The Semiotics Of Controller Design

The Semiotics Of Controller Design



This article is part of PS1 Week, a full week celebrating the original PlayStation. To see the other articles, go here


The Konami code—up up down down left right left right B A Start—was created in 1986 for the release of Gradius on the NES. It has worked on every single Nintendo console ever since. It has also worked on every single Microsoft console and it works in most internet browsers; the only change is necessary is that Start is replaced by Enter in most cases. So how the hell do you enter it on a PlayStation controller? You replace the B with O and the A with X. That’s a fairly simple substitution, but one that seems odd when you consider that it works on every other controller by every other manufacturer. Why not use A and B?

Because Sony was up to something when they made the PlayStation controller.  They attempted to reach deep into the minds of humans and subtly instruct them in how to use their newfangled controller.

For the man who designed the original PlayStation controller, Teiyu Goto, the names of the buttons needed to be more than letters. In a 2010 interview with Famitsu Magazine, Goto said he was well aware that “other game companies at the time assigned alphabet letters or colors to the buttons. We wanted something simple to remember, which is why we went with icons or symbols, and I came up with the triangle-circle-X-square combination immediately after.” A name is just a name until you impart some meaning to it. Shakespeare knew this and so did Goto. A letter A didn’t mean the same thing that it meant for Nintendo or Sega that it might have for Hester Prynne. It was up to the game designers and the players to understand what A meant to them in each new context.

Goto wanted to be memorable but he also wanted to make sense, at least in his own mind. “I gave each symbol a meaning and a color,” he states in the same interview. “The triangle refers to viewpoint; I had it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. Square refers to a piece of paper; I had it represent menus or documents and made it pink.” So far so good, sort of. The triangle is reminiscent of an arrow or a direction. It has directionality to it and, even though it’s equilateral, it must point somewhere. The square is a little looser but the connection between a page and the square are strong, at least for Goto. One can construe it as a box and use it for inventory or some other kind of menus. But then things got weird.

Goto wanted to be memorable but he also wanted to make sense 

“The circle and X represent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision-making, and I made them red and blue, respectively. People thought those colors were mixed up, and I had to reinforce to management that that’s what I wanted.” Now my American sensibilities immediately question why management took issue with the colors and not the shapes themselves. As long as I can remember holding a PlayStation controller, X was always the yes button. It was always “affirm.” It’s what I draw in little boxes when I do my taxes or any kind of document. It means that something had been selected, right?

Well, sort of. What Goto and Sony management both knew and understood instinctively was that O meant “maru”—good or acceptable—and that X meant “batten/batsu”—bad or unacceptable. This made perfect sense to Goto and management, who had grown up with teachers drawing variations of circles on their schoolwork to indicate a satisfactory job. In fact, in Japan, the meaning of the circle is almost painfully obvious. A circle is a perfect shape, one that is clearly seen in the sun which is prominently featured in the Japanese flag. One might even say that the circle is the only feature of the Japanese flag, commonly known as “Hinomaru,” the circle of the sun. This isn’t to say that the Japanese are sun worshipers or circle enthusiasts, simply that Goto and every other member of the Sony team had no reason to question this decision.

But then came the Americans. Americans didn’t have the same powerful connection to the sun and the circle, as the Japanese did. America was a nation founded by religious misfits, explorers, the desperate, and the wealthy; our connections to symbols weren’t so clearly defined. When we grasped this new dual-grip controller we did something that Goto might not have ever imagined: We placed our right thumbs solidly over the X button. Without the benefit of so many years of cultural reinforcement we didn’t know that the X was not the affirmative button. We couldn’t have.

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Goto had gotten caught in a much larger web and debate over signs and symbols. His gut reaction was not simply a gut reaction, it was one deeply entangled in the sign systems and relationships of semiotics. Swiss philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure would have recognized the circle-good relationship as one entirely of a “signifier” (the sign) and “signified” (its meaning). This is precisely the relationship that Goto was banking on. These relationships are themselves arbitrary but for Saussure they rely on a connectedness. A circle, by itself, has no meaning, but to Goto and millions of others it had a particular meaning, one that could be traced, followed, and had become automatic. To others in America and Europe, this connection simply did not exist.

When it comes to the buttons themselves there is an invisible kind of context.  

In its place, new meanings formed. X is often thought of as “jump,” square is reload, circle is crouch. Goto’s association with square being a way to access menus was also broken. That doesn’t mean that Goto did anything wrong, just that his understanding of the connections between the symbols and what they signified was different than the ones that developers and players would drive. What Goto didn’t realize was that while he had ultimate reign of the symbols themselves he did not have ultimate sanction over the meanings that others would draw from them.

This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. Consider that now a generation of humans is writing on word processors which still use a representation of a 3.5-inch floppy disk to signify “save.” That the floppy disk itself was ever a storage medium might soon be lost in our collective memory, along with the floppy disks themselves. Smartphones do this as well, using images of handsets which are rapidly fading from existence. Even this is a somewhat new development. For a few years, and as recently as 2010, Motorola used an image of a rotary phone to access the phone dialer on their Android phones despite the fact that few smartphone users had ever used a rotary or that rotary dials were by definition not touchtone phones.

Despite this, Americans adapted pretty quickly to the PlayStation’s abstract controller. At the time, Sony fragmented their product testing across different regions. When Sony Computer Entertainment of America tested the PlayStation they realized Americans naturally rested their thumbs on the X button and were thus more inclined to press it. Combined with the fact that there was no cultural significance to overcome they simply switched it and they kept switching it during localization.

This issue went both ways. American games would need to be localized in this way as well on their way over to Japan. That this even became an issue points at issues of cultural context that many people don’t consider. Some things, such as acceptable levels of violence and depictions of ethnic groups, are easily noticed and become hot-button issues, but when it comes to the buttons themselves there is an invisible kind of context.

Perhaps ironically, it was Nintendo’s lack of an attempt to do such a thing that kept them out of this situation entirely. They simply picked a few letters and assigned no specific meaning to them. Perhaps they understood the arbitrary nature of these meanings or their constructedness but nevertheless, the buttons didn’t have to be translated.

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That anything was happening behind the scenes might have gone totally unnoticed were it not for Squaresoft, Namco, and Konami. Games like Final Fantasy VII, Ridge Racer, and Metal Gear Solid didn’t have localized controls for the US and Europe. Instead, players were mystified by why they were suddenly launching themselves out of menus with buttons that traditionally selected options. Without realizing it, they were becoming bilingual.


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