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Accessibility within the video game industry: SpecialEffect

26 Feb 2021

Accessibility within the video game industry: SpecialEffect

Hi Nomi.  Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today!


Do you want to introduce yourself?

I'm an occupational therapist, working as part of the service delivery team and I've been with Special Effect for over 5 years.

My role is to manage the referrals that come in from people who want to play games.  Firstly, I identify the games they want to play, what difficulties they're having and what movements they do have, this then allows us to tailor any equipment that’ll be required to give them the access they need to play.


So, for a gamer looking for accessibility options, what is what is the best way to contact you?

We have a ‘Contact us’ section on our website.  It’s usually best if the person or a family member can complete the form as we normally asked for a little bit of info about sort of what games are being played and what they're finding difficult.

Then the form will be given to one of the service delivery team and we'll get in touch and start working with them as early as we can.


And how long would you say the application process is?

It can be really quick. Unfortunately, we're not able to physically see people at the moment, so we have had to change the way we work.  So instead of making a home visit, we’re doing video calls to see people’s movements and then we post any equipment that we think will help.


So, would you say Covid-19 having an impact on how you’re working?

Yeah, so at the moment, because of COVID, as I mentioned, we’re very much doing video calls, and we're not seeing anyone in person, but we are able to do multiple video calls as much as they need as soon as the equipment arrives, and we can offer a further video call with the family or the individual to explain to them how to plug everything in and how to use the equipment.

The video calls are also allowing us to show different types of equipment off.  For example, we can show what the joysticks that they might use will be like, which is really great as people tend to find the visual help really useful, it also gives us the opportunity to show the range and give the option of what equipment is available. 

Essentially, it’s all about us working with the individual to get the set up that will not only help them play the games, but also that they feel comfortable using.  So, when they receive the equipment, we catch up with them to find out if the equipment is working well or if they need something different for a different type of game etc.  We can then just tweak the equipment, do more video calls, add more switches until the person feels comfortable.


It’s really great to know that Special Effect is there to help! I was wondering, are there any particular age ranges that you work with?

I think the youngest I've ever worked with is just under two, and the oldest was just over 85.

We help pretty much everyone and anyone.  Anyone who wants to play games but is struggling with any physical difficulty.


What about lifecycles? If a younger child is provided with equipment, how long do you provide the equipment for?

We will work with someone for as long as they want. It's really quite nice.

We've had people that I started working with about five years ago, and the equipment was great and worked whilst they were still quite young, for very simple games.  Now they're getting back in touch, because they're a little bit older and they're getting to teenage years now and want to play games such as fortnight and things with their friends.

It's just really nice to see that as they're developing, their gaming interests are maturing and we’re able to just tailor things to that.

We keep everyone on a caseload basis.  So, we’re here for as long as they need us.  So, for instance, if we don’t hear from someone for a while, we’ll archive their casefile, so it’s all safely secured, but, if they do get back in touch, because we're occupational therapists, we have to keep professional notes on record. So, we’re able to work with them quickly and have a baseline to build on their requirements.


That’s perfect, so for instance, So I guess it would be similar to if a person tends to switch between games. Do they have the option to change their equipment? How do you get around this in particular?

We tend to look at the most complicated games the person wants to play.  So, for instance, if the person is playing lots of Call of Duty, then we would apply bigger or extra joysticks and buttons. But for games like Mario Kart, you don't need any extra joysticks, you only need the buttons, so we would give them the option of having a removable joystick on this occasion so they can add and takeaway as necessary.


And what about if something's not worked for them? What do they do in regard to changing the equipment that they received? Has that ever happened?

Yeah, that does happen from time to time. Like with anything, sometimes, with the post, things might get a little jostled or something might not quite work but we will just replace things. We'll work with them to get things done as soon as possible.

The other thing to probably mention is we're only able to lend things out in the UK. Anything further afield then we can certainly do video calls and give advice and talk through sort of setup once they have their own equipment.  We just can't actually physically post out bits of equipment.


It’s great to know that you still work on an international scale. 

Yeah, we're quite used to doing a range of international calls and talking through equipment setups and also, just giving advice to people who are interested in being able to play games.

We normally like to tailor everything to the individual. So, we often get a lot of people who can't loan out equipment and might be a little bit more worried about whether they'll get the right thing contacting us. It’s really great that we can talk them through, show them case studies of people with similar conditions, and how that can work for them. It gives them a bit more confidence to try out the equipment then by themselves, and then we're still there for them later on when they want to set it up.


So, for those who are in the UK, do you have different teams that cover national regions?

Well, we have six to eight people on our team that deal with the whole of the UK.  So, for instance, if we have a client somewhere in the UK, we’ll arrange a date and time to have a one to one and we’ll go and visit them!

There are times when we can have a day trip to Manchester or an overnight stay to see a few people in Newcastle for example.  Anywhere the person is, we’ll travel to see them, in the UK of course!

Sometimes, we find that the individual is able to travel and we’ll have them come and visit our games room, where we can do the assessment there instead.  It’s really good for people who may just want a change of scenery and see where we are and that we have a lot of kit that is available to them.  It’s always really nice to be able to try lots of different things out with them at the same time.


