We All Win
Microsoft’s ‘We All Win’ ad, which aired during the 2019 SuperBowl, promotes the new Xbox Adaptive Controller. The spot opens with a crew of spunky, enthusiastic, visibly disabled kids introducing themselves. “My name is Grover…Sean…my name is Ian… I’m Taylor.” And finally, “My name is Owen, and I am nine and a half years old.”
Owen’s life and his love of gaming are central in ‘We All Win’, but he’s not alone in telling this story. Owen’s parents also give their perspective, “Owen was born with a rare genetic disorder called Escobar Syndrome. He’s had 33 surgeries to date.”
We immediately notice a key difference between Owen’s narrative and what his parents are describing. Take, for instance, when Owen tells us “I love video games, my friends, my family, and again video games.” The segment juxtaposes Owen talking about the things he loves, with his parents providing a medical/individual model description of Owen’s disability. His parents’ narration is overlaid on a montage of clips showing how Owen’s diagnosis affects his life, “It’s his way of interacting with his friends when he can’t physically otherwise do it.”
Microsoft introduces their Xbox Adaptive Controller to a swell of upbeat music, climactically releasing the tension that had been building up as Owen’s parents spoke. In this way, Microsoft establishes the narrative of the controller as one of inspiration, in which the device helps Owen to overcome his body—even though nothing about Owen has changed. He is interested in the controller as a tool, not a personal transformation. As he explains, “You can just say alright that’s that button, that’s that button, that’s that button. Perfect.”
Owen’s father says that one of his biggest fears was, “how will Owen be viewed by the other kids.” Tearing up, he continues, “He’s not different when he plays.”
“No matter how your body is, how fast you are, you can play. It’s a really good thing to have in this world.” Owen says crossing his arms and leaning toward the camera with confidence. The video ends with a black screen with white text that reads, “When everybody plays, we all win.”
It turns out, Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was not actually their first modifiable controller. When the Xbox Elite Controller (XEC) was released in 2015, Microsoft featured its adaptability prominently in marketing materials. They wanted gamers to know this controller was elite because users could now make modifications to suit their specific gaming needs and preferences. Core features included “swappable components” and “limitless customization”, which also made the XEC uniquely accessible in comparison to other off-the-shelf controllers. An unexpected by-product of this marketing was that it also made accessibility elite.
The mere existence of the XEC is a testament to a rich history of hacking within gaming culture—a history in which disabled gamers have played an active role. PC gamers with programming expertise spend extraordinary amounts of time and effort developing mods and patches for games that correct bugs, improve graphics, and even alter storylines and interactions. This is a culture that infuses creative expression and meaning-making into participatory design practices to improve players’ identification with, and enjoyment of their favorite games. Similarly, a player’s gaming setup, sometimes featuring customized controllers, keyboards or other digital hardware, is not only functional, but serves as an opportunity to express their personal style and identity.
One such elite gamer, Steve Spohn, became an early champion of the Xbox Elite Controller. Spohn is the Chief Operating Officer of AbleGamers, a group of disabled gamers that has “modified regular controllers, built entire gaming setups, used eye-tracking in new ways, invented new techniques, and even built entire rooms” to make gaming more accessible. His work with other disabled gamers to master the XBox Elite Controller caught Microsoft’s attention. This was how “AbleGamers, along with players from the disability community […] worked secretly with Microsoft to develop one of the best controllers for people with physical disabilities to date,” the Xbox adaptive controller.
Both the Xbox Elite Controller and the Xbox Adaptive Controller were developed in partnership with gaming experts, which means both should fit seamlessly into gaming culture. But there’s a notable difference between the two controllers. The Xbox Elite Controller used technical language and detailed descriptions to reach gamers while the Xbox Adaptive Controller was presented to mass audiences as a children’s toy.
When accessibility in gaming is made explicit, it tends to position users as incompetent or inexperienced. This is a version of infantilization, a common trope in disability representation, where disabled adults are portrayed as innocent, vulnerable and child-like. Ease-of-access in gaming has historically been framed through signifiers of childhood.
Consider the ongoing debate over ‘easy modes’ in gaming, the most recent iteration of which took place this spring following the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a technically challenging game from the developers of the infamously difficult Dark Souls series. Early commentary raised the perennial question of whether games like this should include an “easy mode” for players who struggle to complete them on their default settings. In response, self-proclaimed ‘hardcore fans’ argued that the difficulty of certain games is central to the artistic vision of their creators, and to the experience of playing them. Some commentators responded to this line of argument by pointing out how it is exclusionary and elitist, noting that an optional feature that increases access to a wider audience should not be viewed as a threat to one’s own gaming experience. However, even as they argued in favor of accessibility, they also actively infantilized it. In one notable example, Jim Sterling, a video game journalist, derisively referred to the critics of “easy modes” as “[people who are] mad at 3-year-olds”. In doing so, he simultaneously acknowledged “easy modes” as a valid accessibility concern, and suggested that the people who benefit from accessibility features are toddlers.
Nondisabled gamers and commentators arguing in favor of “easy modes” have largely sought to justify them on the basis that there’s nothing wrong with someone wanting an easier gaming experience. This is a reasonable argument—but it also reframes accessibility as, essentially, an aesthetic choice. By contrast, disabled gamers like Spohn and Steve Saylor, a Toronto-based podcaster, radio host and Blind Gamer, have emphasized that the purpose of “easy modes” is not to remove the challenge from a gaming experience – rather, they remove barriers that might prevent disabled gamers from participating altogether. Spohn has suggested that in fact, the term ‘equal mode’ is much more appropriate.
Microsoft missed an opportunity to send a message to gaming culture at large that the problem isn’t easy modes, but rather how we perceive those who use them. This is why brands will never succeed at innovating products without also innovating who gets to tell the stories about those product. Bryce Johnson, Inclusive Lead for Microsoft Devices wrote a post on Medium detailing everyone who contributed to the Xbox Adaptive Controller. In it, he describes a dozen of his ‘favorite memories from our journey’. When will these stories be told?
Owen is fantastic. Leave him in the ad. But perhaps his participation would be would be more impactful if we saw him learning gaming and hacking culture from one of the greats, Steve Spohn or Bryce Johnson. And so we ask Microsoft, will you invest in a global ad campaign that not only demonstrates the impact of the Microsoft Adaptive Controller, but also credits the culture and the people from where it came?