Do Accessibility Controllers Provide Genuine Inclusion?

Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller.
Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller. / Microsoft

As one of 46 million disabled gamers in the United States, Luka is forced to find ways around his disabilities to play the games he loves. He suffers from a visual processing disability and a severe reduction in motor skills that causes seizures and chronic pain.

"I wasn't a gamer for most of my life," he said in an interview. "Games were simply impossible for me."

It took Luka a long time to understand that his motor skills were entirely unsuited to conventional game controllers, and no matter what he tried, he couldn't operate them.

A disabled veteran using Microsoft's Adaptive Controller.
A disabled veteran using Microsoft's Adaptive Controller. / Microsoft

According to SCOPE, an organization in the UK that spreads awareness about disability, "40% of disabled gamers have experienced negative attitudes from other gamers relating to disability, impairment or condition." Luka strongly upheld that sentiment. The issues that set him back the most as a disabled gamer were not his physical disabilities, but rather people's unwillingness to accommodate him. Even in more welcoming environments, Luka would be given a controller he could barely use and thrown into the mix with people who had been playing games their whole lives and had the complete physical ability to enjoy them.

"The way the people in my life taught me and treated my disabilities led me to believe I was incapable of learning. Friends would put a controller in my hands, plant me in front of Borderlands, and laugh as I died repeatedly," he said.

The fact that he couldn't keep up, even in friendly environments, led to feelings of hopelessness and incapability.

Although games typically cater well to visual impairments such as color blindness (many feature options to alter colors for easier viewing) few games meet the accessibility standards set by Uncharted 4, which was widely praised for its plethora of features aiding those with limited physical ability. Luka greatly struggles with navigating 3D environments and keeping track of his avatar, but Uncharted 4 includes a camera setting that snaps to points of interest rather than requiring manual aiming. This is hugely helpful for Luka and players like him.

The game also enables players to edit several features of its gameplay and user interface, and offers an option for repeated button tapping to serve as a distinct input from a single tap, making it easier to accomplish specific tasks for players who may not be able to use other parts of the controller.

Uncharted 4's accessibility settings.
Uncharted 4's accessibility settings. / Naughty Dog, screenshot by DBLTAP

Unfortunately, this degree of thought and care for the disabled community is somewhat rare in gaming. The vast majority of games offer little more than color correction for the visually impaired, leaving many players out.

Merian Leesworth, another gamer with physical disabilities, said virtual reality headsets are often even worse, completely lacking accessibility.

"Virtual reality is a whole other story. I feel humiliated. In regular games, being disabled doesn't bother me too much, but in VR, it's like I'm disabled in the game, too," he said.

Some games seemingly go out of their way to punish disabled gamers, albeit unintentionally. For example, Beat Saber has a one-handed mode that could make it playable for a wide swathe of disabled gamers. Unfortunately, the difficulty in one-handed mode is far more extreme than in the dual-handed mode.

Beat Saber VR Gaming
Beat Saber in-game. / Beat Games

"Before trying VR, I didn't care about accessibility. But now I understand how frustrating it is when you're kept from something you enjoy," Merian said.

"It wasn't until I met my current girlfriend that I learned that accessible setups existed, and that I began to learn how to navigate games — and which games I could play, and which just weren't a good fit. Accessibility options have saved my life."

Accessibility controllers have massively improved over the years, but issues remain. At present, the Microsoft Adaptive controller stands as the leading option for most. The device works on the Xbox One, the newer Series X|S, and computers running Windows, and it allows for a massive variety of switches, buttons and other devices to be added to provide a more intuitive, less frustrating experience — at least in contrast to standard, and even most alternative accessibility controllers. "When everybody plays, we all win," Microsoft proudly displays on the device's webpage. But at what cost?

"When everybody plays, we all win."
"When everybody plays, we all win." / Microsoft

Traditional controllers cost approximately $60. After paying upwards of $400 dollars to get his Adaptive device and all the required pieces — almost as much as a gaming console itself — Merian still lacked some of the parts necessary to provide a smooth gaming experience. He explained he needed a collection of additional buttons to serve his specific mobility issues, but that he had to purchase each piece in stages because of their prices. Even worse, some of the parts he required don't yet exist. As many disabled players are unable to work and rely on government benefits, all this customizing can become wildly unaffordable.

However, Merian became very enthusiastic about a brand called 8BitDo, which sells an emerging controller option aiming to challenge the current costly nature of being a disabled gamer.

