With the release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, assistive technology (AT) for gaming has hit the mainstream. We asked Ben Jacobs, Georgia Tools for Life Accommodations Specialist, to help us mark this historic AT moment.
Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller came out in September and already it’s popping up in State AT Program device loan libraries (find yours). This is a game-changer for mainstream consumer tech. Finally, gamers with disabilities are a recognized market with affordable hardware built for them.
Ben Jacobs, Accommodations Specialist at GA Tools for Life, and a gamer since childhood doesn’t mince words about the significance of this release, “For a first-party company to acknowledge there’s a demographic they were missing and create a controller is amazing. Also, I can’t think of how to make this controller any better than it is.”
These are high words of praise from anyone working in the field of assistive technology for persons with disabilities, but especially flattering coming from Ben Jacobs. Jacobs began programming games as a kid on an Apple II, and technology and gaming have remained passions ever since. Happily, his work and home environments are rich with thought partners. Retired as an Air Force IT communications engineer, Jacobs is married to GA Tools for Life Program and Outreach Manager Liz Persaud, a user of complex rehab technology who–while not a gamer per se–did at one time beat Super Mario Brothers (“More than I could do,” he confesses). At Tools for Life, Jacobs presses the cause of accessible gaming, to warm reception, emphasizing not only video gaming but also tabletop games and cards.
“It’s an opportunity for people to start with that small success, to beat that first level, and carry that sense of achievement over into other areas, not just gaming. It can be attitude changing. It can cause a great change overall in a person’s life.”–Ben Jacobs
The Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) falls into the category of gorgeous AT. While its branding fits with other Xbox controllers, it is distinguished by two large responsive black buttons set in an elegant bone console. Jacobs stresses, however, that the central achievement of the XAC is how it works as a hub to allow for all kinds of customization.
The Controller houses 19 3.5 mm input jacks and two USB ports for switch accessibility to every function, a testament to Microsoft’s commitment to building a device that works within the existing AT ecosystem (read a detailed review of XAC’s features).
For gamers with motor disabilities, this is profound. The XAC’s built-in buttons will work for some users (and the console is ready for mounting with three threaded holes), but the unit’s interoperability with third-party switches means individuals with an existing method of gaming on a PC can get quickly comfortable on the Xbox.
“Whether it’s a head array or switches for use with a knee, however a gamer uses switches, they can use the Xbox controller,” Jacobs says.
One powerful example is the Quadstick, a custom controller made specifically for persons who have quadriplegia. The Quadstick can plug into the XAC, allowing persons with paralysis to play on the Xbox using their mouth and sip and puff sensors.
According to Jacobs, Microsoft spent two years designing and collaborating with a range of disability community members including AbleGamers and Craig Hospital (which specializes in spinal cord injury). “Developers listened to the feedback and made this as accessible as possible.” Jacobs met recently with Bryce Johnson, lead developer of the XAC at Microsoft. He was impressed to learn their design effort included a year creating the XAC’s accessible packaging. “There are no twist ties or clamshells. They made sure the experience from when it arrives at your door to using the controller is satisfying.”
The XAC will likely open doors to gaming for new initiates with disabilities, but it would not have come about without an existing robust gaming community. Gamers with disabilities have advocated for years for accessible games, created do-it-yourself devices, and inspired third-party specialty hardware.
“Imagine a world where your disability does not define who you are, where you can be anything you want to be. That is what video games allow for people with disabilities, to be anything, to run, jump, and fly.” – the AbleGamers homepage
That groundwork has led to this XAC moment.
And now, Jacobs says, attendance and enthusiasm have grown dramatically at his gaming with disabilities panels and presentations. A panel he began at Dragon Con four years ago (an international conference celebrating pop culture and fandom) attracted gamers with disabilities, developers, critics, researchers, and advocates and two years ago he began offering two sessions, one on hardware solutions to complement the discussion on the state of gaming accessibility. This January 31st, Jacobs will offer his second ATIA presentation on the topic, back by popular demand.
“The first advances in gaming accessibility began with the game developers,” he notes, putting the XAC in historical context. Programmers began with adding captioning directly into their games and the ability to change button inputs. “Finally, about five years ago, the hardware developers started looking at accessibility.” Sony came out with an accessibility suite on the PlayStation 4–a screen narrator, contrast options, a magnifier, etc–then Microsoft offered a similar suite with Xbox and the ability to use more than one controller with a single gamer. “It’s exciting,” Jacobs says. “The hardware developers are listening now and we’re getting the ball rolling to do some great things.”
Sony? Nintendo? It’s your serve.