What's holding gaming back? It's not the graphics. It's the controllers.


When next-generation consoles hit store shelves, gamers will be treated to another leap in tech. Enhanced graphics, faster load times and snazzy ray tracing can all be expected. One thing that probably won't change much? The controller.

In fact, most controllers haven't meaningfully changed in the last few decades, whether we're talking about your PlayStation Dualshocks, Xbox gamepads or the good old mouse-and-keyboard. 

What started out as a piece of plastic with some buttons is still just that. The stagnancy is especially striking when it’s compared to the advances gaming has made in other areas, like visuals, sound design and connectivity.

Doom in 1993 vs. Doom in 2019


Your keyboard in 1993 vs. your keyboard in 2019


Why controllers will determine the future of gaming

Controllers are the bottleneck for interactivity in video games. The experience of gaming primarily plays out within games themselves, through the digital stories you affect, worlds you shape and characters you play. Physically, the experience is almost always relegated to clicking a button or rotating a joystick, an exercise that exists on the periphery. 

(There are exceptions of course. The history of video games is littered with attempts to create innovative controllers. Some have worked out, others...not so much.) 

For gaming to reach new levels of interactivity, the digital and physical experiences will have to grow together. Fortunately, there are a number of innovators helping the humble controller catch up. Mobile games like Pokemon Go, fitness systems like SymGym and the forward-thinking Nintendo Switch are doing some heavy lifting in changing what it means to play a video game.

Together, these innovations are pushing gaming toward a future as an experience that integrates with modern life, rather than as a solitary activity. Here are three ways they’re changing gaming for the better.

1. Movement

Standard controllers encourage playing video games in a sedentary fashion. You turn your console on, sit down on the couch and play stationary — except for your fingers — for hours. Back when it launched in 2006, the Nintendo Wii made waves with a motion-sensing remote that forced gamers to get on their feet and wave their arms. It became a perfect match for living-room workouts and ushered in a wave of fitness games.

13 years later, fitness and gaming are still a popular pair and new technologies are pushing the boundaries of how you can workout while having fun being immersed in a fictional world. 

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SymGym builds on the foundation laid by the Wii by turning an exercise machine into a video game controller. Well, actually four controllers. The system has players navigate games through independently operated controls on each arm and leg, along with buttons located on two handles.

What’s especially unique about SymGym is that it doesn’t require you to play a fitness game — it can adapt to a number of mainstream titles. That means you can catch up on your gaming library while getting your daily workout. Be warned: running from zombies has never been more work.

2. Socialization

The lonely gamer is becoming a thing of the past as social media reshapes video games. The trend toward mass socialization has its roots in browser-based games like FarmVille, which was once the most popular game on Facebook. Now streaming services and mobile gaming are taking socialization to new heights.

The social gaming craze took a huge leap with the launch of Twitch in 2011, which currently counts 15 million daily active users. Competitive online games like Fortnite, League of Legends and Overwatch have helped to turn Twitch into a powerhouse and turn its streamers into millionaires

Pokemon Go was far from the first mobile game to turn your smartphone into a controller. But it became a global sensation because it combined that innovation with an element of exploration and two kinds of socialization. 

The first is local play (sometimes called couch co-op among console gamers) that encourages gamers to team up in person. Not only is exploring your community in search of adorable monsters more fun with friends, the game directs you to gyms and other spots where you’re sure to run into fellow gamers.

The second type of social experience is online play. While lacking the hyper-competitive spirit of games popular on Twitch, Pokemon Go uses its online component for more casual interactions, like trading Pokemon, showing off collections and tracking data.

3. Inclusivity

There’s no doubt about it, the demographics of gaming are changing. A pastime that’s historically been dominated by young, white men is reaching a more diverse audience than ever before. A few numbers to keep in mind:

  • 65% of U.S. adults play video games

  • Women make up 45% of U.S. gamers.

  • The mobile gaming industry makes up almost 50% of the global games market.

At the heart of these shifting demographics is a gaming controller you already own: your smartphone. To allow mobile gaming to take off, developers essentially reverse-engineered a gamepad in your pocket to make gaming available to nearly anyone. This created a new point of entry that eliminated the kinds of hardware requirements that kept many people on the outside. 

Stadia, Google’s new gaming platform, has a similar ambition. The tech giant’s platform will allow games to be played entirely through a Chrome browser or Chromecast in another attempt to eliminate hardware needs. Although it promises to open gaming up to an even larger audience, Stadia will still uses a conventional controller.

What’s next? 

Continuing to find new entry points into gaming — whether it’s wearable tech, gym systems or new kinds of mobile apps — will be crucial to integrating virtual experiences into everyday life. At the heart and the hands of those developments is a controller. Want to try out the latest tech? Experience SymGym’s new machine at the Strength in the City festival at Northerly Island on September 14 2019.

Robert QuinnGaming