Joystick Wagglers: Were Left Handed Control Sticks an Industry Conspiracy?

Have you ever wondered why arcade control sticks were always placed to the the left of the buttons? To be honest I’d never given it much thought until I saw this tweet the other day:

On the surface this makes perfect logical sense. We know that arcade owners could often be incredibly sly. We also know that they were actively aided by arcade manufacturers who included dip switches that allowed them to make subtle changes to the difficulty of their games. With that in mind, deliberately frustrating players via unintuitive control configurations doesn’t seem like too far a chasm to leap.

Still, something felt a little off about this idea. If a player was presented with a row of games that allowed them to control their character with their right hand, surely they’d just ignore the stupid game which inexplicably forced them to control the character with their left? Such blatant swindling feels like a bit of a blunt and overly-obvious tool when the manufacturer could simply reduce the amount of time given by a check point or make a bothersome opponent move ever so slightly faster. Hmm.

After a little digging, it turns out Youtuber Larry Bundy Jr covered this topic in one of his Fact Hunt videos. His video not only helpfully adds a little flesh to the theory’s bones, but it also turns up pretty highly in the Google results when you ask why arcade sticks were always on the left. Consequently, I think we should look at his explanation in detail:

With the oncoming North American Video game Crash, arcade manufacturers were releasing less and less machines. The effect of this was, with nothing to replace them, arcades were holding onto the same games for longer, and their patrons were getting better and better at them, ultimately resulting in less quarters going in these aging machines, causing a snowball effect of lost revenue for operators. But what to do? Arcade owners didn’t have the know-how to hack into a game to make it even harder, and difficulty dip switches on the arcade motherboards were virtually non-existent at the time. However, thanks to a rather ingenious arcade owner, they came up with a solution that was simple yet incredibly effective…why not simply switch the joystick from the right of the play field to the left? I mean all you need to accomplish this are some basic wood working skills and you’ve thereby artificially inflated the difficulty level of every arcade game in your possession, simply by messing with right-handed gamers motor functioning skills!

We can say that Larry is definitely wrong on a couple of the minor details. Difficulty dip switches were almost as old as coin-op video arcade games themselves (as we can see from the dip switch arrangements for Pacman, Space Invaders, Rally-X, Frogger, and Donkey Kong) so were definitely a well utilised phenomenon by 1982. It’s also wrong to say that the incoming crash depressed the number of games produced. There may have been peaks and troughs from year to year, but according to this handy graph produced by the international arcade museum, the overall frequency of releases between 1982-6 remained higher than the number of titles released in 1980.

These are minor corrections that don’t really affect the central pillar of the argument, mind you. After all, we may generally think of the US video game industry crash as a home market-based affair, but the coin-op industry suffered an equally large cliff edge. According to a survey in industry mag Play Meter, for example, the average operator purchased just 19 machines in 1984 compared to 52 in 1981. Consequently, their editorial summary of the year was titled 1984 – Even Orwell Couldn’t Predict How Bad it Was.

Manufacturers might have continued pumping out new arcade machines, but we can say that the operators definitely weren’t spending as much money on buying them. This means that it’s probably fair to say that arcades were indeed making do with slightly older machines. Though the games would have had difficulty dip switches, these only allow to push the difficulty so far: The arcade operator might be able to turn off the ability to earn extra lives or quadruple the amount of points needed to earn one, but what good would that do if players had the skill to make each life last four times as long as they did before?

The theory is potentially plausible then, but what of actual hard evidence? Theoretically this should be easy to find. If the theory is to hold water we should be able to find existing examples of these right-to-left stick conversions or at least contemporary photos of them. Indeed, if botched conversions of early 80’s machines were relatively common i’d expect to see restoration guides produced by dedicated collectors looking to turn these left-handed monsters back into their original and unsullied right-handed form.

Personally I wasn’t able to verify any of these. Not only could I not find pictures of the conversions, but i couldn’t find any discussion of about these conversions or any guides about changing them back. On top of that, a casual survey of flyers from a number of popular cabinets produced from 1978 to 1982 reveals a surprisingly varied mix of control setups: Fifteen featured control sticks in the middle of the cabinet (either with no action buttons or mirrored banks on either side), seventeen placed their movement controls to the left of any action buttons while only six featured movement controls placed to the right. Chronologically, these cabinets struggle to connect the dots of our theory: of the seventeen titles that featured movement controls on the left, six appeared before 1981. Meanwhile, of the fifteen that featured centralised sticks with ambidextrous button placement, nine were released in 1982.

Blimey! Just look at those flyers!
These Classic titles from 1978-9 all featured left-handed rotation/movement controls and right-handed shoot/thrust mechanics.

