At last, here is one of the two final Freeplay 2010 pieces I promised to write. I walked into the “Beyond the Controller” roudtable discussion with a degree of pre-emptive (and presumptuous) reluctance. I was expecting a whole lot of death-of-the-controller, motion-sensor-utopia promotional talk. I was pleasantly mistaken.
While John Sietsma, Steve Bull, and Hugh Davies discussed their various augmented reality, transmedia, and cross-media projects, I don’t feel I know enough about augmented reality games myself to reproduce their presentations with any degree of accuracy—though, I now definitely want to learn more about them!
Truna (Jane Turner), however, started the discussion with a thought-provoking look at what precisely the controller ‘is’ and exactly what it contributes to our game experience. While all the presenters covered interesting topics, it was Truna’s talk that captured my interest the most and which I will be trying to do justice here. I should note, though, that I am basing this article entirely on my hastily scribbled notes so it should be read less as a report on what Truna said and more as what I personally took out of it.
“I don’t like controllers,” Truna began. “When you say ‘creativity’, I tend to think the opposite of ‘controlling’.”
By name, a controller is a thing that controls. But just what, precisely, is it controlling? This is not something I have ever really thought about. Clearly, the controller is so named because it allows the player to control some aspect of the game. But if that is the case, then it is the player that should be titled ‘controller’, right?
This all sounds very semantic, but what it comes down to is that the controller controls the player. Our actions and choices within the game are influenced, and to an extent predetermined, by the controller through which we interact with the game.
So how does the controller do this? Truna quoted Juul to say “The interface is the gameplay.” (I can’t find a reference for this verbatim quote but I imagine it is from “Easy to Use and Incredibly Difficult: On the Mythical Border between Interface and Gameplay”). The ways we can (and cannot) interact with the game determines how we actually play.
For the player, the controller functions as a form of prosthesis, replicating a limb that the player is missing. This prosthetic limb allows us to interact within the videogame world and serves the illusion that the fourth wall between the real and virtual worlds has been crossed: if what we are holding feels like a gun, then it is a gun.
For Truna, there exists two broad categories of controllers: specific and abstract (or generic). Within the specific grouping are controllers built for a specific style of gameplay: fishing rods, guitars, light guns, etc. that direct gameplay in a very narrow way. Abstract controllers are the more typical gamepads that the majority of console games rely on. Though, abstract controllers do not allow any more freedom for the player; rather, they just disguise the ways in which the player is being controlled. For Truna, the abstract controller is designed for two things: moving and shooting stuff.
Truna also made it clear, though, that she did not believe Sony and Microsoft’s new motion controllers were in any way moving beyond the controller. She pointed at a Microsoft press release that describes the Kinect as a “natural user interface”. But a player should be more than a user. Motion controllers do not remove the controllers (it is still in the name!); they merely remove them from the player’s hand. Using the player’s body as a controller is still situating a controller between the game and the player themselves.
So ultimately, the controller works to both give the player a sense of empowerment and agency (the player thinks, “I have a gun and I can shoot it whenever I want!”) and to discreetly remove the player’s actual agency (the player rarely thinks, “I can shoot, but I can’t do anything else.”). Our presence in the game world and the choices we make there are underpinned (and undermined) by the controller’s influence over us.
What Truna ultimately wants is for us to “think our way into games”. I initially took this as wanting some futuristic tech that we can plug into our brain. But the following speakers, with their different implementations of augmented reality games (such as Transumer and Jewel Collector) demonstrated how thinking into games would actually work.
John Sietsma summed up nicely what all the demonstrations showed: the more technology you add to a game, the more authority you ultimately remove from the player. Technology allows augmented reality games do things like geocaching and networking and recording data, but it weakens personal communication and (most importantly I think) limits the senses that the player is able to use.
So overall, what I took out of the discussion is that controllers aren’t ‘bad’ things that we must do away with, but they are doing very specific things to how we play, and we should be aware of that.