A father’s quest for an accessible game controller
In June, 8BitDo, known for creating third-party controllers and adapters, has announced its latest controller for Nintendo Switch and Android devices. The Lite SE, created through collaborative efforts with father and son team Andreas and Oskar Karlsson, is designed specifically for physically challenged players with limited strength and mobility. The launch of this controller not only marks the culmination of years of hard work by Andreas to find an affordable and accessible controller for his son, but it also expands the market for accessible gaming technology.
At a young age, Oskar was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II, a neuromuscular disease that gradually weakens muscles over time. Although he played games throughout his life, his father regularly adapted standard controllers to suit his son’s needs. As he grew and his disability progressed, the complexity of the adaptive designs also increased.
“The GameCube controller was the first controller we adapted,” says Andreas. “We mounted screws in the joysticks and buttons and added polymorph around the screws. By doing this, we could increase the length of the sticks so they were easier to grip, and increasing the length of the sticks reduced the amount of force needed to maneuver it, but at the expense of range of motion. Taller thumbsticks mean longer movements – but at this point it worked because Mario Kart was quite easy to control – unlike, say, a fighting game like street fighter. Screws and polymorph on the buttons meant increased weight on the buttons, making them easier to press down or even hold down.
As games evolved without proper accessibility features and options, Karlsson struggled to discover tools that would allow his son to play properly. From adapters to eye-tracking devices, each piece of adaptive equipment failed to fully function and cost Karlsson hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Additionally, the substitutes never matched the designs of standard controllers, amplifying the sense of difference that can come with playing as a player with a disability, which left a young Oskar not wanting to play at all.
“That’s when we got a little prepared and started modifying existing controllers and even building our own,” says Karlsson. “Honestly, I have no idea how much money I spent on potential things that might have worked, from the low force joysticks for power wheelchairs to the Xbox Adaptive Controller. All were better than previous options. , so Oskar’s interest in games started to return. Of course, the things we modified and built only worked to a certain extent and Oskar always needed help pressing some buttons on his assistant personal. As we got older, we faced a new problem. At some point, he wanted to use the original controllers when he couldn’t use them to their fullest extent, as well as only being able to play very little time due to fatigue. Using a different controller that didn’t look like the others was something we never thought of. But for Oskar, it was important.
Even the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device specifically designed for gamers with physical disabilities, couldn’t meet Oskar’s needs. As Karlsson notes, the size and spacing of the controller and its various switches and buttons meant that Oskar had to expend even more energy just moving his arms and hands around to reach the necessary buttons. But size wasn’t the only issue. Since adaptive equipment can be a gamble for gamers with disabilities, each purchase can result in nothing less than expensive pieces of plastic that can’t meet the needs of the specific individual.
“Like the Xbox Adaptive Controller, it’s a wonderful thing, but it has so many flaws,” he says. “First of all, it’s very expensive, which is crazy because a lot of people with disabilities don’t have that kind of income. And it’s not just the adaptive controller: the accessories are incredibly expensive. As for Oskar, he would need two of Hori’s “low force joysticks” to use, and they cost over $400 each. So those three things would cost over $900. And then you need, like, 18 buttons.
Karlsson couldn’t find meaningful solutions that not only worked for Oskar, but also looked like standard game controllers. Yet, after designing several devices while seeking outside help from charities and organizations, Karlsson finally found help through 8BitDo.