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Why Do Video Game Controllers Have The D-Pad On The Left: A Quick History Of Video Game Controllers

The history of video game controllers is a winding path full of many failures. Many designs you might have loved as a kid have since been forgotten. Some controllers were just too dang expensive to succeed. Some still just failed to be as inclusive as they could have been and were abandoned.

Inclusively is a funny thing for controllers, as 10% of the world's population is left at a severe disadvantage when using the average controller. The significant number of left-handed people who love video games may wonder, are there left-handed controllers?

For the majority of right-dominant gamers, the question at hand may be, why is the d-pad on the left-side of the controller? To answer that question we'd need a quick explanation of video game controller design. Luckily that's what this list is all about.

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  • Executing Commands — Using Buttons — Requires More Dexterity

    Executing Commands — Using Buttons — Requires More Dexterity
    Photo: Tookapic / Pexels

    It's long been known that the difference between someone's dominant and non-dominant hand is far more complex than the hand that's good at stuff and the hand that isn't. Each hand is actually specialized for a different action. The dominant hand is very skilled at fine movements - small, delicate motions that require a lot of accuracy. The non-dominant hand is specialized at gross movements - large motions that tend to require more strength and reaction speed.

    This plays into the difference between using a button and a joystick. Joysticks require large, inaccurate movements in one direction at a time. Buttons are significantly more complex, often requiring precise timing and intricate combinations. This requires significantly more dexterity and thus, the most dexterous hand.

  • Controlling Movement Requires Less Dexterity Because There Is Visual Feedback For Your Hand Movements

    Hands are designed to work together to allow people to control movements. The left hand in particular is often used to provide visual feedback that the right hand uses to aim its movements. In this way, any movement of the hands that can be seen requires significantly less control than movement that cannot. This is why it requires less dexterity to stir a pot with the right hand and hold it steady with the left, than it does to press action buttons on a controller with the right hand and move a character with the left. Visual feedback is significantly smaller in most gaming related activities, and the player usually has their visual focus on a screen rather than a controller.

  • Using Buttons Has No Visual Feedback And Is Therefore More Difficult

    Visual feedback is an important aspect of fine motor control. For most actions, the eye locates the hands and communicates their position between each other, allowing people to perform complex tasks like tying shoes. When using a gaming controller, however, a player's attention is focused on the screen. Not only that, but button presses are very small movements that are particularly hard to locate in the peripheral vision. This means that players have to navigate a controller almost by feel alone, which requires far more dexterity than by feel and sight.

  • When You Aim In A Shooter, You Always Use The Right Stick—Because Most Players Have More Dexterity In Their Right Hand

    Shooters are a genre that places intense emphasis on pretty much everything over moving. Pulling a trigger to shoot, pressing a button to go into cover, and perhaps most importantly, moving the right stick to aim. Unlike movement, which utilizes the non-dominant hand's specialty (gross movements), aiming requires precise timing for the player to hit their mark. The kind of precision movements that allow a player to stop pushing a stick when the reticle lands on a moving target, facilitates coordination between the eye, brain, and hand. That kind of coordination is especially well suited to the player's dominant hand.

  • Game Controller Design Started With Two Switches And A Button On 'Spacewar'

    Spacewar!, a student side project at MIT, may be the grandfather of all video games. The game revolved around two spaceships chasing each other through an asteroid field. Originally it used four switches, used to control the computer it ran on, the PDP-1. Due to the layout of the switches, this was both counterintuitive and dangerous to the equipment, as they were dangerously close to the power switch. This led students at MIT to create the first ever video game controller, a simple wooden box with a horizontal and vertical switch, and a single button.

  • Atari Patented The Joystick In 1978

    When Atari patented its joystick in 1978, it was not the only one on the market. What set Atari's patent apart from others was the use of a central shaft that the stick pivoted on. This may seem like a fundamental part of the joystick by today's standard, but before Atari's patent, joysticks were often left loose like the Channel F's detonator-like controller. American game manufacturers began realizing that most players prefer to use their right hand for controlling a joystick and their left hand for pressing action buttons. Atari's first joystick reflected that realization, and this convention persisted until the addition of more action buttons to controllers and smaller joysticks.