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.