How design is opening up the gaming experience

As the first mass-market games product for disabled people, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is reconsidering who gaming is for, and how they experience it. Microsoft designer Chris Kujawski tells CR why it’s the highlight of his creative career

For the last five years, Microsoft has been using its Superbowl spot to share stories of people with disabilities. Its 2014 ad was voiced by Steve Gleason – a former professional American football player with Lou Gehrig’s disease – while in 2015 it focused on the story of Braylon, who was born without the tibia and fibula bones in both legs. This year’s We All Win spot concentrated on the tech giant’s Xbox Adaptive Controller, and how it’s changed gaming for children with physical challenges. It’s designed to be bigger than standard controllers, with 150% larger buttons and the ability to connect with other devices such as foot pedals or joysticks – so it can be customised depending on each person’s needs.

It’s easy to be cynical about major brands tackling inclusivity, but Microsoft’s ad is undeniably charming, and there’s a solid story behind the controller’s creation. It started as an idea more than three years ago by Matt Hate, a Microsoft employee and veteran who saw his friends return from service with an injury or amputation that stopped them playing games, or using them to interact socially. He brought US charity Warfighter Engaged – which creates custom devices for veterans – along to Microsoft’s annual hackathon, where the first adaptive controller prototype was designed. Turning that early version into a workable product proved a significant challenge for the Xbox design team, however.

“We approached it just like any new product, where we’d reach out to the customers who were going to use it, and test things out iteratively,” Principal Designer Chris Kujawski told CR. “Where it was really different was this type of customer is different from one we’d typically design for, and each customer was different from one another. You can’t design something for someone with a disability and expect it to work the same for every person with a disability.”

DESIGNER

London