Learning about Inclusive Design in Video Games

November 11, 2020

  • accessibility
  • other

A few weeks ago, I attended a virtual zoom webinar with Microsoft’s inclusive lead designer, Bryce Johnson as a guest speaker. The webinar has since been posted on Youtube.

Bryce Johnson has been designing for accessible experiences at Microsoft for over fifteen years. He’s also the co-inventor of Xbox’s adaptive controller pictured here:

Xbox adaptive controller

I highly recommend every person who has a part in creating technology to check the talk out. I’m not much of a video game person and I know nothing about Xbox but I really appreciated the talk. As a software engineer, I think about accessibility in the web domain, so it was insightful to hear about accessibility in a physical, video game controller context. The ideas and principals around accessibility are shared across domains!

Inclusivity in Video Games

I’d never heard of the Xbox Adaptive Controller before Bryce’s talk. The Xbox Adaptive Controller was released by Microsoft in 2018. It’s designed to meet the needs of gamers with limited mobility.

It features two large buttons that are easy to hit, not just with fingers. There’s also multiple ports available so specialized external devices like switches, mounts, and joysticks can be plugged in to fit a person.

This made me a little curious about whether other companies have come out with controllers that were designed with inclusivity in mind. It looks like one Japanese company, Hori, just came out with an accessibility controller for the Nintendo switch!

There’s still a long way to go with inclusivity, but it’s exciting that there is progress being made.

Thoughts & things that stood out

  • In his talk, Bryce mentions that the Adaptive Controller was first inspired by wanting to support the mental health of veterans. Video games can be therapeutic for those with PTSD and other mental health challenges. He mentioned this wired article here, “How Video Games are Saving Those Who Served”. A lot of veterans who grew up enjoying playing video games may come back with limited mobilities. Bryce said, “Working with these veterans gave us an opportunity to not ask why we need to do this. It was evident… it’s really always about how should we do it.”. This stood out to me because a lot of times, I think the conversation at companies tend to be “Why accessibility?“. But really, the question should be “How?“. Obviously Microsoft is going to be at a very different place then most companies in terms of size and resources, but I think this level of inclusive design thinking is something we should all strive for.
  • I appreciate this Microsoft super bowl ad that he showed. I never thought I’d say that I appreciate an ad, but this one leaves a lasting impression. I like the slogan, “When everybody plays, we all win.” Everybody should be able to enjoy playing video games!
  • Technology is about people. At one point, Bryce mentions how engineers often want to talk about engineering properties of something, and how he often has to shift the conversation back to people. I thought it was interesting he brought this up. An example he gave that clicked with me is responsive design. Apps and websites need to work for multiple devices. But he brought up how it’s not the device that cares how a page looks— they’re just computers… It’s ultimately people behind the device. I think the people element is something that’s easy to forget when you’re in the weeds of code.

Conclusion

The talk was awesome. Go listen to the talk here!


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