September 22, 2021

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How gamers with disabilities shaped the Microsoft Adaptive Controller

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Solomon Romney was 15 when he realised video games had finally beaten him. Born with no fingers on his left hand, he’d managed just fine through the 1980s, hanging out in the arcades, benefiting from the limited inputs of those classic coin-ops with their one-stick-two-button set-ups. “My dad was a late night talk show host so I didn’t spend much time with him,” he explains. “But gaming was something we had. We’d go to the movies, then we’d go to arcades. That was where I was happiest, that was where I realised gaming was an empowering activity. It’s always been personal for me.”

But then in the mid-1990s, games became more complex, the control systems more intricate – especially on console titles. Romney had a PlayStation and he’d managed to fudge his way through with most games he wanted to play – until Squaresoft’s acclaimed title, Vagrant Story. “It was one of the first RPGs to use chaining so it meant lots of button combinations in order to win,” he said. “I worked my way through the whole thing, I struggled, I adapted, I came up with new methods, but I got to the final boss, and I died… so I restarted, I died, I restarted, I died… I went through that cycle for hours, I tried absolutely everything I could. But then I reached a point where I suddenly realised… it’s just not going to happen for me. The shape of that controller and the shape of my hands didn’t match, I was physically unable to complete a video game. It was a revelatory moment.”

Romney is a learning specialist with Microsoft and a year ago he was brought in to test an early prototype of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, the disability-focused joypad, announced last week. To get the device right, the company made an important decision: they weren’t just going to consult with occupational therapists and charities like AbleGamers ans SpecialEffect during the development process, they were going to include gamers with disabilities from the outset. For Microsoft it was a radical move – it had never invited the gaming community into a hardware design before. The company built an Inclusive Tech Lab at its Redmond campus, a tennis court-sized room complete with demo stations, a lounge area with 70-inch TV and a conference space, where gamers and experts have been brought in for “inclusive design sprints”. Everything is disability focused – the desk heights are adjustable for wheelchairs, the brightness and colour of the lighting can be customised for people with visual sensitivities, even the coffee machine has braille controls. “It’s an embassy for games,” states Evelyn Thomas, Microsoft’s accessibility programme manager for Xbox. “We want people to intentionally include disabled gamers in our products”.

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