In the hands of a gamer, an Xbox Wireless Controller helps navigate unfamiliar worlds.
With it, you can jump huge chasms, escape from seemingly impossible situations and explore an endless array of characters and places.
And thanks to the recently relaunched Xbox Design Lab, it’s also a canvas players can customize – a way to express who they are and what matters to them.
The latest choices for that personalization debuted in June as Microsoft’s Pride 2022 observances commenced: more than 30 LGBTQIA+ interwoven community flags that celebrate intersectionality and unity on the Xbox Pride controller. This design honors the ever expanding and ever evolving diversity of LGBTQIA+ experiences and identities that span the globe.
“At the end of the day, this was a collective effort that kicked off a few years ago,” says Daniel Ruiz, a senior product marketing manager from the Xbox product accessories team, which was instrumental in the early phases of the controller’s development as well as its marketing strategy. It’s one of many teams throughout the company that helped bring the controller to life. “The Pride controller is a great opportunity to continue to engage with the LGBTQIA+ community in a meaningful way, showing fans that we’re actively listening to the feedback. The reality is that every gamer deserves the right to be seen and heard. And what was really cool about this controller is that it was not just a controller. It’s more like a symbol for the LGBTQIA+ community that inspired it.”
The Xbox Pride controller is available to buy anytime for anyone who wants it.
“At Xbox we believe gaming is for everyone, and we want members of the LGBTQIA+ communities to know that they are welcome and belong here,” says Jenn Panattoni, head of social impact for Xbox, one of many people throughout Microsoft who helped bring the controller to life. “The work to increase representation goes on year-round whether or not you overtly see it. There are conversations happening every day about this.”
The conversation that started the controller’s journey began three years ago, in 2019, with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, heralded as the beginning of the contemporary LGBTQIA+ rights movement.
“Microsoft has a long history of LGBTQIA+ advocacy, dating back to 1989. For over three decades now the company has been engaged in global advocacy, charitable giving and better workplace practices for LGBTQIA+ people – way before it became a common practice. Also, early on we realized that doing this work ourselves, internally, was not enough. To really make a difference for LGBTQIA+ people we needed to engage with our customers and use our platforms for good,” says Aleksey Fedorov, director of brand activation on Microsoft’s global brand team, who identifies as non-binary and queer. “We could reach more people with messages of the LGBTQIA+ inclusion and support – and hopefully change their minds, if needed – if we brought our actions to our products.”
Fedorov approached the device design team to commemorate the Stonewall moment and show a more committed, bolder approach to Pride.
Elliott Hsu, a principal hardware designer, created the Surface Pride Type Cover. His inspirational prompt came from Fedorov, who introduced Hsu to the flags of the many LGBTQIA+ communities that span many gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual and romantic orientations. And every year, they and the teams they worked with found that more people resonated with the design.
“We love the rainbow flag. I think it’s fantastic,” says Fedorov, who, along with others working on the design, wanted to focus on the idea of intersectionality coming together across communities. “At the same time, we need to understand the community is not a monolith. Everybody’s experience is different and there are many communities under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella.”
Every year, Hsu and Fedorov wanted to challenge themselves and the teams working on Pride products (such as the Surface Skins that shipped in 2020) to make the designs more meaningful and keep the momentum going.
“We wanted a way to show our commitment through a Microsoft product and use our design skill set to build it,” Hsu says. “It was a very creative project that speaks to a lot of people.”
Eventually, this design would lead to the Pride controller, a project that spoke to people all over the company, drawing in hundreds who helped develop, fine-tune and bring it to the public – a monumental effort with many moving parts over the years.
“The goal here was to make the gaming world a more inclusive space and Pride was an opportunity to take a good step in that direction,” Ruiz says.
In 2021, with the pandemic still affecting the supply chain and many other constraints, this collective decided to put the flags (at the time, 18) on an Xbox Wireless Controller – an idea that had been percolating since 2019. Knowing they couldn’t mass produce under the conditions of the time, they created a limited-edition controller they wouldn’t sell, but sent to about 100 players and creators in the LGBTQIA+ community.
The reaction was unexpected – people loved it but were unhappy they weren’t able to buy their own controllers, lighting up social media with both praise and dismay. This reaction ended up proving the internal case for a wider audience, prompting more conversations with engineering and marketing teams who committed to the project. These and the other teams working on the controller were invigorated by the amount of attention the prototype got, and how people wanted more. June 2022 became the goal for the Pride controller’s grand entrance and availability. This would give the teams enough time to develop the design, as it’s usually a one- to two-year process to produce a custom controller (which includes tests and trials as well as a myriad of color adjustments).
