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Home » Featured, Headline, Interviews

Gaming charity SpecialEffect – The PS3 Attitude Interview

Submitted by on Friday, 9 April 2010One Comment

If you’re reading this there is a good chance that gaming is an integral part of your life.

Whether you favour shooters, platformers or racing games, whether you consider yourself a hardcore gamer or someone who prefers the more social, casual side of the pastime, games are important to you.

But what if you couldn’t game? I mean, physically – what if it literally wasn’t possible? Or what if you had a learning disability that made today’s wealth of challenging games either far too esoteric or simply overly difficult for you to enjoy?

Think about that for a second. A hobby we invest so much time and money in, an interest we place so much value in. What if gaming was something that you were excluded from?

It’s nothing new to hear that we at PS3 Attiude fly the charity flag at every opportunity we can. Not because we’re shameless about how great we are in terms of magnanimity or social responsibility, but because, as much as we love games, we know there are more important things in life. Things like supporting those less fortunate than us and doing all we can to highlight not only the challenges charities face in their goal to improve the lives of others, but also their triumphs, all the while fostering a greater awareness of these charities’ mandates and how you can get involved.

UK based SpecialEffect is one such charity. We had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Mick Donegan from SpeciaEffect about the charity’s goals and hopes for the future; a rare chance to get a glimpse behind the scenes of a foundation striving to make a difference to the many people in the UK who would like to get involved with gaming but, due to a disability or simply a lack of knowledge of what games would be suitable for them in particular, maybe don’t know how.

[PS3 Attitude] Tell us a little about SpecialEffect, the charity’s goal and how you became involved with the venture.

[MD] I am Dr. Mick Donegan and I specialise in Assistive Technology for people with complex disabilities. My ‘day job’ is Deputy Director in a university department in East London and I work for SpecialEffect voluntarily. The way that SpecialEffect came about is a long story but, essentially, it grew out of an award-winning project which I coordinated five years ago.

To cut a very long story short, during many years as a specialist teacher working with technology to support learning and communication, I became increasingly aware of the importance of computer games for people with disabilities and, because so many people with disabilities were unable to enjoy the immense benefits of access to gaming, I became increasingly determined to do something about it and, in 2008, I formed the charity SpecialEffect.

I must say at the outset that, in my view, to enable the 20% of people who are considered to have a disability to successfully access computer games a fundamental requirement is a combination of three things:

(a) extensive experience of assistive technology in relation to meeting the physical, learning and social needs and abilities of the disabled community

(b) wide-ranging experience of the use of computer games and

(c) a passionate determination to enable everyone who wants to play a computer game to be able to do so.

I believe that SpecialEffect is the only charitable organisation in the UK, if not the world, that has this particular combination of skills and passion and, as a result is focusing it specifically on access to computer games for all.

The charity’s goal is to give access to games and leisure technology to everyone with a disability who would like to use it.  It is widely acknowledged that there are a range of therapeutic social and cognitive benefits and yet, at present, very few mainstream games are available that can be played by people with disabilities. Our primary role, then, is to find those games which can be played, adapt those which can’t and share information globally through our website, in particular our Web 2.0 ‘GameBase’.

[PS3A] What kind of response do you usually get at your road shows from people who, for whatever reason, may have simply given up on the idea of playing games due to their disabilities?

[MD] The response is always positive and frequently amazing. In some cases, for example, for people within the autistic spectrum, the games have provided a non-challenging context in which to interact with others socially for the first time. In such cases, the games have provided a catalyst for a change in their behaviour. For many with physical and learning disabilities, it has been the first opportunity ever for them to play a video game independently and are instantly hooked!  As a result, they and those supporting them are keen to find out more so that they can buy systems and software themselves. Yet again, this is where the GameBase can be a valuable source of information (as well as the planned National Accessible Games Centre – see below).

We only currently operate the Games Roadshows in the Thames Valley at present, but it is thanks to the generosity of GamesAid these they are secured for the next 12 months. In the in the future we would love to expand these and train people to hold roadshows in other areas, depending on raising the necessary funding to do this.

[PS3A] Can you tell us a something about the Game for Helen project? Its origins and goal, and how it’s progressing?

[MD] The Game for Helen project started at the request of the parent of a child at the Helen and Douglas House Hospice (THE WORLD’S FIRST CHILDREN’S HOSPICE) who said that, even though there was no shortage of computers and games at the hospice, her own child and many others were not able to use them because of their physical disabilities.

