Madi DuVernay grew up acting in theater shows, but when the pandemic hit, she couldn’t perform in front of live audiences anymore. Then she saw an opportunity in what her partner was doing: gaming and streaming.
“I get the ability to game with friends, while still finding a way to incorporate acting and my need for being on a stage,” says DuVernay, 26, who identifies as a queer disabled Black woman who has ADHD and is autistic. But since this career path was new to her, she didn’t know how to make a living from it or approach companies for sponsorships and partnerships.
DuVernay was one of five people who joined the first Xbox Next Level (XNL) Creator Program, a six-week accelerator designed to help gaming streamers from underrepresented communities. Free virtual sessions focused on tools and resources to help them succeed in making creation a full-time job, and they received guidance on potential partnerships, creating a hosting reel, camera presentation, social media best practices and more.
For DuVernay, who’s based in Texas and is relatively new to streaming, the pilot program was a welcome addition to a burgeoning career.
“It was very helpful, and I think it’s information that should be open and readily available for everybody who wants to dive into stuff like this,” she says. “It is very hard in the beginning because you just don’t know anything.”
It was also important and encouraging for her to see the program’s Black speakers, with whom she felt a shared community and culture.
“It’s so uplifting to hear other Black people talk about how passionate they are about what they do and how they succeeded in the industry,” says DuVernay, who also appreciated the safe space to voice honest opinions and feedback. “Unfortunately, you don’t hear from them too often, so I think that’s why it was so memorable to me.”
She says that while she would have liked to see even more racial and ethnic minorities, “Xbox is really trying to put the effort into changing the gaming sphere for marginalized communities more and giving proper representation.”
With her own community, she chats about supernatural videos, games and mental health – and she aims to be a voice for those who are not able to speak about these issues.
Mike Luckett, also a creator who participated in the recent Xbox program, credits his gaming community and family with helping him move forward after a motorcycle accident 11 years ago caused a spinal cord injury. The trauma ended the first lieutenant’s career in the U.S. Army, and he went through months of painful rehab. He’s learned to live independently, using a manual wheelchair, but losing much of the function of his hands makes it hard to hold many game controllers.
He found a way to customize a controller, but it didn’t always work. In a rage, he broke it and quit gaming for a spell. He was able to get it fixed through a group that helps veterans with adaptive equipment. That led to Luckett trying out and giving feedback on the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which helped get him back to gaming.
His earlier frustrations with the lack of adaptive gaming equipment made him keenly interested in inclusive design – a subject he was eager to engage in with Xbox during the XNL creator program. The sessions that appealed most to him helped him focus his content, increase his outreach and do more short-form videos.
Based in Colorado, Luckett is an advocate for others who have suffered spinal cord injuries and who also love gaming. Every week, he goes to a local hospital specializing in neurorehabilitation, where he volunteers to work with patients and get them gaming again.
Video games have been a part of Luckett’s life since he was in elementary school. He would bring his PC over to his buddies’ houses and they’d connect their devices together – the early version of multiplayer gaming. He even took apart his original Xbox and controllers and painted them purple and white for the colors of his school, Kansas State University.
“With all my friends, there’s a tie to gaming. It’s also a kind of social tool for me, but the meaning of it has really shifted,” he says. “Before, I was just having fun, exploring new worlds, getting my first taste of online gaming with Halo and creating this community of people all around the world. I’m very mission-oriented now.”
One of the reasons streaming works for him is that he likes showing his true self when he’s live on-air. He appreciates the interactions with his community that come out of that.
The creator’s program gave him more opportunities to interact with other creators with a range of disabilities and showed him how much Xbox supports accessibility.
“When an organization backs up their words, they show it through their business,” he says. “They change things because they know it can be done.”
Bee Poshek found community as a full-time streamer and content creator after the pandemic disrupted a completely different career path.
“As an educator, one of my favorite aspects of teaching was kind of stripped out from under me – not getting to see students in person,” says Poshek, who was working at a university in Wisconsin. “I didn’t get to connect with them in that way or have deeper conversations. I also felt like students were going through some of the hardest things that I’d ever seen them go through and the systems in place were not giving me the tools I needed to really be able to help them.”
Poshek, who uses they/them pronouns, burned out. Their disabilities – chronic pain and polycystic ovarian syndrome – got worse. They also have autism. All those combined are a “triple whammy” that make traditional work challenging, says Poshek, who moved back in with their parents.