“While some fans were super disappointed that they couldn’t purchase the Pride controller, the creators who actually received the controllers were super stoked,” Ruiz says. “They were really overjoyed to be recognized in their communities. So our biggest takeaway at that point in time was that the gaming community had an appetite for a Pride controller that they could purchase.”
Jen Nichol, a senior business development and partnerships program manager at Xbox, was part of the collective effort that drove the proposal and strategy to bring the Pride controller to Xbox Design Lab. She was also embedded in the Xbox community (through her previous work with Microsoft Mixer and as head of community management for Xbox Studios) and part of the LGBTQIA+ community, both as an ally and as a parent to a daughter who identifies as trans.
“My understanding and connection to that community is personal. It’s my family. It’s my people. So it wasn’t hard to know how important it was,” she says. “Through gaming, you build really strong relationships that last years with people on the other side of the world. It’s community. And there’s no way you can embrace community without embracing everyone and acknowledging that people have value.”
For her and the rest of the team, this project was a love letter to the community; a way to say, “We see you and we want you here.” She also forged a path to give back to that community. To add to the ways Microsoft is supporting LGBTQIA+ communities, the teams made upfront charitable contributions totaling $170,000 to multiple nonprofits supporting these communities.
“It would make sure that we’re doing this in a way that shows actual support – not just words – and that we’re donating whether or not we sell them,” Nichol says. “We all agreed that it’s better to do it this way than not do it at all, because it’s important that positive, real-world change happens.”
While the Surface Type Cover and Skins were flat, the controller’s 3D shape proved much more challenging from a design perspective – especially when the “+” part of the community was so massive – and the team wanted to continue expanding its representation.
“What you’re designing here impacts somebody who can see themselves represented on a product,” says Hsu, who had experience designing previous custom controllers, such as the one tied to “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and the Elite Series 2. “You have to fit every flag in there and still make it look like a flag. It’s tricky having 34 elements. We usually try to reduce elements in design.”
But everyone on this project agreed: the controller needed to maximize inclusion through those flags.
“Every little thing matters to increase acceptance and inclusion for the LGBTQIA+ communities. We know that visibility matters, representation matters,” Fedorov says. “When people see their flag represented, it changes lives. We have 34 flags and some of them are not seen often, they’re not mainstream.”
The teams kept working on it, kept balancing and recalibrating. Hsu and other designers made sure every flag fit and still looked like a flag. Fedorov says the design’s intent is to show many communities (to try to give equitable treatment) and to drive attention to those who are often most marginalized. The end result exemplifies the intersectionality within the community and across communities, while at the same time creating a sense of unity, of people coming together across groups.
And then the teams hit upon another inspired idea – to give people even more ways to personalize the controller, through making it available through the Xbox Design Lab, which was expanding its controller customizing capabilities with new technology and relaunching at the same time they were planning on releasing the Xbox Pride controller.
A lot of thought went into deciding where the controller belongs. The teams involved with the controller didn’t want to it be limited edition, or just available through retail as a fixed design. They wanted people to play around with it.
“That was the right thing to do, and we were lucky enough to have the right mechanisms,” Hsu says.
Ruiz adds, “We heard our fans loud and clear. We wanted to give customers the freedom to create their own Pride controller to express themselves and showcase their individuality and there’s no better place for that than the Xbox Design Lab.”
With the controller in the Xbox Design Lab, the flags are on the top part of it, but people can further customize parts on the controller such as thumbsticks, triggers and bumpers to show more representation for their specific community.
“We really wanted to create a more inclusive space because often you can’t be what you can’t see,” says Fedorov. “We want to make gaming a space for Pride and a controller is an iconic product for us. That’s why it was so important.”
And through the Xbox Design Lab, they embraced the sense that this is a community that’s ever growing, expanding and welcome.
For Fedorov, the design was pivotal to the stance the company was taking toward Pride.
“We didn’t want to be yet another brand putting a rainbow somewhere. That’s why there are donations. That’s why there is storytelling. That’s why there are interviews with people behind many flags. That’s why this design is so distinct from everything else you see out there,” he says. “It’s especially important for queer folks because we often are presented with heteronormative images of society. We have a huge problem with representation. We just don’t have enough stories. And that was a very clear way for us to put a stake in the ground and say, hey, we believe there should be more.”
Those who contributed to the controller are ecstatic about the positive feedback they’ve gotten since it was released in June.
“We’re super, super happy that it landed really well with the community in an authentic way,” Ruiz says. “We try to shine a light on these communities. It’s really important even for me as an ally to ensure family, friends and colleagues that belong to the community feel seen, heard and respected. It’s been really powerful and moving.”
“I’m just so happy that the community is happy,” Nichol says. “Aleksey and I have been on Twitter responding to people because when you put your heart and your mind into something and then you see it embraced and affect people on an emotional level, that is good work.”
Top photo: Xbox Pride controller