Embodied Control Schemes

5 minute read

Modern games often use control schemes that rely on our intuitive understanding of the human body. With modern controllers, this has become even more true.


Controllers today have more buttons than the ones from the classic 8-bit times, so there are more options on how to map things on those buttons. Controllers have had about the same amount of buttons, with a very similar layout, since the first Playstation controller, so there has been a stable platform for designers to work with.

An original Sony PlayStation controller

This is even more true with PC games, that are controlled like everything else on the PC - with a mouse and a keyboard. Neither of them are designed for gaming, but designers are used to working with that limitation, and have turned them to the de facto gaming controller for many gamers.

One of the ways both designers and gamers have benefited from this is standardization: if you pick up any modern shooter today, it will likely use a similar control scheme than other modern shooter. This is good, since that lets players learn the schemes more easily. With gamepads, it usually means that you use one trigger to aim down the sights and another for shooting. With the mouse, the main button (left for right-handed mouse-users) shoots the gun, while the secondary button aims down the sights.

Problems with standardization

Standards can also lead to odd outcomes when designers apply them to  situations outside their original context. Because the left mouse button is used for attacking in most first-person shooters, users expect it to work like that in any first-person game. For the most part that is a reasonable expectation, whether you are holding a machine gun or the Portal gun.

But, it is also exactly like that in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where you use the left mouse button to swing your sword, axe or other weapon. If you choose to carry a shield, you use the secondary mouse button to use it, as you would expect. But the character you control is always right-handed, so you use the right hand with the left mouse button, and the left hand with the right mouse button. This is not terrible for anyone who is used to how first-person games usually work, but it can be a little weird without that background knowledge. In other words, it relies on implicit knowledge of the game genre, or in Skyrim’s case, of another game genre.

However, the experience is even more conflicting when playing a spellcaster in Skyrim. It is possible to use both hands for casting spells and using both for the same spell is also possible. When preparing to dual-cast spells, you see your characters hands raised, both left and right visible on the screen. When you press the button to cast the spell with either your left or right hand, you use exactly the opposite button: left button for right hand and right button for left hand. This is because the right hand is still your main hand for casting, and you use the main hand with your left mouse button.

The developers of the game have noticed this problem: they have included the possibility of switching how the hands are controlled when spellcasting, having the mouse button and the hand correspond to each other. But this might confuse the situation even more, if the player is switching between using weapons and spells. That would make the controls change when the player switches from spells to swords and vice versa.

These problems are completely understandable from the history of how user interfaces have evolved and how we expect them to work in games with a first person perspective. Left button, shoot gun; left button, cast spell. However, this does not make the problem disappear.

Control schemes and embodiment

Standardization helps a lot when learning new control schemes. But there is an another way to make controls intuitive, and it relies on a similar mechanism than standardization. Control schemes can be made intuitive by relying on our experience of embodiment and extending that to how games are controlled.

Theories of embodiment emphasize the fact that in addition to our brains, our bodies are intimately connected to how we think. This extends to how we learn new things and what kind of things are easy to learn. Things that extend from our bodily experience are usually more intuitive, because our bodily experience is so tied to how we experience the world.

To tie this into our present discussion, it is easier to learn control schemes that relate to how you experience your body. Some game designers have figured this out, either intentionally or accidentally. For example, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood maps the buttons on the gamepad to different parts of the avatars body. The topmost button controls the actions related to the avatar’s head. The left and right buttons control the left and right hand, respectively. And the bottom button controls actions related to the characters feet. This works, because the layout of the human body is intuitively understandable for us.

Another example of a game that makes use this is Dishonored, which maps the different buttons of the controller to different sides of the characters body. Triggers on the left side of the gamepad correspond with the left hand and triggers on the right side of the gamepad correspond to the right hand. This is simpler than the configuration in Assassin’s Creed, but still effective, and the opposite of what was done in the Skyrim example.

Controlling with your body

The obvious outcome for basing control-schemes on embodiment is creating controllers like the Playstation Move and Microsoft’s Kinect. These take the actions closer to the body and let you simulate the things you want to happen with similar things. This makes these control schemes intuitive, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better in other regards.

Gamepads have benefits that Kinect or Move don’t have, the most obvious being the fact that you can use a gamepad while sitting on the sofa, but you can’t effectively guide a game with your body if you are sitting down. Microsoft has probably realized this, and Kinect does not track people who are sitting down.

Different embodied controllers will probably become more widespread in the future, but designers making games for traditional gamepads can also use embodied control schemes. It is reasonably easy to do and might make learning the controls much easier.