SpecialEffect Interview: Game on for EVERYONE
One of the great achievements of the Paralympics is that the games dispel some of those myths about sport and disability – that you can’t compete or even excel in your sport if you’re physically disadvantaged. We’ve seen ample evidence this week from inspirational Paralympians to know that that’s a load of balony.
This is equally true for videogames. Our games often ask players to master complex controls, which can create a barrier for many with physical or mental disabilities. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our games can be adapted to make them more accessible.
SpecialEffect is a GamesAid supported charity dedicated to helping ALL young people with disabilities to enjoy videogames by adapting, developing and modifying cutting edge technology to make them more accessible, and it’s the job of Bill Donegan, SpecialEffect’s R&D, to understand these barriers and come up with inventive ways to break them down.
In this interview with Bill, we learn a little more about his role with SpecialEffect and how the charity operates. We also learn about some of the challenges SpecialEffect faces. After reading the interview, head over to www.specialeffect.org.uk.
[PS3 Attitude] What does an average day look like for an R&D at a charity like SpecialEffect?
[Bill Donegan] An R&D role at SpecialEffect most often means ‘on the job’ research and development. The best way for us to learn and evolve with the work we do is to work directly with individuals on helping them to access the games they want to play on the format they want to play them on. This means that a typical day will often involve either visiting someone at home, which can be anywhere around the UK or, if not, preparing equipment at the centre in preparation for a visit. There is a lot of trial and error with combining hardware with hardware and hardware with software so this can take time to ensure it is a reliable setup before trying it with someone.
[PS3A] How many projects does SpecialEffect have on the go at any one time?
[BD] SpecialEffect currently has three main projects; The Loan Library, Roadshows and StarGaze +. The SpecialEffect Loan Library works face to face with people to find a personalized setup suited to their abilities and the games they want to play. We are able to setup and lend people the equipment and tweak the setup until they are happy with it and in a position to purchase their own from the various suppliers. The aim of this project is to offer people our expertise in choosing and setting up hardware, completely covering the cost of this process ourselves through fundraising. The Roadshows work with groups of people at schools and hospitals etc. to introduce videogames and show that there are ways to play. StarGaze + focuses primarily on the use of eye-controlled technology with individuals who have suffered a sudden traumatic injury or illness which may have left them entirely paralysed and often unable to communicate. We use this and other cutting edge technology to, not only access games, but to enable them to talk again using personalized software.
[PS3A] How do you decide what projects to work on? Does the technology come first or is it designed to solve a problem?
[BD] All of the projects were created to fill a gap. The Roadshows and StarGaze projects have been going since the charity started four years ago and will probably continue in some form as ongoing projects as there is a definite need for them. The Loan Library was started 18 months ago as we saw a requirement for a project to work with individuals to create personalized custom setups for their needs.
[PS3A] Do you have any inventions which you’re especially proud of making?
[BD] Not an invention as such, but by combining an off-the-shelf flight stick with a piece of hardware which allows you to reconfigure the buttons on it we created a simple, reliable and cost effective one-handed controller for Xbox 360 and PS3 which can be used to play even FPSs to a high standard. We have used it with a variety of individuals, some of whom have adopted it as their controller.
[PS3A] SpecialEffect works alongside developers. Can you give a specific example of this?
[BD] Whilst most often we work with smaller developers we are also starting to work with some larger ones. Whether it is a triple A title or an indie flash game we offer advice free of charge. Microsoft Studios are currently working on a new title for the Kinect which we have had some input on regarding user requirements to ensure that the game can be played by as wide a range of children as possible. Doing this has included getting the first ever disabled child to take part in user testing at their studios.
[PS3A] What are the biggest obstacles SpecialEffect faces?
[BD] Funding of the charity is directly linked to the amount of people we are able to work with, so we work hard to ensure the funds are coming in so that we can keep working with individuals and groups at no cost to them. We have great support from gamers too in achieving this doing anything from gaming marathons to actual marathons.
For more details on SpecialEffect, head over to the charity’s official site: www.specialeffect.org.uk