By: Eric Stroud
People love video games. They are a fantastic way to connect with friends and even people around the world. Many people owe video games the credit for some of their closest friendships, formed by coming together to accomplish a common goal or defeat a common foe. The trouble is, sometimes the complicated, intricate controllers and tiny, clicky keyboards can make it difficult for those with disabilities or limited motor control to engage in the gaming world. Xbox, along with the help of its community members and a handful of independent charities, is re-inventing gaming to bring special needs gamers back into the gaming community.
New Mission Objective
In 2014, Ken Jones, founder of Warfighter Engaged was suddenly contacted by a person who would ultimately start him on a defining journey of innovation. This person was an engineer at Microsoft’s Xbox team who had contacted Ken because of a tweet he had seen on the organization’s twitter account. Warfighter Engaged, which focuses on creating custom controllers and adaptive devices for amputees and injured veterans to help them get back into the gaming community, was happy to answer the questions he had about the difficulties of veterans and disabled gamers. Microsoft’s Xbox team was eager to help. Over the next year, the organization was able to work with a team of bright engineers from Microsoft to create the first edition of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which relied on cameras to map hand movements to a traditional controller. Soon, with the help of Warfighter Engaged and several other charities, Xbox moved past the camera technology and was able to create a more comprehensive, practical and customizable model.
Leveling Up The Design
During the design phase, Xbox reached out to four independent organizations for input and advice: The AbleGamers Charity, Special Effect, The Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and of course, Warfighter Engaged. Through research and development with these four charities and other members of the Xbox Community, they were able to design the controller to be more comfortable and easy to use for people with specific mobility and motor needs. Everything, right down to the slight curvature of the device’s base, which some beta-testers found to be too sharp, was built with direct input from the disabled gaming community. Bill Donegan, project manager at Special Effect was impressed with the design of Xbox’s newest gadget, remarking “ [it] is a sign of how seriously Microsoft took their research and the work already done by others in game accessibility”. Warfighter Engaged is equally happy with the final iteration of the product, and proudly display it on their website’s homepage along with their own customizable peripherals.
In January of 2019, Xbox introduced its final edition of the Adaptive Controller as a customizable control surface that can help bring disabled or limb-different players’ favorite games to them in a new, more accessible manner. In an interview, Xbox designer Bryce Johnson mentions “For some people, the controller is a barrier to playing”. After receiving feedback from several charitable organizations, Johnson felt the product was finally ready to break down that barrier. According to Chris Kujawski, one of the product’s designers, the Adaptive Controller went through several iterations to accommodate for wheelchair-ridden players, those with muscular disabilities, and people with limb-differences. The device features large controls, Velcro mounts, and 21 inputs for customizable input attachments to tailor the ultimate personalized gaming experience. The project also bore three other products: the PDP One-Handed Joystick, The Quadstick, a mouth operated joystick for gamers with limited motor skills, and a head mounted button system so gamers with limited body movement can use their head or cheeks to interact with the game.
Back In The Game
The product is being welcomed warmly by the gaming community. Thanks to these controllers, it is finally a way for gamers of all walks of life and with all range of abilities to come together and do what they love. Microsoft’s “Plugged In” page on the device offers several testimonials by members of the gaming community speaking the praises of their gateway back into gaming. One such member, Solomon Romney was an early tester for the device and has used it faithfully for several months. Solomon has been a gamer for a long time but has often found it difficult since he was born without fingers on his left hand. The Adaptive Controller changed all that for him. Instead of feeling like an outcast, he now feels included and empowered. “It’s nice when a person considers you” he says in an interview with Microsoft, “It’s unbelievable when a company does it, when a company thinks about you, designs something for you”. He and other gamers (like paralytic esports champion Dan Bertholemy) are experiencing a new re-entry into their beloved community. As Solomon puts it: “All of a sudden, I’m not the person on the outside.”
Connecting More Than Just Controllers
In a video showcasing an early design for the product, a panel of gamers were interviewed, each of them showing how the device can be adapted to suit their needs. One thing they all had in common was that while they all enjoyed gaming, they each found it difficult to interact with the games because of the complexity of the controls. With the help of customizable inputs and adaptive controls, these gamers were able to come back to the community they knew and loved because of the special attention given to their needs. The Xbox Adaptive Controller has expanded gaming to include more people. Along with seeing a major corporation such as Microsoft engage so passionately with their community, it’s inspiring to see more people joining forces and doing what they love. You can the heartwarming video, and check out the Adaptive Controller for yourself, right here.