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Controllers Aren't for Everyone

The gateway to the virtual world rests in a players hands. But for some, they may have to think of innovative ways in order to play.
The gateway to the virtual world rests in a players hands. But for some, they may have to think of innovative ways in order to play. / Ayrton Lauw

When players think of playing games, the first thought is to typically plug in their controller, or keyboard if playing on a PC, without much thought on how it came to be. However, for some gamers, a standard controller or keyboard is far from ideal, especially if they have a disability.

The controllers we play on are catered to a wide crowd, and although developers and designers may have spent a considerable amount of time in order to make the controller, this doesn't necessarily mean that the standard gamepad controller is the end-all-be-all solution - in fact, other alternatives that suit the needs of all people can prove to be even better for how they want, or even need to play.

To understand how essential controller design must be for an equitable future, especially to those who aren't able to play games as comfortably as any other person can, consider the inception of the device and how the hardware became a necessity in order to fully be entertained the way the developers intended.

Controllers have been a staple for gamers as it is the only gateway that connects the player to the character in the game. The first iteration of a controller can be traced back to its origins to the days of Pong on the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972.

Back then, the controller was relatively simple. The Magnavox Odyssey controller was directly plugged into the console and those who wished to play a game, like Pong, would simply go up or down, according to the ball's direction and volley the ball back to the opposing side.

The early revival of gaming for North America would later hit when Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment system in the mid-1980s, to critical acclaim. But by then, nearly a decade after Magnavox released its system, the controller would include two more directions and even two more complementary buttons in order to add additional inputs to a character on the screen.

Two NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) Classic Mini
Two NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) Classic Mini / SOPA Images/Getty Images

Fast forward to the late-1990s and instead of the two-dimensional space that most games were using, games were starting to add a third dimension, which added even more complexity to the games released during the time. An added dimension brought upon even more design changes to the controller, yet again. With the design changes all varying from platform to platform, some were made very well, and others just seemed to fall flat.

Today, we see a more standardized layout of buttons and joysticks for all platforms, usually at least having two sticks that have some directional inputs and at least four buttons to the right of the joysticks that command the input of characters in a game.

Although the controller today may work for most players, there are some fundamental flaws that have not only polarized players, it has both crippled those who have played on it or even put a restriction to those who want to use it.

Degrees of Creativity

Though controllers have played key parts in all gamer's lives, as this is the device that connects them to the virtual world in order to be fully immersed by the fully-developed worlds and unique stories, this doesn't come without any catches for those who have difficulties playing on a standard controller.

In some cases, players have even suffered debilitating injuries in their limbs due to the design of controllers. In the case of Aziz "Hax" Al-yami, a prominent Super Smash Bros. Melee player who was once placed towards the top of the power rankings before a crippling hand injury that slowed his rise to greatness. All this is credited to how the Gamecube controller would be the beginning of his problems with the poor ergonomics of it.

He would go on to detail in a video blog post that after receiving various opinions from doctors who would not do the necessary treatment to remove a tendon, the source of his hand and wrist problems. Later on, he would discover through the various MRIs that he was developing Basal Thumb Joint Arthritis with a doctor that would finally help treat his hand and wrist pains. Unfortunately, the reason for it was due to the fact of how he would hold his Gamecube controller.

"The combination of gripping down on the Gamecube controller with the same hand that you are viciously moving the stick in all of these directions, the combination of that is supposedly the worst thing this doctor has ever seen." Hax said about the doctor's thoughts of how Super Smash Bros. Melee players would typically play on the controller.

Fortunately for him, he was able to manage a fix for the situation through ingenuity by creating a product similar to that of a Hitbox-styled controller. The only difference is, instead of using it for traditional fighting games, like Street Fighter or Tekken, he would somehow configure the controller in order to use it on the Nintendo Gamecube. The result was the "b0xx."

The b0xx controller, which Hax uses in order to play his preferred Super Smash Bros. Melee
The b0xx controller, which Hax uses in order to play his preferred Super Smash Bros. Melee / Aziz "Hax" Al-yami

Hax's goal was to return into the Super Smash Bros. scene using the controller that he could actually play on a high level without further damaging his hands in order to play. However, what instead happened was that he created a way for players to ergonomically play a game that used to only be played with a fundamentally flawed controller.

Though players like Hax may have persevered through the conception of the b0xx, some have not had the same luxury as him.

Tyson McCulloch, an Australian gamer, had parts of his hand severed from his left hand, and as a computer gamer, had to find some ingenuity of his own in order to play the games he would like with his friends. Though this was a fairly newer injury and he wasn't always playing with a handicap, he's thought of a makeshift way in order to play.

"I'm in a cast currently, so I have to use a little poking stick attached to my cast to be able to press W to walk forward in video games on PC," he said.

Though he used to play his PC games through a standard mouse and keyboard, his experiences when playing MMORPGs opened his mind up to experiment with a piece of hardware that he had already acquired in order to continue playing games. To which he still tries to play on currently.

Tyson McCulloch would use his cast, equipped with a pencil, in order to perform inputs on a keyboard to play video games. | Photo by Tyson McCulloch
Tyson McCulloch would use his cast, equipped with a pencil, in order to perform inputs on a keyboard to play video games. | Photo by Tyson McCulloch

Others may be still optimizing their way to play using a Frankenstein's monster mix of applications and hardware in order to achieve the exact output that they want.

