Good luck watching Microsoft’s promotional video for its Xbox Adaptive Controller without crying. The tear-jerking is justified; in an unprecedented move, a major hardware manufacturer invested real resources into developing a controller aimed at the 33 million players with disabilities. It’s a huge market, but one that’s often ignored in service of the status quo, rendering these individuals invisible. The Adaptive Controller, a tiny but versatile accessory coming later this year for $100, doesn’t look like your traditional controller on purpose. It’s not meant for them.
Instead, it’s meant for people like David Corbin.
In 1996, David broke his neck in a car accident, injuring his spinal cord and rendering basic motor functions extremely difficult. Unable to properly control his hands, he came home to discover one of his passions, video games, had largely been taken away from him. When he returned from the hospital, the cords to a PlayStation controller stretched as far as they could, he began to interact with games in a new way: pressing the controller to his face.
“The main culprit for me at least is controlling movement and camera at same time,” he told me recently. “I can’t do it. A lot of the games also have a lot of top button controls that are just too difficult and complex that require timing and speed. Basically, after the original PlayStation, games just got too complex.”
Video game controllers themselves haven’t changed much since the mid-90s, but they’ve continued to pose the same roadblocks to anyone with disabilities. There are companies who’ve tried to specialize in building equipment, but it’s often expensive and case-by-case.
The Adaptive Controller, though branded Xbox, is also compatible with Windows, which opens the door to all sorts of possibilities. (Especially if you start thinking about emulators.)
“Games are awesome in part because it’s an active inclusion or escape into something else,” said David. “A lot of people might be able to experience that now that couldn’t before.”
David wasn’t aware of the controller until his son, who’s also into video games, showed him yesterday. Though he’s excited to have a chance to play more games, there is one problem.
“I’ve been able to blame controllers on why my son is better than me at certain games, haha!” he said. “Now I might not be able to.”
That would be a very good problem to have.
Carlene Young has a son, too. He’s 14-years-old and grappling with duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular disorder. In other words, his muscles are weakening as time marches on, making everyday tasks, including games, harder and harder. (I wrote about a Monster Hunter fan with a similar disability earlier this year.) He’s not able to walk more than a few feet before getting exhausted, relying on a wheelchair to get around.
One way he’s able to hold onto a sense of normalcy, his mother told me, is games.
“This device was exciting enough I cried watching the video announcing it,” said Carlene.
“Games are awesome in part because it’s an active inclusion or escape into something else. A lot of people might be able to experience that now that couldn’t before.”
The ability to customize and change the controller is key, especially when certain parts of her son’s body become tired. There’s also the knowledge she can actually afford to purchase it. Being disabled is expensive, from day-to-day necessities to specialized gaming tools. The money spent on a new wheelchair lift might prevent you from buying a custom keyboard.
“When a child suffers from a condition that gradually takes more and more away from them,” she said, “having anything that lets them enjoy themselves for even a little bit longer, is overwhelming to say the least. He's lost a lot of the ‘normal’ things a kid his age can do. So I'm very excited to see him be able to keep this one.”
Beyond the very real access the controller may provide, it’s an equally important milestone in sheer visibility. The industry has slowly dragged itself towards recognizing players with disabilities, but in the past few years especially, there have been signs of real change. Games like Uncharted 4 have robust options and big publishers like EA are hiring accessibility experts.
“Having grown up with cerebral palsy—spastic hemiplegia on the right side of my body, also speech issues—I have a very skeptical view in regards to tech,” said Jamie Swinbourne, who specifically called out Nintendo as a company who ignores players with disabilities. “It often just leave us behind, and the stuff that's supposed to help us just...doesn't.”
The operating system for both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were eventually patched with the ability to remap every button on the controller, regardless of whether a game was built for accessibility, but there are no such options on Switch. Nintendo did add remap features to ARMS, but Super Mario Odyssey? Breath of the Wild? Basically anything else? Nothing.
“Seeing a big company like Microsoft spend time and effort thinking about those of us who need to use other types of controllers makes me really appreciate that they seem to care,” said Gregory Cope, another player with degenerative muscle disease. “I suffer from really bad anxiety and depression and games are one of the only escapes I have. Playing a game and knowing I’m worse because of my disability can really take me out of the experience.”
Microsoft’s announcement prompted Nick de Bruyne, parent of a two-year-old child with cerebral palsy, to start publicly speaking about the difficulties in raising a child whose life will come with huge complications. He’s been playing games with his four-year-old for a while.
The kind of cerebral palsy Nick’s son was diagnosed, dyskinetic, means he’d have trouble holding a controller—a normal one, anyway. Suddenly, there was maybe a path forward.
“I cried, a bunch,” he said. “Not just because this one device was going to potentially open up doors, but because PEOPLE ARE THINKING ABOUT THIS NOW, A LOT. I know that we are heading into a world that's going to be ready for my little Oliver, a world that is thinking about him more and more as the days go by. It's given me a lot of hope, and made me realise that there are a lot of people out there working hard to ensure that he is also going to get the best experience he can on this life adventure that we all share in different ways.”
Being seen is one thing. Being heard, being listened to? That’s something different.
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