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Spotlight feature: SpecialEffect

28 March 2024
Event: BAFTA Games AwardsDate: Thursday 11 April 2024Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd., London, U.K.  Host: Phil Wang-Area: Digital Assets & CampaignSpecialEffect

At the forthcoming BAFTA Games Awards on 11 April, SpecialEffect will receive BAFTA's Special Award in recognition for the outstanding work it does to enhance the quality of life of severely physically disabled people through access to games. Ahead of the ceremony, games journalist and author Laura Kate Dale spoke with its founder, Dr. Mick Donegan, and some of the people the charity has supported to paint a picture of just how important their work has been for players, and for the games industry itself.   

Founded by Dr. Mick Donegan in 2007, SpecialEffect was born from a noticeable gap in support for disabled young people in accessing games, as well as a lack of perceived empathy for the importance games play in young life.  

“I was working in a national centre [deputy director of the ACE Centre, Oxford] helping young people of education-age to be able to access school work, and while we were finding all sorts of ways in which people could use a range of technology to achieve access to education and communication, the parents were saying to me, “Well, that's great, but my child can't play with their friends,” and as an educationalist I knew that play was really important.

“In the early 2000s, more and more people were playing video games, and it became obvious that it was something that those young people were missing out on. There was no specialist organisation in the UK that I could refer them on to.”

When SpecialEffect started out, the charity’s focus was on creating bespoke accessibility hardware setups, often through hacking existing hardware to fit new use cases. This often involved visiting disabled people in their homes with an occupational therapist, before hacking hardware to allow for new input devices to be wired in. All of this work was done without any charge, including return visits if a player’s access needs changed, ensuring that no financial burden was placed on the families of disabled players.

“The first day I used the controller SpecialEffect provided, I lost track of time playing because rather than causing me pain, it now distracted me from it,” explains Danni Brennand, who has severe ME and for whom hand weakness had become a barrier to holding a controller.

“I may not be able to leave my room or bed physically, but through games I can do and be whatever I want. I can now explore new worlds, fly through space, or drive fast cars. I can also do more mundane tasks that are no longer accessible to me in real life, such as cooking, organising cupboards or washing laundry. In games, my illness doesn't exist.

“SpecialEffect has massively improved my quality of life. I thought I'd lost my favourite hobby, and with it some of my connection to the outside world. Thanks to them, I have it back.”

Content creator HelloItsKolo shared a similar story about her experience with the charity. “SpecialEffect helped set up my foot controller when I first became disabled, which enabled me to be more independent. It might sound small, but this meant I could work again, play again, enjoy games, mentally escape the burden of chronic pain, be independent with something in a world that otherwise makes that a pretty tricky challenge. I could escape and be a part of the community I love again. Their help has made an enormous impact on both my physical and mental health.”

The team at SpecialEffect also dedicated time to attending games conventions, showcasing technology to the general public. This outreach undoubtedly acted as an early catalyst for changing attitudes toward gaming accessibility here in the UK, with booths demonstrating technology such as gaze tracking applied in a way that made those advancements feel exciting for a general audience.

“You see people trying out something like eye-controlled games and you just see in their faces [when] they start to get it. When they finish the demonstration, there's this ‘Oh yes, I can see what this means to somebody now’ moment. There's a very real, practical hands-on impact that it has,” explains SpecialEffect’s communications officer, Mark Saville.

Perhaps more notably, SpecialEffect’s outreach efforts at conventions in the late 2000s had a noticeable impact on early developer awareness of how they could be making their own games more accessible than they currently were.

“So many times we've had people from the industry come up and try the tech, and you can see them inspired to go back and say, ‘Hang on a minute, I might be able to talk to my studio about that’,” explained Saville.

“One quick example of that,” added Dr. Donegan. “I was once doing an expo and we were demoing … [and] we found a way to hack into Dirt 3 so that you could actually drive using your eye movement. A guy came to me, I remember it really clearly, and he looked down at me and then he looked in front of me because my hands are at my side. He said to me, ‘How are you doing that?’ As I explained, he said, ‘Wow, that's amazing. I was one of the people who developed Dirt 3.’ I thought that was lovely because it indicated that it's not that people wanted to exclude anyone, it's just that a way to include people hadn't been shown.”

In recent years, SpecialEffect’s work has expanded into working in tandem with video game developers and publishers to help bring down the price of entry-level accessibility setups. Both the Xbox Adaptive Controller and PlayStation Access Controller were developed in consultation with the charity, and the mass production of those modular controller bases has done a huge amount to lower the barrier of entry to accessible games hardware. The charity also contributed to the development of the Logitech Adaptive Gaming Kit, an affordable starter selection of buttons and switches for use with these accessibility controllers. Some players will still require bespoke hardware created by the charity, but these controllers being widely available means they can help more people globally, more quickly, with less time spent on developing and building custom devices.

“We worked with Xbox, alongside others, for around three years from idea to release. Same for the PlayStation Access Controller. Originally, we were hacking our way in [to PlayStation and Xbox]. We were doing it as safely as possible, obviously, but we were hacking our way in. But all of a sudden, we went from having to pay third party companies for products that cost a lot of money to a much more reasonable cost interface in the case of both the [PlayStation] Access Controller and Xbox Adaptive Controller. Those devices made it easier for us to actually help more people, more quickly.”

While video game accessibility is currently experiencing a huge surge of positive momentum across the industry, it's important to remember how different things were in 2007, when SpecialEffect formed. Dedicated organisations were out there trying to advocate for accessibility support, but video game accessibility was still well over a decade away from becoming a topic of mainstream conversation.

“At that time, I've got some newspaper front pages saying how bad for you video games were. At the time it wasn't a great idea if you started a charity that was dedicated to helping children who already had a physical disability and ‘inflicted’ video games on them. I had to persuade people that this was a good thing,” explained Dr. Donegan.

“We began to make the point that this actually was something that was very positive, and gamers and the industry have gradually come along with us, supported us, and realised the importance of accessibility.

“What has struck me very forcibly is that everyone I meet in the games industry, they just want more people to enjoy their games, it's as simple as that.” 

This award from BAFTA is a recognition of the huge impact that SpecialEffect has on the lives of disabled gamers, and on the industry as a whole. But BAFTA itself has committed to improving accessibility across its own activity, too, including its Awards ceremonies and events. From fully accessible red carpets, visible ramps, quiet spaces clearly marked and BSL available, among other access accommodations, the arts charity is focused on ensuring that its activity is inclusive and accessible for disabled people.

Change is happening across the industry where games focusing on software-based accessibility are being recognised for that work, and where major games sites are including coverage of accessibility features in their reviews. SpecialEffect continues to do pivotal work making sure that financial, educational, and physical barriers don’t prevent disabled players from having the best chance possible of playing the games we all love. 

BAFTA is open for applications for new members and welcomes applications from d/Deaf, disabled and neurodiverse people working in film, games and television. Find out more at

Image credit: SpecialEffect 


BAFTA – the British Academy of Film and Television Arts - is a world-leading independent arts charity that brings the very best work in film, games and television to public attention and supports the growth of creative talent in the UK and internationally. Through its Awards ceremonies and year-round programme of learning events and initiatives – which includes workshops, masterclasses, scholarships, lectures and mentoring schemes in the UK, USA and Asia – BAFTA identifies and celebrates excellence, discovers, inspires and nurtures new talent, and enables learning and creative collaboration. For more, visit BAFTA is a registered charity (no. 216726).