Xbox Series X — Can I Play That Accessibility Review

Xbox Series X provided courtesy of Microsoft as part of the Xbox Review Program. Courtney is a recipient of the Xbox MVP award for 2019 and 2020.

In years past, the launch of a new console has hinged on what is shiny and new. New design, new features and capabilities, a brand new experience. This is what we got from the original Xbox to the Xbox 360, and what we got from the 360 to the Xbox One. What this also meant was that with each new generation, users had to shell out several hundred dollars to have what’s new and improved and have access to new games, while hanging on to the previous system in order to play their old favorites.

With the shift from the Xbox One to the Series X however, this is no longer the case. Every game players may have enjoyed on their Xbox One will be available on the Series X and even more importantly, every game launching on the Series X will be playable on the Xbox One (for now, at least).

With the Xbox Series X, it would seem that Microsoft is the first of the console giants to acknowledge what a huge barrier financial accessibility is, not only for disabled people, but for anyone who wants to game. With the launch of the Xbox Series X, Microsoft is doubling down on their commitment to “Gaming for Everyone.” How, exactly? Well, by not requiring players to upgrade at all if they don’t want to.

While Xbox still often struggles to address hate speech and bullying within the Xbox community —sometimes going as far as punishing the recipient of said harassment— backwards compatibility, Game Pass, and the fact that there are no Series X console exclusives is certainly a step in the right direction if “Gaming for Everyone” is truly the goal. True inclusion will only come when both of these barriers have been addressed, but seeing that there is an effort being made to address financial accessibility is heartening. 

What’s New?

The honeycomb top of the Xbox Series X shown at a diagonal angle.

Not much. At least not from an accessibility perspective. And that’s a good thing! For me, this nothing shiny and new approach is the full realization of true inclusive gaming. Moving accessibility and inclusion beyond how it pertains to disabled users, not having to learn a new controller, a new UI and UX, and being able to continue to access all of our favorite games feels like coming home to a clean house. And as I write this the day after the US Presidential election, God do I appreciate that sense of familiar safety.

The UI update that launched for Xbox One users in October is what players will find upon powering up their Xbox Series X, which allows for a more seamless experience across the store and social features. They are significantly speedier and more reliable on the Series X though, just as one would expect.

Users can still customize their guide and home screen and every Ease of Access option they’ve enabled is still there, working just as well as ever. The only thing that’s missing that would allow me to have exactly the setup that I want is an option to turn off social features. I’d love to see a series of focused modes for the home screen that allow me to never see what stranger is streaming my favorite game or what achievement an Xbox friend has just earned. I’m not a social gamer and all of those features just clutter my screen, making it harder than it needs to be for me to find what I want.

Out of the box

A corner view of the Series X with the controller in front of it, against a dark background.

The unboxing, which can be viewed here, was an incredibly accessible experience. I’m used to having to struggle to unpack things with the joint pain and hand tremors that I live with and I simply didn’t have to while unboxing the Xbox Series X. It was such a welcome experience too. I don’t suck at unpacking boxes, boxes suck at being accessible to me! Never in my life have I given more thought to packaging design than immediately after I unpacked the console box (didn’t even know it was a thing, if I’m being honest) and it seems that Microsoft gave it even more thought than I did. 

The Series X unboxing, while obviously significantly heavier than the XAC unboxing, remains a thoughtful process. This ease of access is how I want all things to be unboxed forever.

The Controller

Three controllers; one blue, one white, and one black, with the text "Play on."

There’s a theme throughout my first experience with the Xbox Series X. One of welcoming familiarity so subtle that if I wasn’t paying attention, I wouldn’t even notice. The new controller falls right in line with this theme. Virtually identical to the Xbox One controller and its improved version that shipped with the Xbox One X, the Series X controller is designed for comfort, not novelty or flashiness. 

While the DualShock has long been my favorite controller due to its comfort in my hands, the improved Series X controller has taken its spot. Ever so slightly smaller, the new controller feels like an iteration on perfection in my small hands. For my Xbox gaming, I started using the Elite 2 controller several months ago because despite its weight, it has a certain grip to it and an ease of use that the controller that shipped with the Xbox One X simply did not. 

