Why we’re putting an Xbox controller on display at the V&A

The games console is part of our drive to exhibit modern objects – as a way to make sense of our complex world

The Xbox adaptive controller marks an important moment in contemporary design history. Victoria And Albert Museum/PA

Corinna Gardner, The Guardian 7 September 2018

This week the Victoria and Albert Museum put its latest acquisition, the Xbox adaptive controller, on display, the first mass-market video game controller designed for players with disabilities. This device will make games which would otherwise be inaccessible, accessible, and also exposes the limitations of much of what is designed today. In bringing it into the collection, what is the museum doing?

In 2014 the V&A established rapid response collecting,, a new mode of collecting that brings objects into the museum at the time when they are the subject of popular and critical conversation. It is about looking beyond the museum to objects that tell stories about how we live today. We use these acquisitions to inform, celebrate and to hold to account. We have, for example, collected the Lego Research Institute, a set made up of three female scientists and the first in the toymaker’s history to feature women in a non-gendered professional environment. We acquired architectural studs, better known as “anti-homeless spikes.” and a copy of a Vote Leave campaign leaflet that adopted the NHS’s graphic identity as a means to gain support. The things we choose to acquire, display and interpret can have a small but meaningful role in defining what design can do and who it is for.

The Xbox controller sits as comfortably on a desk as it does on a player’s lap and features two large programmable buttons. Nineteen jacks and two USB ports run in line along its rear allowing users to easily plug in additional buttons, switches and pads. For the first time, it enables gamers with a range of abilities to customise how they play. As one user explained, “If I want to play a game entirely with my feet, I can. I can make the controls fit my body, my desires, and I can change them anytime I want.”

The Xbox adaptive controller allows people to use any part of the body to play video games. Victoria and Albert Museum/PA. The Guardian

The product design industry is premised on a one-size fits all approach, amplified by industrial manufacturing processes and global logistics, resulting in the same type of controller being held by tens of millions of hands across the world. But all hands are not the same.

How can the design industry change to address this? Critically, it must become more diverse. Video game and hardware design suffers from the same mono-culturalism that afflicts the tech industry more broadly: it is overwhelmingly white, wealthy and young. The V&A’s Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt exhibition, which opens on Saturday 8 September, explores the full diversity of creators and subjects in games from age to politics and gender.

The Xbox adaptive controller was developed in a co-design process, with Microsoft working with groups of players with differing abilities and ergonomic needs to shape their product. Opening up the process in this way can bring new insights, break down assumptions of what is “normal”, and can lead to new kinds of products.

What role can the museum play in accelerating such change? The V&A is the national collection of art, design and performance, but beyond this role as custodian, it also plays an active role as a place to make sense of our complex world and our place within it through objects. The choices we make as curators about what to collect have the potential to define the parameters of this world. Design is a lens on society and what we collect and exhibit serves a means to foster and inform debate.

Central to this power of the museum is its publicness. The collection galleries of the V&A are open and free to all, an extension of the public realm of the street. This civic function comes with an obligation to speak to a broad audience. The curator today is a public host, orchestrating encounters between objects and people, with a responsibility for offering tools with which to find our place in the world, and to learn how we shape it and how it shapes us.

The Xbox adaptive controller marks an important moment in contemporary design history in the challenge it sets to the wider design community. This challenge is also one for the museum of the 21st century. Our public is broad and we must reflect this in our work. In attempting to capture culture as it happens through design, rapid response collecting is one way of doing so.

Corinna Gardner is senior curator of design and digital at the V&A.

Source The Guardian


Also see
Xbox controller and mosquito emoji join V&A collection The Guardian
Video games are political. Here’s how they can be progressive The Guardian
The surprise objects finding a home at the V&A The Financial Times
The Ability Hacks: The story of two hackathon teams embracing the transformative power of technology Microsoft

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