In a meeting that was arranged with the hospice staff, they agreed wholeheartedly and were eager for help. Since then, the project has involved SpecialEffect both purchasing and providing training on a wide range of specialised hardware and software to enable all of those young people who wish to play a computer game to do so.

The project will run until the end of the year. During this period there will be a review of the project, in collaboration with staff at the hospice, following which there will be a number of recommendations. One recommendation is likely to relate to how best to ‘roll out’ what has been achieved so that all hospices can benefit from what has been learnt.

[PS3A] Stargaze is another of your projects that help people who are completely paralysed communicate through gaze-controlled technology. It may not be fully gaming related, but perhaps you can discuss its objectives?

[MD] The objective of StarGaze is to provide the loan and support of a Gaze-controlled computer to people who have been paralysed by a traumatic injury or illness and can only move their eyes. Whether for leisure (e.g. controlling the radio or playing a gaze controlled game of chess) or communication the purpose is to get people back on the road to independent control of their lives as quickly as possible.

The importance of this project cannot be over-emphasised. Without it, many people would not have the opportunity to even try this technology (a) because it costs approximately £1000 a month to borrow such a system from other sources and (b) because the specialist expertise and support which SpecialEffect provides during the loan period would not be available. StarGaze provides an excellent opportunity for the patient to find out how effective this technology is for them and to prove its value to potential funders.

One example of a young beneficiary of the StarGaze Project is Lewis, paralysed since the age of two, for whom we design simple bespoke games. [Ed – You can find out more about Lewis here.]

[PS3A] Apart from educating people as to what games are suitable for people with disabilities, you also adapt games to make them more user-friendly. What kind of games have you adapted? And which games have become the kids’ favourites?

[MD] The games which young people enjoy most vary considerably depending on their needs and abilities. They range from ‘Racer’, a fast-moving Formula One racing game that has been adapted for either head movement control or gaze control, to adapting ‘Peggle’ for switch access. In addition, we have developed some gaze controlled programs of our own, such as gaze-controlled draughts and Connect 4, and are working on more gaze controlled leisure activities such as a music program.

[PS3A] If you could get all the main gaming publishers in one room, what one thing would you like to say or ask them?

[MD] The opportunity to influence the games publishers is, indeed, part of our master plan and the games industry, via GamesAid, have been very supportive and interested in what we are aiming to achieve. However, we understand that this will take time and we need to earn developers’ attention and respect through, for example, the information provided on the GameBase. However, once we do have them all in the same room we would ask them to consider the following points.

(a) Rather than organisations like ourselves doing our best to modify games after they have already been developed like we do at present, we would value the opportunity to influence the software at the development stage.

(b) Not all games can be adapted for all people with disabilities and that is why, following many years of experience, SpecialEffect is in a unique position to help to decide which games to adapt, and how to adapt them for whom.  In many cases, just a few small changes could allow tens if not hundreds of thousands of people with a particular disability to play a particular game that would otherwise be impossible for them.

The particular skill of SpecialEffect would be to suggest potential changes to developers so that the developers could then decide whether to make such changes would be a cost-effective use of their valuable time.

(c) By collaborating at the design stage, SpecialEffect will be able to advise on those games which can be adapted and how they can be adapted.

(d) Not only would this be of great benefit to those who need technology most for socialising in and enjoyment but it could also significantly increase the potential number of sales to that 20% of people who are currently regarded as being disabled.

[PS3A] Would you agree that gaming for people with disabilities is even more important that gaming for people without disabilities? After all, these games offer people with physical and learning difficulties the chance to do something, whether it be snowboarding, skydiving, etc., that able bodied people can physically do themselves and probably take for granted.

[MD] The answer is a definite ‘Yes’. In fact I couldn’t have put it better myself! People with disabilities are hit by a double whammy – they can neither enjoyed a real activity nor enjoy a simulation of the activity on a computer. As a result they can become passive observers and eventually lose the desire to participate. Our aim is to enable them to join in with the rest of us and have the opportunity to compete on a ‘level playing

[PS3A] From watching the videos on your site, it would appear that, quite naturally, the Wii is a very popular device among the people you’re helping. With Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s NATAL motion control devices scheduled for release later this year, are you excited that even more options and support for people who may find it difficult to control a game with a traditional controller are coming?