“Being an openly queer and disabled person in rural Wisconsin during the middle of a pandemic was an experience, to say the least, so I started seeking that community that I missed,” says Poshek, who found Twitch via some of their favorite Sims creators on YouTube. “I started finding niche communities that I really felt comfortable in, and eventually I worked up the courage to try it for myself. It’s been more than I ever expected it to be.”
Poshek, who now lives in Chicago, plays indie and simulation games that are sensory-friendly — no loud noises or jump scares — while also cultivating a welcoming environment in their community where people can lurk and be “whatever version of themselves they are that day in our space.”
Through the XNL program, they got a behind-the-scenes look at the industry, as well as insights about social media, community management and game development — and an overall better understanding of how to develop as a creator.
“If I’m pitching myself for an opportunity, I now have a little bit more information about what the experience is like from their side,” Poshek says. “That helps me communicate better, make my requests clearer and understand how to give feedback in a way that will be received well.”
They also appreciate the connections with the other creators and speakers in the program.
“Now I have more people in my corner who are educated on these things that I might be struggling with, who I can feel comfortable to reach out to if I need that support,” Poshek says.
Chris Robinson fell in love with gaming at an early age, watching his brother play. It helped him mentally to not feel so isolated, because being deaf, he had a barrier to communication. As the only one in his household who grew up deaf, gaming became a way to communicate with his family, too.
Robinson runs a Twitch channel called DeafGamersTV, where he advocates for accessibility and deaf awareness as he reviews games. The XNL program provided each of the creators in the program with a year subscription to the Xbox Game Pass, which gives them the ability to play new games as soon as they’re released, as well as hundreds of high-quality games with friends on console, PC or cloud.
“Being able to stream while I’m playing allows people to see what kinds of barriers I face in games,” he says. “It also puts a spotlight on people with disabilities, that we’re here, too. We want to feel like we belong. We need representation.”
He also serves as a consultant to video game studios.
“Each disability is different. Without my hearing aid I can’t hear anything at all, but other people may have some hearing,” Robinson says. “Some games think all they need to do is put up subtitles and they’re done. But they also need to change the size, color, styles, backgrounds. Or there’s a paragraph there. I’m playing a game, not trying to read a book.”
Coming into the program, Robinson struggled with imposter syndrome, and it stalled his efforts to put videos on YouTube. But after talking it out through sessions with the XNL group, he felt more comfortable and less alone.
He also gained new insights.
“Microsoft and Xbox step it up pretty high, in terms of being inclusive and accessible,” says Robinson, who says others in the industry need to do more.
Shawn Gilhuly was probably the most experienced creator when the XNL program began in September. He’d been a self-employed, full-time content creator since June 2020, with a social media following of a quarter of a million people.
He’d left behind a higher-education job in Boston to return to Connecticut, where he grew up, and started streaming.
“I give people the nostalgic feel of playing a game that they love for the first time,” says Gilhuly, who mostly plays story-based titles within the adventure, survival, horror and puzzle genres.
As a kid he played Halo on Xbox at his cousin’s house. He didn’t own an Xbox, so Xbox games weren’t a big part of his gaming life again until recently.
“Being a content creator and not having a lot of money, being able to have Xbox Game Pass and stream so many games off it has really allowed me to find my niche, find more games I’m interested in,” says Gilhuly, who also participated on an Xbox podcast episode with three other Minecraft creators, talking about accessibility and disability.
“Growing up it was stuttering and the inability to be able to comprehend verbal to written and written to verbal. So I struggled with that for a long time,” says Gilhuly. “I’ve gotten really good at hiding and covering it, making sure no one would notice.”
He’s also suffered from clinical depression and anxiety since he was a teenager. But social media opened him up to people who were comfortable talking about their disability and how it affects their life.
“Being so proud of their own identity allowed me to have the space to be proud of it myself,” Gilhuly says. “I was always proud of my queerness, but I was always worried I was taking up space from people who are physically disabled because I don’t look disabled. But in reality, I have these struggles on a daily basis.”
Gilhuly has been open in talking about mental health, sexuality and his speech and language issues. He brought that candid perspective to the XNL program, providing direct feedback for the next iteration of the program, such as suggesting more chances for participants to apply the things they’re learning and create new content. For Gilhuly, learning happens best when it’s hands-on.
Though he knew some of the strategies and tips the XNL program’s speakers imparted, he took away some insights and benefits, including building a stronger community.
“It’s a great step that Xbox and Microsoft are taking,” he says. “I think a lot of the connections that I’ve been able to make are really the big thing for me.”
Lead image: Madi DuVernay