Disabled Gamers Power-Up With XBOX Adaptive Controller
By Laura Parker, published 25th September, 2018 in Wired
The Fedex package arrived at Mark Barlet’s home in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on Christmas Eve 2016. He opened the box and gingerly pulled out a sleek black-and-white device with two large buttons: a prototype for the new Xbox Adaptive Controller. He touched the logo and tears came to his eyes. “I couldn’t believe it,” Barlet tells me. “I said to myself, ‘We fucking did it.’ ”
Barlet, 44, is a disabled Air Force veteran. He injured his spinal cord in 1996 at Andrews Air Base in Maryland. He can walk, but he suffers from chronic pain. One evening in 2004, he was at home playing the multiplayer game EverQuest II with a friend in Nevada who has MS. “Suddenly, her right hand just stopped working,” Barlet recalls. She didn’t regain mobility for months. Deeply affected by the experience, Barlet started emailing and calling game companies to ask about modified controllers and other assistive tech. What he learned was discouraging. Few major gaming companies had even considered developing consoles for players with restricted movement. Later that year, Barlet founded AbleGamers, an organization that advocates for accessible gaming options.
Disabled gamers are a very real, very vocal demographic: AbleGamers estimates that there are more than 30 million of them in the US. But across all systems, videogame controllers are configured more or less the same: two thumbsticks, a D-pad, and a slew of buttons. Increasingly complex gameplay—think popular shooters like Call of Duty or fast-paced action games like Assassin’s Creed—often necessitates rapid-fire button combinations, like tapping one repeatedly while pressing another, or moving both thumbsticks simultaneously. Motion controls, like those required for Nintendo’s upcoming Pokémon: Let’s Go games, are another challenge altogether.
For years, the disabled gamer community has compensated with switches: devices that allow people with limited mobility to control a game using different parts of their body, like their head, foot, or mouth. But switches, typically made by medical supply companies, can be expensive—up to $200 apiece—and clunky. “A lot of them are comically large or look like a medical device,” says Erin Muston-Firsch, an occupational therapist who helps patients with spinal cord and brain injuries at Craig Hospital’s Tech Lab in Colorado.
Other times, players make do however they can. Michael Phillip Begum is a 30-year-old gamer in Brownsville, Texas. He has a condition that prevents his muscles from growing, hindering physical activity. But for seven years he’s been playing Street Fighter competitively under the name Brolylegs, moving a standard controller using his cheeks and tongue. Until the rise of social media, developers were clueless about how gamers with disabilities struggled, he says. “It was simply a choice we had to make. Can we play it? If we couldn’t, we tried another game.”
In 2010, Congress passed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which requires companies to make laptops, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, and other tech that can be used by people with disabilities. “Though the act has a very narrow focus, I think that it was a catalyst in prompting gamemakers to rethink their existing franchises,” Barlet says. The industry successfully lobbied the FCC for an extension; the new deadline is the end of this year.
In 2015, Sony added new accessibility settings to its PlayStation 4, including text-to-speech, closed captions, zoom, enlarged or bold text, and inverted colors. In August 2016, EA released one of its biggest sports titles, Madden 17, with expanded accessibility features such as color-blind support and brightness and contrast settings.
In July 2016, Xbox reached out to Barlet with an idea that had emerged from an internal hackathon: Microsoft wanted to create a videogame controller from scratch for people with limited mobility. Through AbleGamers, Microsoft staffers asked disabled players a barrage of questions about using controllers and switches. The gamers weighed in with critiques on early product sketches and tested out prototypes with their switches.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller, which is now available for $100, works with all titles on Xbox One and Windows 10 and can be customized for each game via app. Designed for gamers with restricted mobility, including those with cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries, the device is compatible with most existing switches. Players can plug in foot pedals, for example, if they can’t use their hands, or a QuadStick, which lets quadriplegic players sip or puff with their mouth to control movement onscreen. The controller also introduces Shift mode, which allows the player to change a button’s function mid-game. (So a button might control “jump” in one section and “shoot” in another.)
The Xbox controller represents a small victory for disabled gamers, but “it’s not a Swiss army knife that will help everyone,” Barlet says. Gamers with visual impairments, in particular, may be disappointed by the controller’s lack of rumble packs, those vibrating devices that alert players when, say, they’re near a clue. Barlet is also pushing for software improvements in games, adding features like rich soundscapes and resizable text.
In the meantime, the Adaptive Controller’s release has other game companies scrambling to introduce their own accessible hardware. (“Nintendo is way behind,” Barlet says.) Earlier this year, PlayStation senior producer Sam Thompson gave a two-hour presentation to some of Sony’s game developers about UX design for disabled players—from sightless gameplay prototypes to nonverbal support. “This year we’ve been contacted by all the big studios,” Barlet says. “The things they’re asking go far beyond what the Accessibility Act requires. They’re finally looking to make games not only compliant, but truly enjoyable by people with disabilities.”
Still, despite the recent groundswell, Barlet harbors no illusions. “We know what companies want: business,” he says. A new customer base of more than 30 million gamers may give game developers the push they need.
Laura Parker is the author of Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World.