Taking Control

Digital fun is for everyone, and thanks to some sparkling new tech, a pair of students from Crotched Mountain School jumped into the world of Xbox.

Wyatt settles into his seat, eyeing the new tech with apprehension. Supported by his staff and therapists, he sidles up to the desk and positions his hands on the new, foreign apparatus that had been placed in front of him. It’s a big, white, flat, plastic rectangle with two huge black circles on each side. Various wires snake out from the back, attached to a series of switches and big buttons. (It doesn’t matter who you are, really–this thing looks weird.)

An LED flatscreen TV is wheeled up to the desk. And there, just to the side of the TV is something cool and recognizable–a sleek white Xbox. The power lights flash, the disc drive spins, and the system jumps to life. The Xbox logo pops onto the TV screen, eventually moving into the system’s dashboard. Tyler Conlan, an Occupational Therapy Assistant at Crotched Mountain, navigates the pixels and gets a game teed up for Wyatt. The big, flat, plastic rectangle and the buttons and switches are moved within reach.

And then the magic happens.

GETTING IN THE GAME

If you were one of the nine zillion people that watched the 2019 Super Bowl you may have seen the commercial for the Xbox Adaptive Controller which showed a young boy with a physical disability playing his favorite video games with his friends. There hadn’t really been anything like this technology for mainstream consoles, a design that allowed people with various physical challenges the chance to dive into the digital world with their compadres.

The project’s design began in 2015, when a team of engineers from Microsoft’s Xbox and gaming division began to explore the feasibility of making video games more accessible. Intensive research and design (and a series of internal competitions) produced a prototype device that would interface with accessories commonly used by video game aficionados with disabilities.

In 2017, Microsoft began to move the controller from prototype to product, partnering with organizations like The AbleGamers Charity, The Cerebral Palsy Foundation, SpecialEffect, and Warfighter Engaged. Feedback from the community eventually led to the final creation of the controller.

Then the ad hit the Super Bowl and stirred something in a handful Crotched Mountain donors and before you knew it, two brand new Xbox Adaptive Controllers showed up at the door. Crotched Mountain School’s clinical department jumped all over the shiny new toys and began putting the gear through its paces. Tyler brought over buckets of switches and buttons and levers and plugged and played for hours, looking to get the right mix for the Crotched Mountain students he was working with.

There were a lot of dry runs, afternoons spent in an unused office fiddling with wires and gizmos, connecting and calibrating, until the right combination of accessories was identified to help give the kids the chance to experience something they never have: playing a video game with friends.

POWERING UP

Judy Beckman’s class. 10:00am. Wyatt, who has Cerebral Palsy, is gazing at the TV that fired up. Tyler and his colleague Jill Thompson, an Occupational Therapist, bracket Wyatt and help him get his hands situated on the huge red button that’s connected to the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Once he’s set, Tyler stands back and uses a standard controller to get the game ready.

They’re playing a game called “Crayola Scoot,” a simple, colorful game that allows the player to zip around a skate park on a scooter, splattering bright paint all over the place. Tyler then switched over to “co-pilot” mode, which allows him to execute the more complex inputs while Wyatt focuses on simple commands with Jill’s support.

It starts off slowly. Wyatt is unsure of this new interface. But as he feels it out and realizes that the actions he takes with the button translates to the really cool stuff happening on the screen, that look begins to dawn on his face. You know that look; we’ve all seen it. It’s the joy of discovery happening in real time.

More button presses. More on-screen shenanigans. And Wyatt is suddenly lost in the game.

“Oh yeah!” he shouts as his digital avatar performs a front flip, purple paint splattering everywhere.

More button presses. More on-screen shenanigans. And Wyatt is suddenly lost in the game.

Grace, Wyatt’s classmate, takes a spin and embarks on the same journey–incredulity to realization to gigantic fun. But, eventually, the session comes to a close. The Xbox powers down. The buttons are put back into their bin. The Xbox controller is packaged back up.

As Tyler and Jill leave, saying their goodbyes and throwing enthusiastic “Good job!” at Grace and Wyatt, Judy’s class reverts back to the typical day. The staff and students return to their academics. And then lunch is in about 45 minutes.

There is, of course, one big difference: Wyatt and Grace are gamers now.

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