good speech that we can use for voice commands, foot or head movement that we can use for switching. Even eye movement.
"We'll then mix, match and often modify off-the-shelf accessibility tech to create a customised gaming setup that's exactly tailored not only to his abilities, but to the control requirements of the game he wants to play. When we get it right, it's like a new person emerging."
As impressive as the technology is, I couldn't help but wonder how expensive the solutions are to produce, and how SpecialEffect secure funding. I'm shocked and humbled to learn that the charity sells and charges absolutely nothing. They're only able to do what they do through the power of generosity.
Article continues after the video below
"Many traditional funding bodies don't see video games as a priority," Saville reckons. "It's a bonkers business model. But we don't believe in charging for any of our help or loans, as that's only going to form barriers. We don't sell anything, we employ specialists, and working with people individually is very time intensive. So our survival is down the amazing generosity of people and companies who say, 'Yes, we absolutely get what you're trying to do. How can we help?'"
They're also the charity behind GameBlast, the UK's biggest charity gaming marathon weekend, an annual event that asks gamers to hold their own sponsored gaming marathons. It's raised six-figure sums to help keep SpecialEffect's doors open.
What else does the future hold for one of the few UK charities to truly understand the benefits of video games? For Saville, it's more of the same. "Demand is shooting up and our small team is paddling furiously to keep up. We're also inviting any developers who'd like to explore how to make their games more accessible to jump on the phone and have a chat with us."
Related, on Motherboard: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities, Not Sidewalks
There's a growing and heart-warming world of stories created by the fantastic work of the charity. They go on and on. There's 11-year-old Conor, who communicates with his family using his PlayStation 3. There's Tom, who was able to spank his older brother seven-nil on FIFA after years of playing the underdog. And there's Becky, who created a series of weird, wonderful, eye-sculpted creatures in Spore. None of these stories could be told without SpecialEffect.
When all's said and done, we're left with the images of nine-year-old Ceyda, giggling at the screen, surrounded by her Disney figures, exploring worlds that were previously off limits, and forging friendships that were otherwise impossible.
Ceyda, you're right. You are most definitely a gamer now.
Find out more about SpecialEffect, and donate if you like, here.
More from VICE Gaming: