Gaming is a Matter of Pride with Microsoft and Xbox

By: Elliott Hsu, Principal Designer, Microsoft

In recent years, our LGBTQIA+ employees and allies have started coming together around Pride to create a large global campaign to help elevate the global conversation about LGBTQIA+ rights and drive toward more acceptance and inclusion. We’ve also started bringing Pride to our products to further the reach of that message. 

Our first Pride hardware product was a limited edition surface Pride-type cover that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, which set off the Pride movement in the US and globally. This was a first in celebrating our stance with a simple, inspired design based on the rainbow flag on a physical product. But at the time, we knew we wanted to go further and saw gaming as a perfect medium for evolving our commitment.

At its core, gaming offers a unique space to explore and embrace our chosen identities freely. Yet LGBTQIA+ people still often experience discrimination in gaming.

So, in 2021, our team saw an opportunity to help bridge this gap and raise awareness of this issue. We didn’t just want to elevate LGBTQIA+ identities but also create a vibrant statement of inclusion and acceptance of all community members.

We love the rainbow flag and what it represents. But at the same time, we understand that the community is not monolithic. Everybody’s experience is different, and there are many communities under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. So we created a design that spoke to the diverse, vibrant, and multi-faceted nature of the LGBTQIA+ community and attached it to one of the most beloved items in the gaming world: the Xbox wireless controller.

An Xbox controller is not just an object—it’s the physical conduit to the games you love and the extension of yourself within the gaming community. It’s one of the most considered and iconic industrial design pieces that Microsoft produces. It’s tactile and visceral, and it’s designed to be held in your hands. When you hold it, you identify with it, making it a symbol provocative enough to spark a conversation and a movement.

In June 2021, we released limited-run versions of our Pride controller, seeding them with top LGBTQIA+ gamers. Due to post-pandemic constraints, we couldn’t produce more than 100 controllers, but we really wanted to share them with the community far and wide.

The design was memorable. It unified the flags of 18 LGBTQIA+ communities at the time and wove them into a single graphic representing inclusion and diversity. It went viral.

The reaction was unexpected—people loved it but were unhappy they couldn’t buy their own controllers, lighting up social media with both praise and dismay. So much so, that gamers created a petition on demanding that Microsoft make the controller publicly available.

The market reaction proved the case for a wider audience, prompting more conversations within our design, development, and marketing teams to make this product real for anyone and everyone. The Xbox team was invigorated by the amount of attention the prototype received and how people wanted more, but we also wanted to find a way to do this that is authentic to our stance and commitment to LGBTQIA+.

June 2022 became the goal for the Pride controller’s grand entrance and availability in the market. In the time since we made our original design, the LGBTQIA+ community continued evolving. There were now 35 LGBTQIA+ communities compared to the original 18, and we wanted to ensure we had a place for every new and updated flag. The challenge was finding the surface area on the complex controller form factor to include every flag. Strategically, this was a top priority—to have every identity represented, especially when the “+” part of the community was so massive and growing. From a design perspective, this was contradictory to the “less is more” philosophy, but we all agreed we had to fit every flag in there as it represented people and their identities.

At the time, most companies would celebrate and offer Pride products only in the month of June in the US. But we knew Pride was not a singular moment, nor was it a month out of the year. These are people’s identities, 365 days a year, and we wanted to enable the product to be available beyond just a moment or celebration.

In order to align with those values, we launched the Pride controller in Xbox Design Lab. Taking advantage of our digital storefront and customization allowed the product to live at retail for an infinite amount of time, and it gave people even more ways to personalize the controller. The design of the main graphic allowed the inclusion of the entire LGBTQIA+ community, while the customization of all the additional elements of the controller allowed each player to reflect their own identity through personalization. People are able to make it truly theirs.

The reception was phenomenal. Many felt our design represented the LGBTQIA+ community better than the traditional Pride flag, with some noting they had never really seen themselves within the classic Pride rainbow. With the controller’s public release, we found even more opportunities across the company to bring the mission to life.

We created an interactive experience on Microsoft Unlocked that literally deconstructs each flag on the controller as a tool for educating users about the many LGBTQIA+ identities. Users can explore each flag, learn about the identity behind it, and hear stories from gamers in that community about the importance of LGBTQIA+ representation in games and the gaming community.

With the controller design gaining traction as a symbol of inclusive gaming, we open-sourced the design as a flag and made it globally available to all on Figma and GitHub. We’ve built on the equity of the design year after year, always with the intent of making gaming more inclusive. And we’re always pushing for more, finding new ways to team up with LGBTQIA+ non-profits to bring their stories and representation to Xbox and Microsoft.

The controller is just the beginning. There’s more work to be done, and we will continue to make gaming a matter of Pride.

Elliott sets trends in product design by combining cultural influences and moments with our latest devices and technology. Through special collaborations with artists, movies, game franchises, brands, and cultural moments, he elevates devices into fresh statement pieces that transcend functionality into an emotional connection with the consumer. His Microsoft resume includes Xbox Elite Series 2, Xbox Design Lab, Ocean Plastic Mouse, Xbox | Space Jam, Surface | Liberty London, and the Microsoft Pride products in Xbox and Surface.

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Author: Graphis