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The Joy of Sticks

Colin Harvey

What made the joystick beautiful was what it enabled us to do as players, the blocky vistas it opened up, the luminous cartoonish characters, darting spaceships or multicolored sports cars it let us manipulate.


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I've known many in my time. Big, small, bulbous, multifaceted. My first was a rubbery little minx, at initial glance — indeed feel — perhaps a little too fetishistic for an inexperienced young lad's tentative first forays into the ecstasies of play. But if you knew how to use that button, well let me tell you, then you could be damn sure you'd get the right responses. Don't get me wrong: subsequent experiences had their own tactile charms, though, as we know, multiple buttons don't necessarily equate per se to multiple pleasures. It's just you never forget your first: the Atari CX40 was a joystick you could tug for many a long hour, with only limited danger of going blind.

As a physical manifestation of the video game age, the joystick stands as the pre-eminent piece of iconography. Yet those early joysticks, best exemplified by the likes of the CX40, present us with a complex aesthetic. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder but it's hard to see anyone ever considering the CX40 an object of beauty on its own terms. It was an ugly, functional device. Ironic that such an apparently dull-looking object was primarily designed to enable fun. (And not just through the medium of video games; art and design programs would also allow you to interface with the software via the joystick, admittedly to not very satisfying effect). What made the joystick beautiful was what it enabled us to do as players, the blocky vistas it opened up, the luminous cartoonish characters, darting spaceships, or multicolored sports cars it let us manipulate. It became an object of beauty when it was touched. King Midas reimagined with a happy spin.

The need for some way of controlling your avatar independent of the machine was recognized right at the birth of the video game in 1961, when Steve Russell and his fellow programmers at MIT created the proto-Asteroids style science fiction adventure, Spacewar! Very quickly players realized that clicking switches back and forth on the host PDP-1 machine was a cumbersome and inexpert way of playing the game. If they were going to finesse their skills, they needed some way of controlling the two spaceships that embodied their presence within the game environment. And so were born video games' first joysticks, or more accurately speaking, video games' first joypads.

The pleasures offered by this particular kind of peripheral, in all its manifold joyous manifestations, are far from peripheral in the discussion of specific video games. Self-evidently, understanding the role of the joystick and its interrelationship with the game and the human player is important in enabling understanding of those particular and sometimes peculiar video games contrived to be played via a lump of otherwise inert extruded plastic featuring one or more protuberant red buttons.

As the British academic James Newman has observed, if we're concentrating suitably while playing, we enter a kind of liminal state when we interact with a game. Our fingers run deftly over the controls, possibly nudging the control stick minutely to the left, perhaps shifting the angle of the camera from which we're viewing events, maybe choosing our moment to attack or run.

Hmm. Does that level of distracted concentration remind you of anything?

Think about music, or more specifically, musicians. Maybe the way a musician plays a score provides us with a good analogy as to how a gamer plays a game. Often a trumpeter reads a score and gives us his or her interpretation of the notes through their manipulation of the instrument. At other times he or she maybe just improvises away without the assistance — some might say straitjacket — of somebody else's carefully constructed composition. Either way it's possible to admire the dexterity of the player.

Similarly, as gamers we might read the musical score of the game, attenuating our fingering accordingly as we strive to hit the right notes/jump through the hoop designed for us. At other times we might deviate totally from the given score, and start jamming, engaging in what the granddaddy theorist of gaming, Roger Caillois, termed paidea: playing without an objective (or at least not the objective that somebody else predetermined for us). In either case, if we hit the right notes, it sounds melodic, if we don't, it makes us wince with frustration. And just like a musician we'd better know how to use our instrument or all we'll get is bum notes.

Emulators are fine and dandy. They supply video game ingénues, like those fresh-faced virgins undertaking the ever-proliferating number of academic courses around the globe, with an inkling as to how games of yore looked and sounded. From an academic standpoint, if you want plain old textual analysis, with all the insights and limitations that implies, emulators supply us with a good overview of the audiovisual characteristics of elderly games. For those of us who grew up with the home computers and home brew gaming culture of the 1980s, emulators offer an opportunity to refresh our minds regarding the appeal or otherwise of those games without the necessity of revisiting the joystick tugging agony of Daley Thompson's Decathlon, and thus the distant roots of our ongoing RSI.

But such emulators, good as they may be — and there are many very good ones nestling in all sorts of places around the Net — miss out on a crucial factor in understanding certain types of video games. Controlling an emulation of a Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum or Atari 800 game with a mouse or keyboard that originally used a joystick means we miss an integral aspect of the game experience.

Don't get me wrong, that experience wasn't always positive. Many were the times I cursed the CX40 for its lack of responsiveness. Ironically I would curse its aesthetically superior successor, the ridiculously titled Multi System Deluxe Joystick Controller CX24, for the fact that it was too responsive. Regardless, ignoring the particularity of our tactile engagement with these games means we lose sight of the central aspect of playing these games. If we don't consider the physicality of wrenching on that joystick, joypad, or controller, we sacrifice the essence of the game. And so, Ancient Gamer, forget your irreparable nerve damage, and start retraining for Decathlon.

As games became more sophisticated in terms of the multiple tasks they demanded of the player, so controllers too, became more sophisticated. Want to peer around that wall in the midst of a nerve-wracking stealth game? You got it. Want to switch to your targeting computer during the terrifying battle in the asteroid field? You got it. Want to change radio channel as you careen towards oncoming traffic down the main thoroughfare of the city? You'd better believe it.

For manufacturers of hardware, the tension between allowing developers to create more thoroughly interactive gaming experiences and between creating ergonomically sensible controllers that don't utterly confuse the player is an acute one. Though game consoles themselves might become more sophisticated with each new incarnation, existing hardware producers often and sensibly retain the basics of their control interface, a la Sony. Microsoft promptly supplied European users with a smaller version of their controller following complaints that the original version was far too unwieldy. Now there's responsiveness for you.

The joystick and its many variants have evolved through the rubbery inelegance and workperson-like reliability of the Atari CX40, through the brightly colored simplicity of Nintendo's Joypad, through to the sophisticated elegance of the Big Three's Next Generation controllers. Not only is it just the events on screen that feedback responses to the actions of the controller, vibration mechanisms mean that controllers can even feedback themselves.

Sure, bespoke peripherals proliferate: these days we have steering wheels, light guns, Sony's EyeToy, dance mats, and the microphones of Sony's SingStar karaoke-style game. None of this stuff is particularly new; there's been a long history of experimentation with interface devices other than the plain old joystick or controller. And while it's great to see such innovation, it seems likely to me that some form of generic control device will continue to define the ongoing evolution of the video game.

As I launch into another round of Alien Scum on my Sony Ericsson mobile, twiddling away on a teeny weeny joystick seemingly designed for use by GI Joe or Barbie, I can't help but remember those early joys fondly. You never forget your first.

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