Kitsune Windsor, diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, has to use a lot of creativity in order for her to do multiple tasks like streaming and gaming at the same time. Fortunately for her, she's finding a good combination of the programs in order to do so.

Currently, she is still experimenting on how the set up of all of her equipment can help her including various eye-tracking software, a mouthpiece that connects with a PlayStation 5 controller, and text-to-speech programs that allow her to play games live to her humbling audience, despite having a debilitating condition.

Using mostly the eye-tracking software, Project Iris, she is able to set up macros onto her computer that allow her to utilize most of what any other PC gamer can do when they play games. Aside from the video games, she'll spend time writing the dialogue out for a manga-styled comic book that she has raised over $1,500 for. And after that, will she spend hours playing Final Fantasy XIV.

However, some have already made their own peace through various means in order to play the games that they want.

Mike "Brolylegs" Begum is one of the fighting game community's most competitive players for Street Fighter V, his condition is arthrogryposis, in which his muscles have contracted mostly to the point of limited usage.

As most players are currently using fight sticks, controllers or Hit Box products, Brolylegs did not let his condition keep him from achieving some of the best performances the fighting game community has ever seen. To play a game like any of the titles in the Street Fighter franchise, one must have the skills to react, press buttons, and execute precise inputs with the joystick in order to deal a move that does damage.

Since he has full control of his neck and head, he decided he would put the controller on his left hand, and the joystick would be placed in his mouth and even his tongue would be a part of the action as he inputs some of the buttons using it, sometimes his chin. As he has perfected his playstyle using his own unique method, to secure some solid placings as one of the scene's most ambitious and extraordinary competitors out there. In turn, his competitiveness shined a bright light to the community where he continues to inspire more people to be better players.

"I didn't want people's sympathy, I don't want people's pity when they saw me playing," Begum said. He added later that he wanted to be "a good symbol to other players" in order for players to reflect on their mistakes and strive for greatness themselves.

This isn't to say that hardware hasn't been made for those who want to play their favorite games, though the choices that are made accessible for players are narrow for those who wish to do so. The pickings for players that would need custom-built controllers to fit their needs can run a pretty penny, although this is their only way to escape from the reality of what has happened where they can be the character on the screen.

The Future

One thing that all of them have agreed on is that accessible hardware, especially for gaming, has a long way to go. And though the hardware available is groundbreaking for those who want to play games, some find it difficult to figure out what hardware can be used depending on the physical challenges they may face.

"Apart from finding individual streamers, you don't see anything for people with disabilities or anything like that, in terms of gadgets, all that side of things," McCulloch said. "It's really hard to think of one thing that would be an answer to a whole lot of problems."

Despite this, McCulloch believed that the Xbox Adaptive Controller is one of the controllers that is up to par and can help a number of players just by its design alone.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller uses large buttons and has a customizable front that can allow players with various needs think of ways to play.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller uses large buttons and has a customizable front that can allow players with various needs think of ways to play. / Photo by Microsoft

From Xbox's website, one of the main figures for the Xbox Adaptive Controller is a man, Spencer Allen, who had an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. In order to play video games, especially with Xbox's design, he would need to make some adjustments in order for it to cater to his needs.

He would later enlist the help of his father who would cut out a custom wood board in order to mount the hardware necessary for him to play. Attached to the wood are two joystick controllers, similar to that of the Nintendo Wii Nunchuk would be retrofitted with a bigger platform in order for his entire hand to move the joystick around in order to move his character. Though this was his ingenious way to play, Xbox's controller proved to be the main platform for that.

Though Microsoft is a company that has a large amount of capital in order to produce this for a $99.99 price point, other products that better suit an individual's needs are not necessarily the same. However, there are some products out there that may be better suited for a certain individual's needs.

Take the Quadstick for example. The device was conceived by Ken Yankelevitz, paralyzed from the chest down, who decided to take control over his life in order for him to play games. He would later go on to create the Quadstick, which allows those who are unable to use their hands or feet to play and instead choose a method similar to that of Begum and Windsor, in which they would use their mouth in order to be able to play. However, the Quadstick seems to have an all-in-one solution with the one controller in which it can all be controlled solely with the mouth.

Quadstick has the joystick along with pressure sensors that are activated by either sipping or puffing on the sensors that could input the other buttons needed to play the game. Alternatively, though it does have the product for consoles, the company also offers the same product with fewer sensors for those who are primarily playing on PCs with just two inputs.

The Quadstick Original Controller which has mouthpieces and sensors in order for people who may be quadriplegic to play.
The Quadstick Original Controller which has mouthpieces and sensors in order for people who may be quadriplegic to play. / Photo by Quadstick

While the market does have even more various options for those who have conditions that hinder those playing on a traditional controller or keyboard and mice, their buying options do come at a high entry price, likely the reason for the innovation for those who want to play games that are disabled.

As to when more accessible controllers will be available for the demand of disabled gamers that want to play that favorite game with friends or just to escape from the reality of the world, is the million-dollar question. However, as long as dedicated gamers keep their creativity, it is not hard to see that accessible controllers will become more widespread to those who want to play.

The gaming controller as we know it may be the best way to connect the human eyes into the immersive world that game designers have developed for most people to enjoy the game. But for those who may not be as fortunate as others to play, it's far from perfect.

“For people like me, who just need simple functions, there is a very big hole in the market. I could use an old arcade joystick and rig something up, but you just can't find any of that sort of stuff," McCulloch said.