"It's only available on pre-order, but it's just 35 dollars!" he said.

The team behind the 8BitDo Lite SE claims it has easy-to-press buttons, and that its joysticks are more sensitive. As many gamers cannot hold their controllers, the buttons are placed on the face of the device, allowing them to be easily accessible when the device lies on a surface such as a desk.

"I wish this had existed before I started buying all those pieces!" Merian said.

The 8BitDo Lite SE controller.
The 8BitDo Lite SE controller. / 8BitDO

Twenty-seven years ago, Cooper Barlow was born in Orlando, Florida, with a complete lack of motor function on the right side of his body. Today, he works and games from home using his specialized Razer Naga, a controller specifically made for left-handed individuals, and specially configured foot pedals that allow for even further input possibility. These two devices in unison allow Cooper to create an experience that is much less frustrating than restricting himself to just one.

Cooper is critical of most accessibility controllers, and finds it irritating how none of the options he knows about provide sufficient additional modules to compete with a traditional controller experience.

"I can't replicate the full range of inputs from a controller: D-pad, two analog sticks, four face buttons, shoulder buttons, shoulder analog triggers. It's too much," he said.

Cooper also believes that while the Xbox Adaptive Controller is a good idea and a step in the right direction, it ultimately fails to perform because of issues such as its massive size, a lack of safe cabling, only moderate customization possibilities, Microsoft’s vague and unhelpful explanations of which pieces serve which specific physical limitations, and its high price.

"I'd need a quality joystick, but I've yet to find one that has enough buttons which can be reached with one finger on the stick, and which will also work for left-handers," he said.

"I'd also like to see a controller come out which can be snapped and slotted into various combinations and configurations, as well as have additional buttons slotted in the positions required. I don’t feel that Microsoft’s attempt lives up to that."

Additionally, Cooper struggles with his controller being too light and flimsy. Many gamers have motor issues that make controlling the degree of force they use difficult, and that leads to damage when they accidentally drop their device. Cooper proposed removable weights that would allow players to customize the heft of their controller.

Cooper says the best way to bring about innovation in controllers is for able-bodied gamers to start taking an interest in alternative options, as they ultimately have the greatest effect on the actions of developers.

"Suppose manufacturers could see the potential market is considerably more extensive," he said. "In that case, there might be a chance for disabled gamers to access a broader range of quality, affordable, and more suitable controllers."

Alexander Nathan, a disabled gamer born with muscle myopathy, believes his controller is so adaptable that able-bodied gamers should already be using it. He also happens to have founded the world's only entirely disabled esports team, Permastunned.

Nathan's device, the Azeron Gaming Keypad, looks almost like a futuristic hand, and it allows the user to play using only one hand. "It offers, I believe, over twenty-four buttons — I was blown away by it. I'm surprised even non-disabled gamers aren't using it," Alexander stated. "You only need to buy it, plug it in, and play, making it a super convenient solution for competing in esports and minimizing the ability gap as much as possible."

The Azeron Classic Gaming Keypad.
The Azeron Classic Gaming Keypad. / Azeron

Custom-made 3D solutions that account for your specific measurements and disabilities also exist, and at a reasonable price, meaning that while gamers can't yet configure controllers at home to quite the degree many would like, they can have them tailor-made to suit their needs.

But even with the perfect controller, disabled gamers can run into trouble. Cooper explains that many games flat out reject accessible controllers, or ban you for using them, as they mistakenly recognize the devices as those which may be used for cheating.

"Why can't I use what I want, and why is everything so surface level?" he said.

As for the future of controllers, Cooper believes we may have to change the status quo of traditional controllers not just for the disabled, but among fully-abled gamers too — for their own good. Harvard Health Publishing has stated that gamers are massively overstraining their wrists and developing health problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes pain and numbness.

There is even a condition known as "Gamer's Thumb," in which the tendons that move the thumb become inflamed because of the unnatural positioning of the hands while playing on a controller, as well as with the repetitive thumb movements required.

Cooper expressed real concern for the health of fully-abled and disabled gamers alike, stating that accessibility controllers would benefit the health of everyone.

"Frankly, tons of gamers either end up with repetitive strain issues or develop temporary disabilities that leave them unable to play for periods. Plus, many accessible controllers in no way prevent regular gaming," he said.

"So there's no reason 'regular' gamers couldn't use them just as easily."