Fab, I guess what would be really interesting to know is, what is the most common accessibility challenge that you have found people are having?

I’ve found that there is a large requirement for joystick access. Game controllers can sometimes have quite small joysticks which people who struggle with smaller movements, such as moving the joystick a small bit to move the camera for example, can really find difficult, whereas they usually prefer using a larger joystick which they can use more of their arm for.

Also, sometimes we find that the buttons themselves are either not light enough or too light, it really does depend on the condition.   What we do to combat this, is use various different buttons to replicate the required action. We use items like the Xbox adaptive controller and plug-in specific buttons that people find easier to use.

So, for some people who have very minute movement, we've got very ultra-light switches that just need the lightest touches, but then we have much larger heavy-duty ones for those who have much larger movements.

We’ve also had cases where people get in touch who don't have a particularly severe condition of any kind, but just find certain things slightly difficult. We also make a point of letting people know that it doesn't matter to us. If you're finding it difficult, we will still work with you and because everyone wants to game and if there is something stopping them that we can physically do something about, then we will.

The only cases that we really find more difficult and that there are just limitations on what we can do, are cases with visual and auditory impairments.  It’s difficult because there's just not as much that we can do, because having physical extra switches isn't going to help so much.

There are some accessibility options within games that can help, so we are able to give advice on some games that have those options, but we just aren't able to help physically access for people. However, if there is a physical difficulty where they may be struggling to access the A button, for example, we can certainly work with that.


And is there a particular genre of game that stands out or is more difficult to cater to?

I think it very much depends on the persons abilities beforehand.  First person shooters are one of the most asked for types of games and they tend to be quite difficult because you need to have good control of both joysticks to be able to move and look around. However, depending on what difficulties they are having, we do have options in which we are able to get round this.


So, what would you describe has been one of the biggest challenges you have faced in regard to enabling gameplay?

When a person is super strong, trying to mount things in just the right place for them so that it doesn’t get pushed off whilst ensuring that it's still safe for them is one of the biggest challenges that I have found.  It’s just that it’s quite difficult to get right, but once it's right, they're happy and it's all good.

Then, on the other hand, there are people who have very limited movement and literally a couple of millimetres difference in the angle of a button can mean they can play or can't play. So, it can be really difficult to exactly work out what they need until you just try it out and see what movements they have.

Of course, it’s important that we put something in place that a carer or family member can set up and use when we are not available.


It’s really important that people are still able to use the equipment once you’ve gone home.  Are there any particular games that come to mind, that have great accessibility options already available?


It has a really helpful option where you can play with two buttons, and a joystick, or just one button and a joystick, rather than using the majority of the controller to play.

It’s great because it also has a very smart AI that allows you to press a button at a particular point, then it will be a tackle or shoot. It just makes the game a lot more accessible and people can play online with their friends. That's really good.


Is there any advice that you would give to developers in regard to making games and ensuring accessibility?

We actually do help out with a little bit of that as well! So occasionally, we'll have games developers who are in the process of making a game, and they'll get in touch just to see if there's anything that they can tweak in the menu to make the game just that little bit more accessible to people.

So, we do look at games and we do help out, but because there's so many developers and so many awesome games being made, we don't sadly have the time to work with every individual person for all of the games.

What we do have to help all those that we can’t get to, is an area on the website specifically for game developers which provides extra information and tips to make sure that the games being produced are as accessible as they can be!


It’s really great to hear the work yourself and the team are doing at Special Effect.


Do you have any particular success stories that you’re really proud of?

That's really tough. We've got a lot of case studies that we've put out and lots of different people that we can talk about who have some amazing setups and things have worked really well.

I was particularly proud of working with a gentleman who has very limited movement. We ended up getting Xbox 360 controllers working with his feet.

It’s really amazing because he’s able to use his feet to access the game. He's brilliant. So that was a very proud time, just getting to see people when they really get into the game, and they can play exactly what they want to it's just lovely.


So, a really rewarding job!

Oh, yeah, definitely.


What would you say to someone who really wants to contact you but doesn’t have the confidence to or doesn’t think you’ll be able to help?

I would advise them to contact us!  The worst thing that could happen would be that we wouldn’t be able to help immediately, but we haven’t encountered this being an issue too much.

I would advise to have a look at some of the case studies we've got on our website as well, if you're not quite sure if there's something that we can do, we have a lot of case studies on our website, on our Twitter or on our Facebook.  It could be the case where you may find someone who has similar style abilities to you, and you can see what we can do. It might just help give you the confidence to contact us and feel that if it worked for this person, maybe it is something that could work with me!


And finally, is there anything coming up for Special Effect that you would want to mention?

I'd say for developers in particular, on our game access site, we have a range of developer resources that we're trying to develop at the moment.  We have video examples, and written examples of accessibility features already in games.

We're also working on creating a new site, which we're going to have sort of a dev kit on there.  This should give the developers a list of examples of various accessibility options and how they be useful.


Thanks Nomi!

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