20 moments that defined Xbox: #17 — Championing accessibility

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,
Gaming has often been a tricky box to open when it comes to accessibility. Though the Xbox Adaptive Controller has been the poster child of modern accessibility efforts since it launched on September 2018, efforts to open up gaming to as many as possible have been a long struggle. To cover this gigantic topic, we are limiting our scope to the controller itself, the messaging surrounding accessibility in modern gaming, as well as what the games themselves are doing to help get as many involved as possible. If you are looking to go further back in the annals, we can highly recommend the incredible work of Stephen Wilds' For All the Players: A History Of Accessibility In Video Games article, which covers the topic in a highly researched longitudinal piece. For us, though, let's draw the focus closer and dive into the seventeenth defining Xbox moment, Microsoft’s major push for accessibility on Xbox.

xbox accessibility

The key feature that the Xbox Adaptive Controller offers is full button remapping, with 19 3.5mm sockets spread around the rear of the controller synced to face buttons, two 2.0 USB ports for additional accessories, and another audio-out 3.5mm socket. This means you can plug in any extension required to adjust the game to your needs. Bigger buttons easily synced to specific face buttons? Check. One-handed joysticks to adjust for those who cannot grip a controller? Check. QuadStick mouth controllers for quadriplegic players? Check. Any extension needed can be plugged in and modified to adjust for the needs of the user. The important note here is not just that it opens up gaming to more players, but that the controller does so for the many different types of players with different disabilities that require different adjustments. It makes it easy to plug in a set-up that has only really been possible on PC previously.

Scope, the UK-based disability equality charity, has suggested that "66% of gamers with an impairment or condition say they face barriers or issues related to gaming" and that affordability, knowledge and required to set up assistive or adapted tech, as well as availability were the principal causes. That is a lot of under-served players. Looking back, it is strange to think about the reluctance with which developers have implemented fully customisable control schemes for games when the demand is so high. In a Wired article by Jason Schrier, the writer found sources that said that "accessibility options are often the first thing cut during crunch time, when time and money are at a premium." This applied to button customisation too, which would allow gamers to change the way the buttons are used on the controller to make them more useable if their fingers and hands have impaired movement. Yet, this was a pivotal part of accessibility, and so work on making button remapping as a system function started. Now, both Xbox and PlayStation systems offer this versatility, with Switch offering custom player profiles for such changes. However, all things considered, while a good addition, this is really the baseline of making games accessible for everyone.

accessibility menus

If being able to button map, add extra controllers, and have full control over rewiring your accessories takes a major step in solving the practical aspect of playing games on Xbox, then what about how about the way in which Microsoft approaches the messaging surrounding the games themselves? Speaking to IGN, director of accessibility at Xbox Anita Mortaloni stated that some gamers could get “…99 percent through, [only to] find out you can’t finish that final boss fight because a feature is not there.” To alleviate the issue, we have seen two major innovations in the policy. On November 19th, 2019 there was the first set of Xbox Accessibility Guidelines for developers to help them understand the needs of players of all types. This includes recommendations about the biggest things like audio description, speech-to-text/text-to-speech chat, and screen narration; to the smallest details, like text sizing and visual distractions. It's a good marker showing just how seriously Microsoft is taking accessibility, and in doing so providing the resources for developers and manufacturers.

The second major accessibility policy concerning information is the accessibility feature tags and expanded easy access accessibility options. The tags, which you can read more about in Staff Writer Tom's comprehensive guide, have been around for years as "accessibility metadata tags." Now, under the new name, more than 325 games have tags that address a specific type of accessibility in the game on the Xbox storefront. These tags have been chosen by the 11,000-strong Xbox Accessibility Insider League (XAIL), but can now be provided by the published listing of the game on the store. These can include such directions as acknowledging the text-to-speech function, or pointing out that there are QTE events that one might struggle with. This is all aimed at helping players cut down on the research period before playing a game that might not be suited to their needs. In addition to this 2021 update came further accessibility options, which Tom has again written up for you to peruse. There is are several additions to the Quick Settings menu in the Xbox Guide. Now you can mess with accessibility features without exiting the app. Likewise, new settings for those with vision deficiency allow for the Series X|S to take better care of these issues without it being on each individual game. All of these small additions and upgrades over the years have really made Xbox a market leader in accessibility for games, something that now hlps define the brand daubed in green.

accessibility menus

Let's go back to basics, here: games. Ultimately, everybody loves games and just wants to be able to play the damn things. In recent years, we have started seeing accessibility options pushing further than they ever have before. Celeste by Matt Makes Games, might not have been the first to take a crack at the whip (shout out Thomas Was Alone's colourblind options), but it is one we remember that really made a dent in the modern industry. It didn't matter how you finished Celeste, just that you could play (a topic covered by goombastomp). So, you could manually adjust the speed of the game, adjust air dashes, your invincibility state, and stamina. Dead Cells, on the sly as written on by Oliver Balaam, made under the hood assists to help you play, like giving invisible walls and extra jumps to help you when needed. That was all in 2019, though.

More recently, Naughty Dog's The Last of Us 2 presented some pretty great colour blind settings, control changes, and more. Ubisoft has openly been getting advice from all sorts of gamers to help broaden the scope of accessibility. One quote that stuck out from a promotional video was an advisor's curt remark that "if your game isn't blind-accessible, having a blind protagonist doesn't actually help the blind community." So, if you truly want to be more inclusive, then offering actionable, practical, difference-making options in video games is a must. While Valhalla was the first noticeably accessibility customisable title this writer played, both Tom and I were impressed with the variety of options in Riders Republic, and Tom about the incredible array of choice in Far Cry 6. This includes things like adjustable "menu navigation, head-up display adjustments, and puzzle assists." Even recently, Editor Luke was floored by Playground Games' Forza Horizon 5 audio described menus and screens. While this little list doesn't scratch the surface of the amount of work that still needs to be done to fully open up games for all players, it at least shows the more rapid progress being made in the years since the release of the Xbox Accessibility Controller.

Like many of our Xbox defining moments, we hope that this article gives you the chance to go back in the halcyon days of only a few years back and take a look at what a fantastic moment it was to see the Xbox Adaptive Controller take front and centre. Then rip you from all of that to see that development efforts are still ongoing, more is to come, and that games are still yet to be truly playable for everyone. So, if this defining moment teaches us anything, it is that the effort continues. What a wonderful sight it is to see Microsoft helping with it.

That'll do it for number 17 of our 20 defining Xbox moments... why not check out a few of the others?

Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Written by Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Working across TrueTrophies and TrueAchievements, Kes writes news, reviews, and a variety of bespoke features. Kes left university after four years with a first-class MA in English Literature — a subject that required research, creativity, and lots of writing. He also has dabbled in teaching, farming, and building websites. Some days, he plays Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to pretend he is a pirate.