Instead of reinventing its previous console from the ground up, Microsoft has chosen to focus on and refine what it has excelled at in years past with the Xbox Series X. And in this generation, Microsoft has included disabled players too.
Microsoft took a cue from the design of the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) packaging when it came to boxing up its next-gen console. Xbox touted its “no teeth” approach to opening the XAC, intended to keep disabled people from having to resort to the common practice of using our teeth to open packages, and have implemented that same practice in the Xbox Series X. (Though to be fair, anyone trying to use their teeth to open the Series X would likely lose a couple to its weight.)
The box features four easy-pull tape tabs and opens like a box of pastries with a flip-up lid. The interior packaging is designed in a manner that makes the Xbox Series X feel like it’s presenting itself to you as something to behold. Suspended by dense black styrofoam, it says, “Here I am, a gorgeous mini-fridge. Just look at me.”
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The console is supposed to have the quickstart card featuring a handle beneath it, much like that of the XAC, to lift the unit from the box. However, my quickstart card shifted in transit and I nearly missed its presence in the box entirely. Even without the handle, the console was easy, albeit a bit uncomfortable for my pained fingers, to remove from its packaging.
Finally, unwrapping the console was as simple as tearing lightly taped protective paper and sliding the cardboard ring off.
The controller and cords come housed in a thin cardboard box stuck at the back of the main box, and opening it is as easy as sticking a finger in the slot and lifting. The controller comes inside a foam pouch, and some may be disappointed to find that once again, the controller ships with batteries, not a Plug and Play rechargeable battery pack and cord. Prying out batteries and replacing them is not always something users with fine motor control disabilities and those of us who struggle with joint pain can always do. Plug and Play eliminates this barrier.
Console Exterior and Setup
The Xbox Series X is a beast of a console. Approximately the weight of a high-end PC tower, getting the unit set up is challenging for a disabled user like me. Every time I lifted the console, I found myself hoping its weight wouldn’t cause my shoulders to dislocate.
The ports on the back of the console feature identifying tactile dots, which appear to be a call-back to the design of the XAC. The power cord port has one dot, the ethernet has two dots, and the two rear USB ports have three dots. The storage expansion port has four dots, and the HDMI port features a raised dash. These are helpful for both blind and low-vision users and, of course, all of us fumbling around on our hands and knees in the shadowy corners of our homes trying to plug a cord into the back of the console.
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The Xbox Series X controller is not a new controller like the DualSense is, but rather a refined version of what came before it. Malik Prince of the Xbox MVP program said that the new controller “feels like home,” and that’s a significant win for accessibility. Players won’t have to worry about retraining their muscle memory from six years on the Xbox One, nor will they have to adjust to added weight to facilitate new features. For players like myself suffering from hand pain and joint swelling, not having to force your hands to adapt to a whole new shape is a welcome benefit.
Perhaps the new controller’s biggest accessibility win is the improved comfort and usability, which my small and arthritic hands are thankful for. The Series X controller is ever so slightly smaller than the original Xbox One controller making it easier to reach every button. The sticks feel slightly tighter, requiring a bit more force than the previous generation’s controller, but not so much that players are likely to notice thumb strain.
By far, my favorite refined feature of the Series X controller is the improved grip. The Series X is launching amid a global pandemic when we are washing our hands 5000 times a day. Excessive hand washing means dry hands, which means difficulty gripping smooth things. Thanks to the rough, though not rubbery, textured back of the Series X controller, players with ‘pandemic hands’ or low-grip strength will not likely find themselves throwing the controller…At least not unintentionally.
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Everything about the new controller has been iterated and improved upon since the Xbox One launch in 2013. Only the colored buttons remain the same, which is another accessibility feature. Players who are dyslexic will still be able to identify buttons by color, not letter, and players who are used to other systems’ controllers will benefit from both the colors and the letters.
The bumpers and triggers have been made matte and given a slight texture for improved grip. Finally, after years of having to annoyingly double-tap the Xbox logo button, Xbox has given us a share button. We can now save our clips and screenshots with one touch. The controller’s vibration functions are also refined. Players can now feel distinct vibration in the bumpers and triggers, similar to that of the Elite controller. This refined vibration will facilitate deeper immersion for many disabled players. Still, it can be turned off at the system level for all who are sensitive to vibration.
UI and System Settings
If the new controller feels like home, the UI for the Xbox Series X is the home we’ve all come to know and love. Like most of the design choices made for the Series X, the UI and home screen have been refined, yet feel welcoming and familiar. In the October update, Xbox unveiled its new look to all users, touting a unified look across all platforms and, once again, fostering improved accessibility by design.
The Ease of Access features on the unified Xbox UI includes the narrator, magnifier, closed captions for media, speech to text, voice commands, copilot, and high contrast mode.
The Xbox’s copilot feature is a massive accessibility benefit. Copilot allows players to link with a second controller and gives the second person control over the main player’s action in a game. This is a massive benefit for any player who needs help in a game, whether you’re a blind player stuck trying to navigate a game not accessible to you or you’re just tired of dying to the same boss over and over again. Instead of giving up, you can get temporary help while still earning the achievement and any in-game benefits for yourself.
Improved loading times are, of course, a massive draw for players eager to upgrade from the Xbox One to the Series X. The new system definitely does not disappoint. I spent time in three of the games that have already been optimized for the Series X—Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5, and Sea of Thieves, and I was astonished by how quickly the games loaded using the pre-load function. While this may not seem like an accessibility win on the surface, anyone with the attention span of a nanosecond (like me) can attest that it is indeed.
Financial accessibility is seldom discussed yet it is perhaps the most significant barrier faced by disabled gamers. On top of the expense of the console itself and games (which may or may not be fully accessible), disabled players often require additional switches and controllers. Even with Microsoft and other publishers’ efforts, there is still so much left unknown for disabled players when they make a purchase as to whether or not they will be able to enjoy the content they’ve purchased.
Perhaps the Xbox Series X’s biggest draw for people concerned with accessibility is that you don’t need to upgrade your console to experience the vast majority of next-gen’s newness with Xbox. All of the new and exciting games coming to the Xbox Series X are also coming to Xbox One, allowing disabled players to invest more in whatever else they need to enjoy gaming.