Now here’s a peculiar thing. Back in the early days of videogaming, when it was all Ataris and Spectrums and C64s, when you had a joystick you’d hold it with your left hand (with a thumb on the fire button, usually) and move the stick with your right. I’m assuming right-handedness; if you weren’t right-handed then you most likely had to do exactly the same thing unless you managed to find a stick with fire buttons on both sides or one mounted on top of the stick.

However, arcade games since the dawn of time have put the stick to the left and the buttons to the right. And roughly from the NES onwards, console controllers have had directional controls on the left, buttons on the right. And now of course controllers have sticks mounted on both sides to go with their plethora of buttons, but the dominant stick is the one on the left.

This is important stuff. No, really. Because your left hand is operated by the right side of your brain, and your right hand is operated by the left. And in most cases each hand has its own specialities, so you’ll write with one hand but, for example, do the fingerwork on a stringed instrument with your left. You can’t just start writing with your other hand, or pick up a left-handed guitar and expect to get a tune out of it.

I’m reasonably certain, though, that if I handed you an old-skool joystick you’d automatically hold it the right way; not only that, I imagine that, given a game that could be played on either a modern or old-fashioned controller, you’d play it just as well with either, despite your entire control surface having been flipped horizontally.

Isn’t that weird? I think that’s fucking weird. And it gets weirder. Take a game like Robotron or Geometry Wars, that give you a directional control for each hand. Being confronted with that control scheme for the first time is a nightmare and takes a lot of getting used to. I just attempted an experiment, mucking about with X-Arcade config files to try and flip the stick assignation, to see if I played it any differently with the sticks the other way around. Couldn’t find the right config to edit, though. I might have to look into it further, because I never feel quite in control in Robotron, and I’d like to know if switching the sticks makes any difference.

The peculiar thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any logical scheme to all this. Take the Guitar Hero controller. Buttons on the left, strummy thing and whammy bar on the right. DJ Hero: buttons and turntable on the right, everything else on the left. You can’t categorically state that either hand is better at the more intricate or important operations. Unless you’re playing a first-person shooter as God meant you to play it, on a PC.

I played Doom entirely on keyboard. It wasn’t until QTest appeared and I was getting my arse handed to me in deathmatch that I was forced to adopt the mouse and keyboard style, and it was a nightmare to get the hang of, but I got there. And there’s no way I could just switch that set of controls around. Using a mouse with my left hand feels wrong, wrong, wrong.

And another thing: if I’m playing an FPS on a console, I invert my Y-axis for looking. If I’m playing on a PC, I don’t.

So then, what have we learned today? That the human brain is weird. You can apparently muck it about in some ways but not in others – at least, not easily. What I’d like to know, though, is whether there’s any kind of schema to this or if it’s all hackable. Is it true cross-dominance or is your brain still treating one hand as dominant to an extent?

There’s probably a PhD thesis in this. Shame I’m not remotely qualified.



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2 responses to “Cross-dominance

  1. As is the style of blog replies, I will now tell you my version.

    One of the biggest causes of arguments between me and Amy is when we help each other play video games. She has non-inverted controls, I have inverted (because I learnt to play a flightsim before I learnt to play shooters).

    So she’s merrily swearing away at Portal, threatening to destroy the TV and I get given the controller in a huff. Not remembering from the sixteen other times I’ve helped out I start trying to control the game…

    And it’s like someone took my brain out and swapped it 180 degrees. Nothing makes any sense, I die and get called rubbish with some satisfaction. Then I flip the controls and make it look quite simple really.

    I find playing first person shooters on a twin-stick console controller quite easy. It just makes sense for some reason that pushing the controls in opposite directions makes the man go round in a circle and so on.

    Learning to play Robotron was a special time. Not unlike learning to play the piano – “oh my god, my hands are doing two different things at the same time, and I’m not thinking about either. Oh, now it’s gone wrong”.

    The first game that ever made me learn its controls was SuperSprint on my ST. The simple concept of ‘accelerate’ and ‘rotate left’/’rotate right’ took ages to learn. Especially when the car was pointing down the screen.

    Now the hardest things I have to learn when gaming are all the damn buttons. What did ‘Rb’ and ‘X’ do again? The Wii is even worse now that it matters which way the controller is pointing, but the Wii is fun so it’s forgiven.

  2. josephruss

    I’m relatively new to playing console games, I was a PC stalwart for years, so I’m really confused about the Y-axis thing. It seems to be the first thing I do in almost every console game I play is invert the up and down axis. I just don’t understand how pushing forwards could equate to looking upwards, it seems as weird to me as turning a steering wheel to the left in order to go right.

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