Push. Play: An Examination of the Gameplay Button

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................................................................. PUSH. PLAY. AN EXAMINATION OF THE GAMEPLAY BUTTON Extended Abstract for Long Paper on a Theoretical Perspectives INTRODUCTION At the center of the video game experience is the interface. Before a player grabs the first power-up or meets the first obstacle, the would-be-adventurer must accept the limitations of the encounter. Only the controller can lead to action in the game space. A life in motion must be reduced to input. Modern games have developed a great deal since their early days as quarter-seeking cabinets. However, despite their graphical, dramatical and technical development, one of the defining features of the video game remains unchanged. In order for the art to develop, the means for video game control must evolve. This essay will examine the power of the ever-present button while revealing that it's current embodiment unnecessarily limits the potential of the medium. What follows are overviews of the paper’s four sections. THE BUTTON The button is a central feature in the short history of video games. Of the thirty or more home gaming systems released since the debut of the Odyssey, all have included one or more buttons on the system's game controller. The Atari VCS joystick had one; the Nintendo game pad had four; the current Playstation controller has ten. Personal computers, another prominent means of playing video games, are also founded on button-based input. Both the keyboard and the mouse rely on variations of the device. Over the past 30 years, games such as Tank, Tron, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Defender, Street Fighter, Street Fighter II, and a large assortment of other Arcade systems have also made the button a primary means of taking action. The simple biased-switch has been used for a variety of different game play styles and systems. From the homemade controllers of Space War to the state of the art controllers for the Nintendo Gamecube, the button is a device continually employed for video game play. AUTOMATION Put to use in many everyday products, the button is an excellent means for reducing the need for skillful action. However, it offers little opportunity for engagement. The dependency of game control on the button reflects a disregard for the body's abilities. In its most common form, the button is a biased electrical switch. Used in a video game system, it enables a monitoring computer processor to recognize press and release commands. However, it also has another less obvious function. The button is an artifact of automation. Used for jumping, punching, grabbing, rapping and even raping in video play spaces, the button reduces complex actions to a matter of choice. Like the trigger of a crossbow and the depressible lever or key of a piano, the button reduces gesture to a linear action. The idiosyncrasies and pleasures of the body are extraneous when interaction is equated to functional value. Automation values productivity and efficiency not physical expression. By relying on this artifact of automation, the video game medium must adopt a cognition-centric approach to interaction. THE MAGIC CIRCLE Despite its origins in an ideology of work and mechanization, the button has had continual success in affording video game "play". Its transparent nature is a key to the success of video games. All games are artificial. The play of a game is made possible by the carefully created boundary between the real and the unreal world. It allows the actions and events of a game to take on meaning and to have significance apart from what they typically signify. To an observer of a session of Tony Hawk Pro-Skater, the player may only be pressing buttons while watching a screen, but to the player, each button press is the calculated yet exquisite move of a master street skater. The button sits at the center of the "magic circle". It is a source of the transformative power of the video game medium. Because of its neutrality and simplicity, it offers no resistance when moving from intent to action. The phenomenon of play combined with the button's transparency enables interaction with the device to take on many meanings in the feedback loop of an on-going game. PHYSICAL EXPRESSION While the button successfully affords video play, it's lack of support for embodied interaction impedes the development of the medium. Current buttons are not suitable for intimate, performance-based play. They are incapable of capturing the nuance of corporeal expression. The hand’s movements are situated in time and space while the biased-switch is instantaneous. Consequently, the button is unable to participate in a dialogue with the fingers. The significance of the physicality of the interface is a well-understood point for musical performers. The tangibility of the instrument affords discovery at the interface, and gestural interaction affords affective responses by the performer. Effort and expression are recognized as being deeply linked phenomena. The button has developed little since its debut on game controllers. An opportunity exists for the development of a button system that maintains the transparent nature of current buttons while providing a tangible structure for both supporting haptic improvisation and capturing gestural input. .................................................................

Contact: Stephen Griffin, Georgia Institute of Technology, stephen@looptyloop.com
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