From prosthetic limbs to baby bumps, new Xbox avatars a move toward greater diversity

The new Xbox Live avatar design is evidence that Microsoft is looking to include a more diverse audience, Ramona Pringle writes.

Xbox Live avatar redesigns also include wheelchairs

One of the many redesigned customization options available to Xbox players are prosthetic limbs. (Xbox)

Xbox has long been a leader in the gaming industry, but the latest innovation for Microsoft's console is not a game concept, or even a new piece of technology. 

Instead, Xbox has introduced a range of customizable options for avatars, including prosthetic limbs, a wheelchair, even a baby bump.

The new designs signal a shift toward greater inclusivity within the gaming industry, and the tech sector as a whole, that many say is long overdue.

Over the past decade, the company has steadily added more customization options to the avatars, which were first introduced in 2008 for the Xbox 360. With this new range of features, the gaming giant has designed avatars to be more representative of the diversity of its audience.

As its slogan goes, the 2.0 avatars are "for everybody everywhere."

The new designs come as a result of demand from users for Xbox to offer avatars that match people's real selves. In response to a recent tweet calling for avatars to have the option of being in wheelchairs, Xbox boss Phil Spencer replied, "No petition needed, we hear you. This is something that we've already looked at, not far off," just days before the big reveal.

"There are 1.8 billion gamers in the world," says Jayson Hilchie, president and CEO of ESA, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. "One of the most exciting advancements in our industry is to see the diversity of players."

Overdue changes

We want people to feel like we have endless options to really reflect who they are.- Kathryn Storm- Kathryn Storm

Clearly, Microsoft is thinking hard about that diversity and the different types of users.

In an interview on the Xbox E3 Daily Show, Xbox interaction designer Kathryn Storm said, "Our new avatars are built with inclusivity in mind, with options galore. We want people to feel like we have endless options to really reflect who they are."

But as much as Xbox's new avatars are a response to user demand, it's also about keeping up with a changing industry and an evolving market.

One doesn't have to look further than Uber's ongoing scandals to see how a disregard for diversity — both internally and among its user base — can lead to corporate upheaval, even if the product is popular. 

Xbox's "for everybody everywhere" slogan isn't just about growth and reaching out to new users, it's about hanging on to the users they've already got.

"Given that 49 per cent of Canadian gamers are female, it is more important than ever that games be made for the types of experiences that different demographics want to play," says Hilchie.

No need to 'be like the guys'

It wasn't that long ago that the status quo for how women were represented in video games was based on tropes: trophies and babes beside hulkish male superheroes. 

The backlash brought about a wave of female avatars that were "just like the guys."

Now, with the 2.0 avatars, players have more options with regards to how they choose to play and how they choose to represent themselves on screen. Women no longer need to be "like the guys" to be gamers. 

In fact, they can even be pregnant.

Pregnant women can show off digital baby bumps with the new Xbox Live Avatars. (Xbox)

With the addition of customizable features like a baby bump, Xbox is acknowledging that women are a huge portion of the gaming population and that they matter to the company. 

"Microsoft is setting a good example for other companies with the new Xbox avatars," says game designer Brie Code, the CEO and creative director of Tru Luv Media. 

"The diversity of humanity is often ignored [in the design of video games] in favour of studying or designing for people who resemble those doing the researching or those doing the designing."

Tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada, underscores the importance of having people with diverse backgrounds and abilities involved in the design process.

We want it to be complex and authentic — just like humans.- Saadia Muzaffar- Saadia Muzaffar

"This is important because we don't just want the characters to look diverse, we want to bring in the voices, spirit and stories of people to whom these narrative arcs belong. We want it to be complex and authentic — just like humans."

Taking accessibility into account

While the new list of customizable features includes a wide variety of options, ranging from the removal of required gender roles to changeable costumes and a rideable unicorn, some of the new design options also have practical applications that affect how users engage with the game itself. 

According to Hilchie, virtual reality (VR) is one of the most exciting frontiers in gaming right now. VR, he says, "has the potential to open up the world to those with disabilities and to allow them to experience things they may not be able to in real life." 

By equipping avatars with optional features such as prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, there is the potential for that new frontier to be more accessible to a huge portion of the population.

The new Xbox Live Avatars also allow players to use wheelchairs. (Xbox)

"The ability to create multiple modes of control options that cater to particular mobility constraints is something that many developers are working on now. The video game industry is actively involved in this pursuit and there are even summits now that bring the industry together to discuss how to improve experiences for people with disabilities," says Hilchie.

"All of us," says Code, "even those of us who don't fit the gamer stereotype, are ready to spend time, energy and money on entertainment that respects our experiences, helps us understand our lives and inspires us to be the best versions of ourselves we can be."

"If the lineup of upcoming games is as diverse as these avatars," she says, "I may finally get a new Xbox."


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.