While the new controller understandably lacks much of the functionality of the Elite controllers, I’ve found the smaller size and improved grip on both the back and the bumpers and trigger gives me that same ease of use without all the added weight. 

GamePass

The Game Pass logo.

One of the major draws to Xbox is Game Pass. A subscription allowing access to all first party Xbox games plus over 100 others, Game Pass serves as a nod to both financial accessibility and the inclusion of disabled people in the platform. Far too often, disabled players are left gambling on what games we buy. It is still a very rare practice for studios to release ample accessibility information prior to a game’s launch. In fact, it’s so rare that it necessitates the existence of Can I Play That. Game Pass eliminates much of that risk. Though I received a subscription to Game Pass with the Xbox Series X review kit, I have been a subscriber to the service since its launch in 2017 precisely because it eliminated this disability tax I’d previously faced so often while writing for this site.

For $9.99 or $14.99 (for Game Pass and Game Pass Ultimate respectively), disabled players are able to see if they can play the game and what barriers there will be without spending $60 (soon to be $70 for some next gen games).

Until we arrive at an industry standard of studios releasing accessibility features, including full settings menus and videos/GIFs of these options in action, prior to their game’s launch I can’t help but think of Game Pass as a vital accessibility resource. 

Gameplay

A transparent mockup of the Series X showing its insides with green and blue lines surrounding it.

I know I’ve said that there is no reason to upgrade your system and that appears to be by design, but for those that want to, the gameplay on the Xbox Series X is the killer feature. Believe it or not, this improved gameplay can serve as an accessibility boon. If you have ever experienced the brain fog that so often comes with being disabled and/or chronically ill, you have probably launched a game and forgotten what game you were even playing and how to play it all while waiting for the game to load. 

Gameplay is significantly smoother and less buggy too. I have not had one frustrating crash during my many hours spent playing on the Series X. Aside from just being annoying, crashes, for me, have sometimes been the thing that leads me to uninstalling a game and never touching it again. Particularly if I’ve been toiling away trying to succeed in an inaccessible game, only to have it crash on me. 

On the flip side of this improved accessibility through gameplay and visual capabilities is the possibility of these things leading to new graphics or animation effects like flashes, strobing, or any number of other visual features that can impact players with migraines or those who have seizures.

In addition to the stunning graphics, the Xbox Series X features a new “Quick Resume” mode, which allows players to nearly instantly pick up where they left a game. And this doesn’t just work with your most recently played game, it works with multiple games simultaneously, so long as you have previously opened them on your system and haven’t shut them down entirely. I tested it out switching between Madden 21, The Witcher 3, State of Decay 2, and Forza 7 and it worked amazingly well.

Why is Quick Resume important and how does it serve accessibility? It allows for quick switching when players need a break from a mentally demanding game or from one that requires precise fine motor control and it was nice to feel a little less bad about my nonexistent attention span by being able to jump immediately into a new game when I’d grown bored with the one I was playing. While the Xbox Series X may lack the Game Help feature the PS5 has, Quick Resume allows players to pop out of their game and reference, for example, the YouTube app for a game walkthrough, and then hop right back in to the action.

A broader approach to inclusion and accessibility

So much of what we write about here at CIPT is about game options and our experiences with games and the gaming community as disabled people. We’ve even published pieces on how to market to us. While marketing to disabled people is absolutely essential for video games, I must say I appreciate this generation’s more nuanced approach to inclusion and accessibility. It makes it feel more sincere and less like it’s being done because accessibility is the thing in the industry right now. It’s refreshing for me to be catered to not as someone with a disability but instead as someone who just enjoys games and “Oh, yeah, we’ve got these features too, Enjoy gaming your way!”

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Courtney Craven

Co-founder and EIC of Can I Play That?, captioner of many things, occasional writer of fiction. Any pronouns. courtney@caniplaythat.com

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