The other day I decided to repair two xbox controllers, in hopes of not having to spend $40 each for replacements. One of controller #1’s joysticks had been ripped off by a very willful, nearly year-old corgi (who cannot be left alone for five minutes). And controller #2 had been spiked into the ground about six months prior, during a particularly frustrating sequence in Dead Space (video games can sometimes bring out the worst in me). While they were minor repairs (replacing the joystick and one of the LB/RB buttons), I am the epitome of your blissfully blackboxed consumer. It’s not surprising how money/socio-economic status plays into this either…if the controllers were cheaper or I had more money to spend, I probably would just buy new. (Completing the repairs, this seems silly…and sheds light on other similar decisions…)
After purchasing online the special security screwdriver (I initially found this out the hard way) and a set of buttons (for a grand total of no more than $6), I set to work educating myself on how this thing I had held in my hands for hours on end really worked—at least on the most basic of levels. It was a strangely liberating experience—really a testament to how it is possible for our society to be so technologically advanced yet so technologically ignorant at the same time.
Oh, and as for further blackboxing after the security screws? One was hidden under the serial number sticker. I’m sure it’s a way to test if you’ve tinkered and subsequently voided the warranty on the controller…haven’t looked it up, but wouldn’t be surprised.
Consequently, perhaps this kind of “education” was another way to think about technologies in media archaeology and to challenge our grand narratives of progress—by not just taking someone’s word for it and by knowing your machine inside and out. It certainly does seem to alter perspective, and I really only skimmed the surface by opening up the controller and replacing a few buttons.
When I was looking up replacement parts for controllers though, something else showed up: information on how to mod controllers for one-handed use, among individual sellers who were custom-making such devices.
Clearly, these controllers were being made for gamers who (presumably) did not have use of both hands. (I say presumably because I’ve learned in a few small circles that this is just a way to up the difficulty for some extreme gamers.) It was something I hadn’t thought about, because, with my able-bodied privilege, it hadn’t been a blip on my radar.
But suddenly, here was a whole demographic of gamers being overlooked by mainstream, dominant designs. And creativity was a consequence, as disabled and able-bodied gamers alike came together to make up their own unique designs that would allow them to play games in an industry that assumes the ability to play with both hands, or hands at all (and this creativity could exist because there was no top-down influence). This was a bit of a revelation, as so often it seems that technology is championed as equipping those with physical disabilities in ways never thought possible; here was an instance where these technologies excluded. My searching led me to organizations like The AbleGamers Foundation, which addresses such concerns and seeks to “improve the overall quality of life for those with disabilities through the power of video games.” (Website here: http://www.ablegamers.com/). The biggest problem is that specialized controllers alone can’t solve the problem, as many game developers continue to ignore the needs and abilities of those in this community. (Perhaps because it is seen as predominantly an “entertainment” device?)
Overall, the discovery of these modded controllers got me thinking about the potential intersections between media archaeology and disability studies. When the conception of the consumer (and the consumer’s abilities) is shifted, something emerges that questions not only the sense of “user-friendly” but reveals the assumptions our machines make and the physicality of them as well.