A New Scientific Study Aims to Learn More About Why Players Do or Don't Invert Controls

A New Scientific Study Aims to Learn More About Why Players Do or Don't Invert Controls

The researchers say the work could be "useful for almost all aspects of gaming and visual technologies."

To invert or not to invert? That is the question that has torn apart gaming communities since the dawn of analog sticks and 3D console games. It's a subject with almost as many plausible, grounded theories for the split in control scheme as there are fiery opinions on who's "right" or "wrong." Now, after an article on the subject in The Guardian caused a stir, researchers are looking to the question for new answers on visual perception.

After publishing a piece about Y-axis inversion—one that didn't attempt to argue for one side of the split or the other—Guardian video games correspondent Keith Stuart says the UK paper received hundreds of comments on the matter. That fervor caught the attention of Dr. Jennifer Corbett, one of the sources interviewed for the piece. Now, Corbett and Dr. Jaap Munneeke are beginning a new study at Brunel University London's Visual Perception and Attention Lab that's all about control inversion.

The study, Corbett says, is a good fit for the lab while the pandemic makes in-person EEG and eye-tracking experiments a no-go (I've had my scalp gooped-up for an electrode cap and it isn't something I'd want to do either as a researcher or participant in these times). The study won't revolve around observation of in-game behavior, nor do the researchers think any findings will apply solely to games.

"Generally," Corbett says, "we will be measuring how fast and accurately people are able to mentally rotate shapes and the extent to which they rely on different body and contextual cues" in those kinds of tasks. With there being no correct or incorrect way to approach these tasks, the thought is that the preference for Y-axis inversion may split largely along whether a person relies on visual context or bodily context. Any findings, Corbett says, could be "useful for almost all aspects of gaming and visual technologies," ranging from gaming applications to real-world interfaces like flight consoles (time to start working toward a pilot's license, Flight Sim fanatics?).

Whatever the findings may be, there's no guarantee controller inversion support will get better (or that the debate will die down) in gaming. When an inversion toggle is left out of games, its absence is rightfully bemoaned; when an inverted Y-axis is made the one and only option in games like Mario Sunshine, people get understandably annoyed; and, even though the PS5 has brought the feature back, the Xbox 360-era idea of system-wide preferences for look inversion hasn't become a standard.

We've made some great strides for control customization and accessibility over the last few years, especially in the console space. It'd be really nice to look inversion support become more standardized over the next few years, especially if it puts the argument to bed while we focus on the science behind the whole thing.

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Mathew Olson


Mathew Olson is a writer formerly of Digg, where he blogged and reported about all things under the umbrella of internet culture (including games, of course). He lives in New York, grew up under rain clouds and the influence of numerous games studios in the Pacific Northwest, and will talk your ear off about Half-Life mods, Talking Heads or Twin Peaks if you let him.

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