The problem with Microsoft’s new way to play video games


When Xbox 360’s controller-free Kinect add-on hits
stores later this week it has the potential to redefine gaming in ways
even the Nintendo Wii hasn’t yet done. It could just as easily fall
flat on its face.

While Nintendo’s motion-sensing Wii changed the way we use controllers, Microsoft’s
Kinect completely removes the need to hold a controller for its Xbox
360 games. But with that potential comes some very big problems,
according to experts on digital media and user interface.

“Removing the physical controller takes away a major piece of context from the experience,” said Noah Wardrip-Fruin, an associate professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he co-directs the Expressive Intelligence Studio,
one of the world’s largest technical research groups focused on games.
“If I hand you something with buttons, you know you’re supposed to
press the buttons. So the game has to do more work to tell me what to
do, and give me feedback if I’m doing it wrong, if there’s no physical

“But along with that extra burden comes new power.
Moving our bodies in different ways conveys attitudes and emotions —
and there’s evidence it helps us feel them as well. We could become
involved in games in a whole new way.”

Kinect uses a set of cameras and microphones packed
into a single rectangular piece of plastic resting over or under your
TV to watch and listen to the player. It then translates that data into
controls for motion-based games like bowling, kickball and dancing.

“The user interface is the most important part of
any experience,” said Kinect Creative Director Kudo Tsunoda. “It is the
entire way you are interacting with anything you do. It is as important
as your five senses are to human beings interacting with the world. I
think this is why people are so excited about Kinect. It is a
fundamentally new way of interacting with your games and entertainment.
It is a new way to play. And this gives consumers and the makers of
entertainment an entirely new palette of toys to play with.”

But while Kinect promise to “make you the
controller,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that the experience will be
easier or more immersive than using the traditional Xbox 360
controller, the Wii remote or the PS3 Move.

“Removing a physical controller doesn’t inherently
make an experience with computation more or less anything, it
introduces new interaction challenges and opportunities that the
designer has to address, so it all depends on how the designer makes
use of the new affordances provided to them,” said Carl DiSalvo, assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Literature, Communication and Culture.

While the notion of standing in front of your TV and
moving to play a game may sound easier, that’s not always true. That’s
because people tend to become blind to whatever controller they use to
interact with technology over time. Spend enough time typing, using a
mouse, a TV remote or game controller and eventually you almost forget
it’s there. That is, until there’s a problem.

“We typically only notice a controller when it breaks — then it becomes present-to-hand,” said Katherine Isbister, director of the Social Gaming Lab at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU.
“But most times, it’s an extension of our own fingers — a prosthetic
part of us — it’s ready to hand. It’s a really cool trick the human
mind has that is very useful, but that can trip us up when we shift

Because of this, shifting from controllers designed
for gamers or the Wii remote, designed to look like a TV remote, to the
seemingly more natural controls of just moving, can actually be
confusing and confounding if not done right.

“Not having to use a controller, and being able to
use your own movements directly to engage the game, should offer a big
leap in immersion,” Isbister said. “However, the Kinect is still
tethered to screen-based output, so the feedback part of things is not
as fluid and natural as the input part. And also, as with all movement
technologies, there are constraints around what can be recognized and
how to design for this.”

And they way we control games is as important to
gaming as are graphics, sound, the cast of characters, the plot and the
game play mechanics.

Dropping the controller altogether could actually
make gamers feel less connected to the games they’re playing, creating
a sort of kinetic dissonance.

That’s because people playing a game without a
controller will subconsciously expect the game to track their
real-world natural movements and expect real world results from those
movements. But this new wave of motion gaming is still nowhere near
approaching realistic movement dynamics.

Most motion-based games use “movement metaphors,” Isbister said.

“That is to say they don’t really totally mimic the
real movement, instead they evoke it,” she said. “The best games
capture the most fun aspect or essence of a movement, without bogging
you down in all the intricacies of the real embodied activity.”

So when you’re playing Star Wars: The Force
Unleashed, you can pick up and fling enemies across the screen with a
flick of the thumbsticks.

“What my lab is realizing is that the trick is to
shape expectations in the player, right when you offer the interaction
technology — to offer them such a strong path of action and set of
constraints that they are really clear on how far the metaphor
extends,” Isbister said. “There’s an art to it, and it’s an important
part of designing these kinds of applications.”

“The player will have a better experience with
stylized control approaches — gesture vocabularies that may start with
our understanding of how something is done in the physical world, but
then simplified and exaggerated to become a control language,” said
Wardrip-Fruin. “This is also better suited to where we are

If the interface, the connection between player and
game, is perfected, Kinect’s greatest potential is how it could
redefine the nature of play.

“I think the nature of play is that you draw a
‘magic circle’ around you (and whoever you are with) where the rules
are different and the stakes are not ‘real’ (or at least not AS real),”
Isbister said. “You can do this by playing paper football at the lunch
table at work, really. You don’t have to be in your living room or in a

“I think Kinect will actually provide a really cool
new space for playful experience that offers a different set of design
options for game developers that we haven’t had yet.”

Wardrip-Fruin said that traditionally physical activity was the root of both work and play.

“Now we have work and play that both involve sitting
in front of a computer and getting repetitive stress injuries,” he
said. “Freeing my hands from the same repetitive movements is not going
to make Kinect games seem more like work.

“It will open the possibility for new experiences, some of which will feel magical.”


(c) 2010, McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.