The Trend of Immediacy in Game Control Systems

While everyone is excited about Google Glass and the possibilities of true Augmented Reality gaming becoming a more mainstream concept, I have something to point out which I think is rather pertinent. We have barely scratched the surface, no pun intended, of what one can do with a touch screen. Or a motion sensor, or weighted magnets, or any number of other technological advances. Much to the probable smugness of singularity predictors like Kurzweil, the rate at which technology is advancing, is advancing. And we have hardly had time (or bothered to take the time) to analyze our last few achievements in any scope of science, before moving onto the next ones. In the interest of causing a bit of reflection before the next leap in game controlling technologies, I would raise the following question: How does touch affect the mechanics of games? What becomes easier, and what becomes harder? From a development standpoint, what have we learned, really?

Touch makes things more immediate, and I think this is its most interesting new feature. When I say that touch makes things more immediate, I do not mean that it reduces latency or lag, far from it. What I am saying though, is that touch screens require the player to interact physically with the interface on which the results of their interactions are displayed, and this forms perhaps the most immediate virtual physical connection we have yet implemented. Why is this important? It’s an interesting trend! Look at old school controllers. Scratch that, look at a computer. You’ve probably got one of those in front of you right now, unless you’re super cool and you’re using a touch screen. Now look down at your keyboard. Now back at me. Now back at your keyboard. Other than a vaguely amusing pop culture reference, what do you see? Buttons. A metric butt-ton of buttons. These provide a rather less than immediate flow of interactivity – we type, and stuff happens. There’s a mouse or a track-pad, too. But the overall complexity of the system makes it feel very distinct – we are interacting with the computer through this, and there is always a wall there in our heads, to the point where becoming immersed in a computer game may be harder than, say, becoming immersed in a console game. At least in terms of the capabilities of a given control scheme to aid us in suspending our disbelief. And computer gamers, bear with me – that complexity is what immerses us and what we love, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Now let’s skip console games with the words ‘less buttons, less complexity, more immediate mental connection to what buttons cause which interactions to occur, neato.’ We will move instead to systems of the most recent console generation, in particular the Wii and the PlayStation 3. On an off note, those words are built into Microsoft Word and I’m uncertain how this makes me feel. Anyways! Sixaxis and wiimotion are interesting because they enable us to move our limbs (to some extent) and make things happen. Just like in real life, kids! It’s a trend toward the immediacy of connection. Move it up another step, look at, for example, the Kinect. (that word is in the dictionary too…) There is no longer even necessarily a button here, instead, players move their bodies and are registered by a system. You move, and stuff happens. Supa-cool. And then, the touch screen! Now it’s interesting, because this also moves backwards in some ways (down to just our fingers again are we?), but overall it continues to follow the trend of immediacy of connection. We touch the screen, and things happen on the screen. And yet…

Touch screen games seem significantly less immersive than Kinect games, which are less immersive than Wii games, which hare still almost only party games… What does this mean? Are we following the trend toward immediacy because we like to make stuff happen, or because it enables us to make things simpler for a wider market? And if this is the case, what will the next step bring? More immersive, deep games where we play with the world around us using augmented reality? Or, as I am beginning to suspect, will it bring us a gimmick and a feeling that things are just going to keep on getting easier, and more boring? What do you think?

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