We talk to Mark Saville from SpecialEffect – a charity that provides gaming
opportunities for physically disabled people in the UK.
What strikes me most about Mark Saville is how much he laughs. Midway through a discussion on
SpecialEffect, the charity which helps people with physical disabilities to play games that he works
for, I set him off again by asking if he could see the possibility of competitive e-Sports for disabled
people. Like a gaming Paralympics, if you will.
“Wow! That’s an interesting one”, says Mark, taking a moment to consider. “It’s kind of not really for
us to say at this stage. It sounds like a great idea though, because what we’re trying to do is get
people to play at the best of their ability.”
SpecialEffect, based in Oxfordshire, England, isn’t just
committed to giving all people the chance to enjoy games. They want them to play to the best of
their abilities, no matter what obstacles stand in their way.
Sometimes the obstacles can take quite a lot of work to get around.
“There’s a guy who plays World of Warcraft and he has a spinal injury, so he plays it using his chin,”
Mark recalls. “So we set him up with three chin-joysticks with the joysticks mapped to carry out the
different commands, plus we gave him some voice commands on top of that, and we enabled all of
this to be able to work through his PC so he can play.
“Then we went round a few months ago and found out that the family dog was just barking so loudly
that the voice commands weren’t working!” He laughs again. “We’ve set him up now with a fourth
chin-joystick, and he’s got these joysticks arranged all the way around his chin, and he bosses his
dungeon with them, it’s just amazing.”
SpecialEffect have been helping people in similar situations for the past decade. Able-bodied gamers
can take using controllers and keyboards for granted, but to those with serious physical handicaps,
SpecialEffect’s help could not be more important.
“If you’ve got someone who is, let’s say, suffering with spine/muscular atrophy, who has been
playing all their life – they’re a teenager and that’s how they socialise with others – to have that
taken away from them because they can’t move their hands is a massive blow. What we’re doing is
bringing back the kind of quality of life that people either had before or didn’t have before,” Mark
The charity works with a massive variety of games, completely lead by the people who ask for their
help. Not at all surprisingly, most requests are for the biggest and most popular titles.
“FIFA is right up there, Call of Duty too. We don’t actually get that many PC gamers asking for our
help. That might be because there is already quite a lot of alternative means of access to PCs out
there, whereas with consoles it’s a bit more challenging.
“It has varied. We’ve gone through Farming Simulator, pool, we’ve had some really strange requests
for weird games and we go ‘right, okay, let’s see what we can do to make that possible”.
As with our World of Warcraft-loving friend, SpecialEffect always finds a way. They do so with the
help of developers, though Mark explains that they are not lobbying them for change.
“Our primary purpose is to help people who ask for our help. If, as a result of that, and the stories
that we tell, developers sit up and take notice and think ‘actually, I can make a few changes to my
game’, then that’s wonderful.
“And that’s actually what’s been happening over the last few years, we have been working with a
few developers in the background, advising them on making things a bit easier. What we can do with
developers is just do as much as we can to make as much possible as is possible. The reaction (from
developers) has been fantastic.”
The gaming industry helped in more ways than making alterations to games. Around 50 companies,
including the likes of EA and Sega, recently took part in ‘One Special Day’ in September, where they
were encouraged to donate one day’s worth of revenue. They went above and beyond, holding
auctions and promoting SpecialEffect, and the £400,000 (more than $525,000) raised smashed the
original target of £100,000.
SpecialEffect puts the money to good use, adapting technology to make gaming accessible to all. For
those who are unable to take games for granted, their importance cannot be overstated.
“These games are massively important to the people we help, as important as they are to us, it really
is unbelievable the amount of people who come up to us and said to us ‘I can’t imagine my life
without games’, is incredible”, says Mark. It isn’t just the people playing the games who benefit,
either. Parents and carers, who work hard to provide as normal a life as possible, gain not just a way
of doing so by games, but also some respite.
Mark is ceaselessly positive throughout the interview but reserves the most praise for the people
“It’s humbling for us. Some of the people we are working with have serious life-limiting conditions,
and they know it, but their attitude to life is incredible, there’s a real can-do, competitive attitude.
They just want to be able to play games competitively and that’s what we try to provide.
“To be able to help them is really an honour and a privilege.”
Gaming is always adapting, and SpecialEffect puts in the hours to adapt with it. The next target is VR,
which has increased in popularity with the release of Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Vive.
“We do quite a lot of research and development at the moment with eye-gaze,” Mark explains. Eye-
gaze technology, software which can, among other things, allow people to control their PC using
their eyes, could be integrated into VR in the near future. “VR is wonderful and it gives a lot of
people with disabilities the opportunity to experience environments which they wouldn’t normally
be able to. By adding eye control within that, you can add that extra element of independence for
people as well, so we’re looking at ways in which we can empower VR to be as accessible as
And an e-Paralympics could still be in the offing, perhaps?
“If you could get a competition for people playing games such as FIFA in two-button mode, there are
all sorts of possibilities. That is a huge area of unknown right now.”
In the meantime, SpecialEffect’s next big fundraiser is GameBlast, which from 23-25 February 2018
will encourage gamers to take part in sponsored gaming marathons across the weekend. “It’s a greatweekend, and people just have great times doing what they do, and really enjoy themselves while
making money to help people with disabilities.
“We get some crazy, crazy stories; it’s lovely”, Mark laughs.
Cubed Gamers will be taking part in GameBlast 18. You can find more details at
https://www.gameblast18.org.uk/, or on the Cubed Gamers website nearer to the time.