Interview with Jessie Hall, AbleGamers Director of Engineering
With her recent promotion to Director of Engineering for AbleGamers, Jessie Hall has continued her work pushing gaming accessibility even further in her many years of development. We got a few minutes of time out of her busy schedule to ask about what her day with AbleGamers looks like, as well as what she’d like to see with accessibility in the future.
PD: How did you find out about AbleGamers?
JH: When I was an undergrad, during my junior year, I did an independent study on making the Xbox Kinect recognize someone sitting down, and can help them play video games without being required to be standing. The professor that sponsored my independent study said “oh, you know there’s a charity that does this, AbleGamers.” So, after graduating, I was moving to DC anyways, and saw that they were in the area and I started volunteering.
PD: What is your background?
JH: Studied Computer Science and my background is now more of digital and game accessibility and assistive tech.
PD: Current Title?
JH: Director of Engineering
PD: What does that entail?
JH: I help manage and lead our volunteer engineers along with undergrad/student engineers as they work on projects for us. These volunteers come from all sorts of places, local and internationally. When people approach us with prototypes and ideas for new accessibility controllers, I go over it and give feedback on if the idea/prototype will work or not. They are declined or accepted, and then we can work with them further on the projects. I also work with on-site consultations and designs of new controllers and 3D print them. If someone needs something that’s not available by retail, we can create and 3D print that for them too.
PD: What problems/obstacles have you faced with projects you’ve worked on?
JH: Often times, it’s the available resources for projects. We have a few patented controllers, but we’re also not a factory and can’t just print these out fast enough.
PD: Would these volunteers out there help with printing them out?
JH: No, the engineers will help to see if prototypes would work, doing the calculations/math behind it all. We saw a need for steering wheels out there that let you map the foot pedals to the steering wheels. We reached out to volunteer engineers with the problem. and they then worked on solutions to fix that problem.
PD: Are there any projects that you’re working on currently that you can talk about? Perhaps any success story?
JH: The steering wheel previously mentioned and the Bury Controller, the one with Ben “Bengineer” Greenspan. One thing that I can talk about was that I created a smaller version of a one-handed Nintendo Switch controller. For the person we were working with, the Switch controllers out there were too large for him and he needed something smaller.
PD: What is something that you’d like to see change in the video game industry that maybe you could possibly help with?
JH: The stigma of how making a video game accessible makes it easier.More game companies are getting better with thinking of accessibility in the beginning and are now having guidelines for developers. It’s not something where you can just make a patch to make the game easier as an afterthought. For adaptive hardware, I would like to see the continuation of the Xbox Elite Controller and would like to see a progression like that with other companies, really bringing it to the next level on the design and adaptability, and I hope it doesn’t just stop there.
PD- I hope Microsoft Continues with the XAC, and in the future we see a new version.
JH- Would like to see an improvement on the joysticks and the USB ports because right now it’s very limited.
PD- And the use of the co-op feature, to have XAC and another controller. It’s hard to set it up.
JH- Exactly, and sure, you’re a gamer and can figure it out. But imagine a caregiver or parent trying to set these up and they have no idea on how to do that for their loved one. It would take a long time to get that person set. The learning curve is really steep for the general population.
PD: I understand you help with consultations. What part of that process do you work on and what is the process?
JH: I’ll go through the consultation process with people that are able to visit our play center at the headquarters starting with email exchanges or even a Skype call. I’ll learn about the players’ disability and what purposeful movement they have. The main goal is to find the best accessible controller for them. Once I learn more about them, then I can set aside about 5 controllers for them before they actually visit on site. The day they visit, we go over the controllers I’ve selected so they can test what would work best for them. Starting with the easiest and most comfortable to a stretch controller. A stretch controller meaning a controller that might not be the best fit for them, but will challenge them so we can see and cross off certain types of controllers in the future. We use the video game Rocket League for the tests as they practice. If there is a controller that works well for them we look into the grant program where they could get the controller for free or if they had already planned to self purchase. If all the controllers didn’t work, then we move to a design phase to then hand make a custom controller for them.
PD: For those that can’t do on-site visits how do you handle that?
JH: We do email correspondents and video calls to see the nature of their disability and figure out what we could use to get them back into gaming.
PD: Do you send out test controllers?
JH: Yes, we sent out controllers with a return label and anything that doesn’t work gets shipped back to us.
PD: What is your favorite part of the job?
JH: I think my favorite part of the job is the consultations and working with players one on one to best build a controller for them. After working on a more grander scale, it’s great to bring it back to the individual player to help that one person and it reminds you the importance of the work we do.
PD: That’s the best, I remember doing the Expos with you seeing the individuals and hearing their stories. We’ve made that connection through gaming and then just seeing them overjoyed with happiness that they’re able to do something like playing a video game with their friend or family member again. It hits you with those feelings and we’re almost in tears seeing them playing and then their family in shock that they didn’t think was even possible. Those are the moments I love the most.
JH: Yes! One of my favorite people that I did a consultation for was with an Army veteran and he couldn’t play ball anymore with his son due to MS. We set him up with a custom controller and he’s able to play games like Call of Duty with his son. We actually had him as a guest during the Lestor Holt segment and he talked about the custom controller we did. He talked about how important it is to make that connection with people through video games.
We thank Jessie for her time, and can’t wait to see what new projects she develops! Is there anyone at AbleGamers that you want to learn about? Who’s day-to-day efforts to change the world of accessibility would you like to hear more about? Let us know!
Prin is a Senior Volunteer with AbleGamers. When she’s not gaming or spending time with her adorable and sweet pup Jäeger, she’s a black belt in martial arts thanks to her father, a Martial Arts Master. Watch her play games and see Jäeger on her Twitch Channel, or see photos of her sushi on her Twitter.