[MD] Yes indeed, we are very excited. The Wii has already significantly increased the range of people who are able to play computer games. However, it is important to note that, while it has, indeed, considerably simplified control over what is happening on the screen, nonetheless it was designed for people with mainstream physical and learning abilities. As a result, whilst most people with mainstream abilities are easily able to play Wii games, many of the games are still difficult for many people with disabilities to access. However, with a little minor ‘tweaking’ in consultation with specialists like ourselves, many more of these games could be enjoyed by a much wider range of people with disabilities. We would happily collaborate with any developers focusing on Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, etc.  to make their technology as accessible  to as many people as possible. Indeed, as described above, to do so at the development stage has always been our aim.

[PS3A] What can we do to help? Gaming is an expensive hobby, and as gamers we individually spend a great deal of money on our passion. Of course, some of us are young, at school or university, but if every visitor to PS3Attitude just gave one pound, one euro or one dollar, I believe your current target of £35,000 would be quickly obtained. If one thing I’ve found over the years is true, it’s that gamers can be the most magnanimous of people. A lot of the time, however, I find that gamers would like to help, but just don’t know how to go about it.

[MD] That is an excellent question! The first and most important way to help people with disabilities would cost nothing! Any time spent by gamers putting up information about alternative ways into games on our GameBase would be invaluable! As you can see, the GameBase is in its early pilot stages and we are deliberately keeping a low profile at present. However, it will soon have its full launch and, at that stage, we will provide simple guidelines on how mainstream gamers can help us with their expert information!

As for funds, our main source of funding is through trust applications (we have one person working one day a week on fundraising) and events that we organise ourselves and fundraise via Nonetheless, we would very much welcome any advice on how you feel we might be able to capitalise on the generosity of those gamers who would like to help everyone to have the opportunity enjoy games as much as they

[PS3A] Gamers and gaming in general still suffers a certain amount of stigma in the public’s perception, mostly due to the amount of negative press the pastime has garnered over the years in relation to game violence. Though SpecialEffect’s main aim is to better the lives of people with disabilities through interaction and play, inversely, do you believe such a positive endeavour also helps gaming’s image?

[MD] Definitely! There is an ever increasing amount of evidence relating to the positive benefits of gaming for people with disabilities, particularly in relation to rehabilitation and therapy. For those undergoing chemotherapy, for example, it has been found that they require less medication due to the fact that they are positively and purposely engaged. We regard it as an essential part of our role to promote the positive aspects of gaming – motivation, therapy, rehabilitation, socialisation, creativity competition, etc. – so that everyone can not only have access to, but also make an informed choice about, those  games they would like to play.

[PS3A] What’s next for SpecialEffect? I believe you had an event around the Rome Marathon last month. As someone who has run a marathon and used the opportunity to raise money for charity, how can people who may want to support SpecialEffect through such activities do so in the future?

[MD ]The Rome Marathon was a new event for SpecialEffect. Looking forward, we have places for the London, Dublin and Amsterdam Marathons. If people are looking for a slightly less challenging event, then we are still recruiting runners for this years British 10k this July in London.

We have an events ‘menu’ on our website which offers an increasing range of events, from Marathons and Triathlons to the ‘Three Peaks Challenge.’ From this, people can choose an event which interests them, if they would like to raise money for SpecialEffect.

However, in terms of our BIG plans for the future, we are about to begin a fundraising appeal to open a National Accessible Gaming Centre. Whilst we have a range of projects that you may have already seen on our website, we do not yet have a place where people with disabilities and their carers can visit to find out and try out a range of accessible games technology on all platforms. This will also be the place where we will invite developers to collaborate with us to make gains more accessible at the development stage. The centre will be in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, just over an hour from Paddington Station. We are really excited about the centre and believe that it will become a focus and hothouse for developments that will influence the whole future of accessible gaming.  Any ideas/support to help us to raise the funds for this unique centre would be very gratefully received!

We would be delighted if gamers had the opportunity to really connect with what we do and help gamers with disabilities via fun initiatives that could range from sponsored Guitar Hero marathons to perhaps selling unwanted games via eBay with a percentage coming to the charity as, indeed, an enterprising group of university students did recently.

We would like to thank Dr. Donegan for taking the time to speak to us about SpecialEffect. If this article has inspired you and you would like to get involved with gaming related charity work, we urge you to do so. You will literally be sharing your passion with people who need your help and share your love of our pastime. Of course, if you’re busy (and who isn’t these days?), there is a donation section below where you can quickly make a difference. As mentioned above, if everyone contributed even a small amount, charities such as SpecialEffect (which GamesAid – our primary recipient of donations – supports) will benefit greatly. Thank you.