Earlier this month, Microsoft unveiled a new accessibility-minded controller designed to give disabled gamers new, more comfortable avenues to playing games. The Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) was designed with help and feedback from many disabled gamers, including AbleGamers, the charity most associated with furthering accessibility in the video game scene.
The announcement is a major deal, showcasing that hardware manufacturers are doing more than just nodding their heads at the problem of accessibility and saying “we’re listening.” They’re actually trying to do something inclusive. However, I’m very able-bodied, with only a mild form of physical disability in my hands, so I’m coming to that notion from a privileged position. With that in mind, I put a public call on social media to get opinions from disabled gamers about Microsoft’s efforts to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to making games a more inclusive space.
Attention To Detail
The Xbox Adaptive Controller is highly customizable, letting you remap buttons and even presents two larger buttons for players with certain disabilities to use. External ports also allow players to jack in joysticks and other peripherals they may prefer, with the XAC functioning as a conduit of sorts.
Accessibility advocate AbleGamers’ COO Steven Spohn, who worked with Microsoft, is excited about the promise of the controller when it comes to servicing people with various disabilities. “The Xbox Adaptive Controller was designed for people with various physical disabilities,” he says. “In 2011, we unveiled a controller called Adroit that allows you to use switches as buttons just like the XAC. But Xbox managed to take that to a whole another level. It’s like watching a Pokémon evolve. With two giant programmable buttons and a d-pad built right onto the controller, and the ability to interface with just about all of the most popular joysticks on the assistive technology market today, there is going to be quite a demand for this controller. Now it’s our job at AbleGamers to keep up with the fundraising to match the new outcry for this amazing controller.”
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Spohn also talked at length about the importance of the controller’s visuals. “I love that the controller looks like the other standard Xbox controllers. If you put the controller side-by-side, they look like an Xbox controller and another Xbox controller. Many times in the disability community, things are designed for a purpose and not to be elegant or sleek. It doesn’t look pretty but it gets the job done – pretty much the motto of many assistive technology devices. But with the XAC it looks pretty and it feels smooth as ice.”
Spohn isn’t alone in his enthusiasm for the device. Harrison Barton, an indie developer and gamer who has Amniotic Band Syndrome, says, “I am excited about the potential of the controller, I think its focus on customization makes it very viable for people with different abilities.” Disabled gamer Grant Stoner “loves the endless possibilities for customization with [the] device.” “If I’m having trouble reaching the Y button for instance,” he says, “I can just pull the Y switch closer to my body. If I don’t need a particular button, I can just remove the switch, or relegate that particular button to, let’s say R3.”
The Price Is Right?
While the controller has received positive feedback from all the disabled gamers I spoke to, there is one universal point of discussion that disappoints them: the price. The controller costs $99.99, a good $40 more than your standard Xbox One controller.
Nikki Jeske says that while she respects Microsoft for building the controller, she’s afraid that $99.99 is too expensive for the majority of people who would benefit most from such a device: “While I understand WHY it costs $100, it still seems to me that most people in the community this is for, are people like me – who are unable to work and therefore could never hope to buy something this expensive to help.”
Katriel Page chimed in with a similar sentiment: “I wish $99.99 wasn’t the price of that controller. Take a loss or make it around the same range as default ones – people with disabilities often are more poor (and people on Social Security Disability Insurance can only have up to a certain amount of money in assets, which may only cover a computer or TV and no controllers or anything). We shouldn’t have to choose between exploring the world of Witcher 3 on PC or relaxing to Stardew Valley, or using that $100 for grocery delivery because we can’t carry that many cans/heavy bags either.”
As someone with spastic hand movements, Twitch affiliate Andre Daughtry tells us he’s excited about the controller and thinks it will be a welcome addition for disabled gamers. However, he’s also concerned about the price as he lives on fixed income.
Stoner doesn’t mind the price too much, saying that comparatively speaking, other accessibility-minded controllers are more expensive. “Four years ago, I purchased a customized PlayStation 4 controller from Evil Controllers,” he says. “I needed to have additional buttons on the sides to replace the bumpers and triggers. That set me back about $150. “
After hearing from everyone else, I asked Spohn about the price point. He called it “spectacular,” compared to the prices of other accessibility peripherals. “I’ve already had some people say, ‘This controller is $100! That’s almost double the price of the standard controller! What a ripoff!’ But those are from people that don’t live in the disability world. For those of us who live here, we like to say we have a disability tax on life. Everything is more expensive if you are disabled, including controllers… $100 is practically a dream.”
Outside of the price, the XAC has received positive feedback and points to a more interesting future in regards to how manufacturers approach disability. Microsoft’s initiative makes it the first of the three big manufacturers to take a concrete step into making its hardware handicapped accessible, which raises the question about how Sony and Nintendo will respond. Sony has done a lot of accessibility within its games, but has no hardware options on the level with the XAC. Meanwhile, the Switch is aggressively difficult to make accessibility-minded modifications to because of Nintendo’s approach to third-party hardware mods.
Spohn says the lesson here for both Sony and Nintendo is “that the disability community is here to stay. This isn’t a flash in the pan or a fluke, an organization like AbleGamers getting some attention and we will eventually go away. Players with disabilities are a real demographic that need attention. If a juggernaut like Xbox is willing to work with organizations like AbleGamers for over three years to make a controller, you know that means they’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do and because they think it will sell. PlayStation is doing a good job of accessibility, but they need to be careful they don’t get left behind. Nintendo, on the other hand, they might want to consider taking some power-ups and getting into the game.”
Stoner shared the sentiment with both publishers. “In 2015, Sony introduced the PlayStation 2.50 system update. This added a bevy of accessibility features, including customizable controls, colorblind options, and the ability to adjust text size across all video games. For me, this update became the pinnacle of accessibility features.” His look on Nintendo and Switch is dour as well: “The tablet is too big, and the controller for the Joy-Cons is egregiously small. On top of which, very few games allow players to customize controls. The Xbox Adaptive Controller could be the catalyst for Nintendo to begin adding accessible options, but, I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
Time will tell, but I’m curious to see if Microsoft’s move here results in Sony making the jump from small but meaningful software-focused updates to hardware innovation and Nintendo making any effort at all to court disabled gamers. There’s also the matter of how the XAC plays out for the community it’s geared toward and whether or not it will find its audience. “Getting [the controller] into the hands of actual people who could benefit from it is gonna be the key thing,” says disabled gamer William Carpenter. “I think there are a lot of outreach programs that would love to get a few to have. Microsoft should probably be open to losing money on this for it to have max impact.”
Regardless of how this initiative plays out for Microsoft, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is a huge deal for the disabled community. It’s physical proof that one of the biggest companies in the world is using its power to make gaming a more inclusive place for those who have often themselves pushed to the fringe.
For more on gaming and disability, you can read out in-depth feature on it here.