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The Classic Controller and the Classic Mindframe

Posted by Dominic

Leigh Alexander has written a nice piece at Kotaku ( It might be interesting to the G3 people. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Frank Lantz says. Increasingly I find that the question of being hardcore VS casual or even non-gamer is brought about, and reduced to, questions of skill, dexterity, and handling of controllers. But the larger and more fundamental – to me – question of knowledge is often relegated to the sidelines or to marginal genres, i.e. strategy. People will readily acknowledge that playing Civilization or other Turn-Based Strategy games, or Adventure, is not dependant on hand-eye coordination and skill but rather on knowing the general strategies and generic patterns. But there is a level higher than the specific patterns of genre, general play patterns, that are as much at work in skill-based games than in strategic ones.

My favorite example is with the Zelda: Twilight Princess game. Sure, you can swing the controller around to swing your sword around, but that doesn’t make the game any more accessible to non-gamers who, while being perfectly able to swing their sword around, will be left stumped by just about any puzzle they encounter – the classic switch/block/door puzzle, where one has to put a heavy object on a pressure plate or switch to keep a door open, for instance. On an even more basic level, things that seem second nature to gamers such as “where do I go?”, or “What should I do?” can constitue obstacles to non-gamers as well. Consider the figure of the roadblock – a tree stump that’s just big enough so that your character can’t walk or jump over it. If an object is placed just behind it, a gamer will instantly recognize it as a roadblock and look for another way around to get to it. If he doesn’t find one with relatively reasonable time or effort – and how could he determine what’s reasonable other than from his prior experience? – he will mark it as a problem-to-be-solved-in-the-future; surely, later, I will either a) find a chainsaw to cut the stump; b) find a hookshot to reel in the item without crossing over the stump; c) eventually find another way around, be it by coming out of a cave behind the object, or even more deviously by warping in from an alternate dimension, or being flung in by a bird, etc. Non-gamers may just spend a lot of time trying to actually get over it, thinking that maybe if they strike it often with their sword the stump will eventually be hacked to pieces – they have to learn first that there is a specific animation and sound made by a sword strike against a wall that conveys the fact that it’s ineffective. They might try, if the game actually has a jump button, jumping on it from all sorts of angles, throwing a rock at it thinking they might then climb on the rock and jump over the stump, or whatever else. We have no clue what they are thinking because, precisely, they are thinking from “outside the box” of conventions that “literate” gamers and designers share.

Games do not only task the player with actions to perform, but with a mindset to which he/she must adhere. They literally frame the mind, and as such, if games are to appeal to a wide(r) audience of non-gamers, taking up the controller issue is but one part of the equation – they also need to be understandable without prior conventions. This is, in my opinion, an hurdle that’s even more difficult than the mere button-pushing/waving around part.