Revisionist Gaming History

History of Game Controllers

I like this illustration showing the (incomplete) history of videogame console controllers. It’s part of MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibit and it does a decent job of documenting console user input evolution. There are some understandable gaps in the history (where’s the TurboGrafx-16, with its two buttons and totally useless turbo switches? Or that Atari Jaguar monstrosity?) and some odd errors (the analog nub on the PSP is omitted) but the thing that stands out for me is how he’s holding the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Master System controllers. From a historical context, he’s doing it wrong.

From personal experience, and I have corroboration, no one held the controller that way. In those days of square controllers it wasn’t ergonomic to place the index fingers on the top. There was no reason for it; shoulder buttons were a generation away. They were held with the thumbs over the d-pad and buttons and the index fingers behind the controller for support (as he holds the Gameboy.) This was standard.

It was only after the introduction of shoulder buttons did the fingers start venturing up there. For some people it was an awkward adjustment but most of us were young and we adapted easily. After that it felt weird to hold a controller any other way. I remember the time when I ventured back to the NES after months and months of SNES familiarity. Having been comfortable with the shoulder buttons, I grabbed the old NES square, placed my index fingers on top and was momentarily confused: I don’t remember these being this awkward to hold. In those 8-bit days we didn’t know better.

So while it’s a nice illustration of the evolution of the controller, the illustrator, Damien Lopez, clearly shows that he’s not of the NES era. In my day we didn’t care about ergonomics. We had our Nintendo thumb and we liked it.

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