Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Motion Controls Disrupt Immersion

When Nintendo was first unveiling the DS and the Wii, I was among many optimists thinking that these new innovations would revolutionize gaming. I thought we were one step closer to virtual reality, and that the new controls would put us closer to the action and make us feel a part of the game. But they did the exact opposite, putting an extra layer between me and the gameworld. It's harder to suspend my disbelief when I'm blatantly aware that I'm standing in my living room swinging a piece of plastic in front of my TV. So here's why motion controls disrupt immersion.

Our current motion controls don't reflect a full 1:1 ratio between real movement and in-game movement. A very precise maneuver gets rendered as a broad sweeping movement. You make a movement and it lags behind by a half-of-a-second. You make a horizontal swing and for some reason the game shows it vertically. You do a rapid back-and-forth motion and the game picks it up at a slower rate. You swing a hammer with all of your might, and the character just indifferently swishes it through the air.

These little deviations are enough to remind you of the limitations of the medium, and that you're just controlling a video game, not actually taking part in it. It's even worse when you're playing a game and the sensor loses track of your controller, causing you to lose all control over what's happening as you frantically move it into a new position. These are all different ways that motion controls can disconnect your brain from the game.

Excessive movement draws more attention to your body and, by extension, the real environment surrounding you. No matter how good the game is, things in the real environment are always going to remind you that you're just playing a game. You have to be mindful of where you're waving your arms and legs so as not to hit other things or other people; your muscles, skin, and hair will be feeling the movements; you'll often see your arm moving around in the foreground of the screen; your friends might laugh at you for looking like a fool with your silly movements.

Most recreational activities that invoke fantasy use very little movement. Watching movies or television, reading a book, playing a conventional video game, and dreaming all involve basically sitting still. The idea is to let your brain focus on forgetting your surroundings and traveling to another place. It makes it harder to concentrate on the fantasy if your body's moving around in real life. This might be different, though, with true virtual reality, where movement would feel integral to the experience.

Angry goomba is not happy about motion controls.

But the problem is that our motion controls and home gaming platforms just don't offer enough feedback to make that virtual reality angle work. In the case of the Kinect, you might have the option to push someone off a ledge, but the reality is that you're just pushing thin air and watching your character mimic that action on screen. It places my mentality in two places: "I'm here pushing thin air, but I'm also in the game pushing that guy." Until we're in The Matrix with our brains plugged directly into a video game, or until we have full 3D rendered environments with physical feedback, I'm always going to feel that disconnect.

There's also the case where some of the controls just don't come close to what they're supposed to be simulating. This is a bit of an extreme example, but the games in Wii Sports Resort that work the best are the ones that have the simplest movements--ping pong, golf, bowling, archery, fencing. These are things you do standing still with relatively little movement, so they work in a functional sort of way. But the other games like sky diving, wakeboarding, canoeing, and bicycling all suck because you can't effectively simulate those motions (or those experiences) while standing or sitting in your living room.

As illustrated with the Wii Sports Resort example, there are cases where motion controls work fairly well. But for every "natural" motion that works and feels immersing, there's at least one (possibly an infinite number of) other motions(s) that are completely un-immersing. Motion controls can work very well with certain genres and styles of games (Wario Ware and Trauma Center immediately come to mind), but these games are in a different style altogether, regardless of their control schemes.

So motion controls aren't all bad. I just don't think that what we have available is much of a solution. It's not a significant step towards VR, and ultimately gets in the way of immersion by adding an extra step of input between what my brain wants to happen on the screen, and what I have to do to accomplish it. Instead of making me feel like I'm in the game world, it makes me even more aware that I'm in my living room in front of a TV.

Hopefully one day we'll reach the point of effective motion controls that at least comes close to resembling virtual reality, but that day isn't here yet.


  1. I view the Nintendo Pee I mean Wii as a Virtual Boy grown up. If you think of it as a VB grown up then the purpose of the Wii makes sense.

    To make money and sucker in the younger crowd and young families or families who don't know anybody and will throw their cash at it just because it isn't *violent* which goes to another problem.

    Games these days are either ultra violent or ultra crappy. No happy medium. I think it reflects society more then it does the game companies as it's what society wants.

  2. I grew up on education games like BroderBunds *Logical Journey of the Zoombinis* or *Carmen Sandiego* which Zoombinis is a logic puzzle game where you get these weird round little creatures off of an island to escape slavery to freedom across various puzzles with an overworld map.

    You think it stops there right? Nope!! You can only have 16 Zoombinis at a time and save at 3 different rest spots or *camps*. There are 3 tiers with 3 levels each in between rest spots and after several tiers the difficulty gets notably harder and harder as you cross compare patterns.

    The 1st difficulty levels only have one set you compare either all noses,all a certain kind of eye or a certain color of noses.etc High levels require cross comparison.

    One early level where you are in this cave with these rock gardens allow only Zoombinis with certain features go thru such as one side only Zoombinis with green noses may be allowed to pass so on the other side Zoombinis with certain kinds of hair may be allowed to pass and the upper and lower guardians have their own set of features they allow.

    So I cheat by making mine look mostly the same to blow thru the easier and medium levels with a breeze.

    Yes you make them at the beginning of each set when you get one batch of 16 Zoombinis totally across the world to their new land and you use the Zoombini Creator to make more.

  3. Cont.

    You can actually have two duplicate Zoombinis each time one is created so I make mine look as close to each other as I can get away with. Since you can have up to 16 I can have 8 of them look exactly a like!!! Fun times!

    If you want you can make another batch of 16 when one group is at a rest camp but only one set can continue the path but the rest camp has a cubby hole to store a whole bunch for later.

    The last level of each difficulty is my favorite where you guide these Zoombnis across a water board with different paths using bubbles and each path is defined by the features of a Zoombini.

    If you send them in the wrong bubble it could go off to a path you don't want and lose that particular Zoombini.

    Here is the bubble level I am talking about set at the lowest difficulty. 4 mins long.

    Here is the same level at medium with more paths to figure out.

    And here is the hardest with color switches and spots you can get stuck at and plan it so another Zoombini bumps you off so you have to carefully plan each and every Zoombini.

    I always lose one or two before completing the level once past the 1st difficulty but if you get a whole team thru each tier you earn buildings for you're new town and and award plaque dedicated to you're successful adventure.

    Once you play logic games like these Nintendo games except MM and Wind Waker will seem very stupid.