Vivek Gohil was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a severe type of muscular dystrophy that destroys muscle tissue starting at the pelvis, when he was eight years old. Most 12-year-olds with the condition are in a wheelchair. In his teens, Gohil was bed bound for a year – which is where his love of computer games began.
“Lots of my hobbies involve gaming; it’s a form of social interaction,” he says. “Without gaming, it would be quite isolating.” Initially, he embraced action games, but as he got older – he’s now 27 – he switched to slower, more strategy-focused games. “Because of the nature of my disease, as I get older I get weaker,” he explains. “Over the years, it’s been getting harder to press the buttons and use the analogue sticks. It’s become impossible for me to use a normal gaming controller.”Gohil’s gaming, however, has a new lease of life. He’s one of the early testers – via the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK – of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, the first inclusive mainstream controller. About three years ago, Microsoft started working on a controller for the Xbox aimed specifically at gamers with disabilities. The idea was to create something that could channel different customisations, from buttons in a wheelchair headrest to controls triggered by knee or foot pressure. The result is the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a simple, almost old-school white box with two large programmable black buttons and a smaller steering button. The controller’s secret? It has 19 3.5mm input jacks and two USB ports at the back, which effectively offer open-source access for any third-party device to perform any controller function. These are the best games of 2018 (and the ones worth waiting for) Gaming These are the best games of 2018 (and the ones worth waiting for) “Our [standard] controller has been optimised over the years around a primary use case – two thumbs and two index fingers,” says Bryce Johnston, inclusive lead for product researcher and accessibility at Microsoft Hardware. “For some people, the controller is a barrier to playing.” In order to learn about the limitations some gamers have, the company partnered with charities including the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Warfighter Engaged, The AbleGamers Foundation and SpecialEffect, which builds custom controllers for gamers with disabilities.The design may look simple, says Chris Kujawski, senior industrial designer for Xbox, but every detail has been carefully refined. The slight tilt of the controller’s surface and rounded edge was introduced after gamers found an earlier iteration too sharp and hard to rest on. After discovering that some gamers use a lapboard secured with Velcro to play on, the team added three threaded inserts so that the controller can be mounted with industry-standard hardware to a wheelchair, lapboard or desk. Even the packaging is designed to be simple to open.“I think the controller as a whole, being as flexible as it is, is a sign of how seriously Microsoft took their research and the work already done by others in game accessibility,” says Bill Donegan, projects manager at SpecialEffect. “Details such as the additional switch ports ‘X1’ and ‘X2’ mean that you can use customised personal inputs such as joystick directions without losing the option to use other switches for standard buttons. It is highly customisable.”Lauren West, who manages Muscular Dystrophy UK’s youth campaign group Trailblazers, says it’s good to see a mainstream product designed for accessibility. “It’s usually charities adapting products off the shelf,” she says. “The games industry hasn’t been hugely supportive – some companies have been locking out customised controllers.”For Microsoft, inclusivity comes with a business advantage. Roughly 1.5 million young people under the age of 24 are dealing with a disability, as are some 2.6 million 25-44 year olds – the core gaming demographics. Research by Muscular Dystrophy UK found that 60 per cent of disabled under-24s listed gaming as their favourite or most frequent pastime. “It’s an arena where they can play with any other kid on equal terms,” explains West. “As there’s increasingly limited care hours, they struggle to leave the house, so games provide a good opportunity to interact socially.” The inside story of the Xbox One X Long Reads The inside story of the Xbox One X In July, Jen Beeston at the University of York published research on how gamers with disabilities play. The team spoke to 230 gamers managing a wide range of disabilities, including upper or lower limb disabilities, autism, learning disabilities and visual or hearing impairments. They found that around half played between two and four hours at a time while 25 per cent played for more than five hours at a sitting.The gamers’ favourite titles was roughly the same as any other group of gamers. The only difference? The platform. PCs were the most popular, with over half the group choosing PCs. Some customised their gaming setups, including using customised controllers, mice, subtitles and key remapping. Microsoft’s new controller can also be plugged in to PC games.There’s more to the Adaptive Controller than business, though. The new controller sprang from Microsoft’s annual hackathon event in 2015, when a group of employees experimented with a device for gamers with disabilities. The prototype drew praise across the company – including from chief executive Satya Nadella, whose son Zain was born in 1996 with cerebral palsy and who has spoken about how technology needs to be inclusive.Gohil now uses the controller to play Forza, using the left analog stick of a regular controller via the co-pilot accessibility feature to steer the car, a chin switch to accelerate and a right head switch for braking. He has two knee switches stuck to the bottom of the table to press the Rewind button and Challenge button. “Before I tested the device, I was completely unable to play Forza using a regular controller, but when I found the perfect switch setup I managed to win multiple races,” he says. “It was an amazing experience to hand me back the controller I never thought I’d ever hold again. The whole gaming industry needs to take a lesson and understand that a large minority of gamers have a disability. It’s important that they listen to everyone.”