Microsoft’s Inclusive Tech Lab: Making Gaming Accessible To All

By OSD Staff Writer Jason Carter

OSD’s Chief Medical Officer, Erik Johnson, was recently invited to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. While there, Erik got to go inside Microsoft’s Inclusive Tech Lab, a space on Microsoft’s campus devoted to gamers with disabilities.

As both a practicing Occupational Therapist (OT) and a former Army OT with 14 years of experience, Erik is familiar with the challenges that individuals with disabilities face when trying to adapt to a world designed to serve the majority, able-bodied population. “During my time in the army,” Erik says, “I did a lot of work with service members who had lost limbs or the ability to functionally use one or both of their upper extremities. A lot of my work, obviously, went to some of the stuff that they couldn’t do, in regard to the normal things of life, like being able to go to the bathroom or get dressed. But life isn’t only about those day to day needs. People seek to enjoy life and find ways to have fun! The average service member I worked with was typically an 18 to 35 year old male. It’s no surprise that they would want to be able to play video games if that was something they used to identify with. So I was always looking for different ways to strategize to be able to get these guys gaming again.”

Microsoft’s Inclusive Tech Lab was designed to engage with disabled gamers and give them a space to hang out, test products, and provide feedback about their unique and individual needs. “They will take anything, in regards to function, that you have,” Erik says, “and give it life in a gaming world. So if you don’t have functional use of your hands but you have head mobility, they might put a button behind your head so that you can shoot. Or they might use controls that let you use your mouth to activate a trigger or grenade or something like that. They incorporate all kinds of different strategies for solving problems, whether it be teaching somebody how to game again using functional adaptation, doing one-handed video games or no handed video games, using virtual reality, or just teaching somebody how to use the Microsoft operating system to optimize their experience in a windows based program. [This space] is designed to help problem solve some of those things for people with disabilities.”

In addition to getting gamers gaming again, Microsoft’s Inclusive Tech Lab was also designed to engage with game developers. “Microsoft is setting a new standard by re-imagining their products with inclusive design at the forefront of their innovative process,” Erik says. In fact, while visiting the Microsoft campus, Erik got to sit down with 343 Industries, the studio behind the Halo games, and talk with them about such topics as game design, “things to keep in mind, from a medical perspective, when developing games centered around Soldiers or Marines,” and “considerations before releasing a product.” Erik describes his role in this regard as being akin to that of a “military medical subject matter expert,” with his goal being to encourage developers to incorporate specific, user-friendly designs that will make their games more easily accessible to the gamer with a disability.

While talking to 343 Industries, Erik also got to discuss the details of OSD’s future plans for partnering with the Halo giant. Erik says, “[OSD and 343] are looking at doing a semi-annual experience for service members or veterans to be able to visit the Microsoft headquarters and Halo museum, and learn from the 343 team about what goes into building these games. We want it to be a really incredible experience, kind of an all-access, behind the scenes tour, and meeting with people who are in the industry who work to develop high-level games.” As planning is still in the early stages, the details of this partnership have not been finalized. However, for any veteran who loves the Halo franchise, Xbox, or just video games in general, this is very exciting news.

For more information about Microsoft’s Inclusive Tech Lab, as well as how its creation was influenced by wounded veterans, Microsoft as a great write-up on their website, here.