Indeed, even if we narrow our focus to individual manufacturers, there seems to be no consistent chronological pattern in their placement of direction controls. Atari, for example, put the rotation controls on the left hand side for Lunar Lander and Asteroids, but put the cursor controls on the right-hand side for their trackball-based title Missile command before reverting to the left for Gravitar in 1982. Namco, meanwhile, Released left-sticked Galaxian in 1979 before releasing right-sticked Rally X in 1980 before flipping back to the left hand side for Galaga in 1981. The decision, arguably seems to be linked to the content of the game itself rather than attempts to fool the player.

As a result of this, i think it’s fair to say that our theory holds up about as well as Donkey Kong does once the supports have been removed on level two – There’s simply no actual evidence to support it. In fact, we can expand on this debunking further. Not only is the claim not backed up by evidence, but it’s actually based on two very large assumptions. The first is that right-handed movement controls would feel more natural to a right-handed person than left handed movement controls. The second is that, by 1983, there were existing control standards that could be challenged.

The first of these sounds straight forward, but on closer examination is revealed to be anything but. Though it’s true that we prefer our dominant hand for one-handed tasks like throwing a ball, the situation when it comes to two handed tasks isn’t quite so clear. Think of a guitarist for example: one of their hands is needed to apply pressure to the strings, the other to pluck the strings to make a sound. These tasks are different but complementary: though one task might be more demanding than the other in any given song, the difficulty of each task fluctuates tremendously across different songs and musical styles. It is difficult for a guitarist to be successful if they only have one dexterous hand.

Even when both hands are involved in the same task, the relationship can still be remarkably complicated. In Cricket, the batsmen holds the bat with both hands and generally stands side-on to the approaching bowler. Though Most people opt to turn towards their dominant side this stance comes with a compromise: turning to their dominant side means that their weaker hand is the one that is placed higher up the bat grip and thus plays the more dominant role in guiding the arc of the swing towards the ball.

The (left-handed) Sachin Tendulkar demonstrating a traditional right handed batsman’s stance. Note the right arm holds the bat further down the blade than his left. (photo by Vikas D. Nambiar)

Though turning to the dominant side might feel natural, research in this area has suggested it isn’t the best approach. Ideally, the batsman should turn to their weaker side so that their dominant hand is the one that guides the swing. With professional cricketers like Indian legend Sachin Tendulkar apparently being seven times more likely to adopt this stance than a lay man, it’s difficult to argue with this.

I think then, that the question of the relative ‘naturalness’ of left handed controls is one that probably requires more of a more detailed and nuanced approach. As Cat Despira has so superbly documented, arcade games have a greater level of physicality than we might initially expect. Though Pacman looks like a simple single-handed game, Cat discovered that all unrestored Pacman machines have a distinctive wear pattern on the left hand side that stands as testament to the role played inevitably played by the standing player’s weaker hand, rising up to grab the side of the cabinet in an unconscious act of stabalisation. Though we might think that a right handed player might naturally gravitate towards right handed movement controls, stance, balance, scroll direction and button dexterity are all factors that could all potentially prefer them to prefer the inverse.

Cat Despira’s Pacman Machine with its distinctive, unrestored wear

The Second assumption is that there were existing precedents that new left-handed controls overthrew. This one seems difficult to support too. If we look a decade or so before the likes of Space Invaders hit the arcades, we find that arcades games were electro-mechanical rather than video in nature. Though the games themselves were by necessity simpler than the video games that would follow in the ensuing decades, by 1970 we find that a lot of the ground work had been laid for many genres that persist to the present day – be it steering wheel equipped titles like aged 1950’s machine Auto Test, rifle-based shooting ranges or cockpit-based flight simulators. For a lot of these games, control schemes were highly genre-specific and often based on controls used by a vehicle or an activity that existed beyond the confines of the arcade.

Flyers From some Electo-Mechanical arcade games of the 50s and 60s

Where these games used joysticks for character movement, it’s difficult to find consistent design decisions. Sega, for example, placed the control stick in the middle for 1968’s Motopolo before placing it to the right hand of the cabinet for 1969’s Missile and then to the left of complex bank of buttons for 1976’s Sega Soccer. Control placement seems to have been governed by the design of the mechanism driving the game more than the handedness of the potential players.

The Joystick-controlled title Motopolo

Indeed if we carry this observation over into the early videogame era, we find that most of their early titles were designed more like their electo-mechanical counter parts rather than the complicated narrative video games that were to follow them. If we examine Atari’s early titles, for example, we can easily see how electronic tennis title Pong fits into the tradition of table football games and the electro-mechanical versions of basket ball. We can also see how shooting games logo like Quak fit into an existing tradition of shooting range machines while simple video driving games like Night Driver were building on the work done by the likes of Auto Test and Chicago Coin’s Speedway.

Like the earlier electro-mechanical machines, Atari’s early titles all had different and highly individualised control devices – be they dials, steering wheels, a set of four different coloured buttons or…err…boobs. There were some games that used control sticks, such as 1975’s cunningly titled Shark JAWS, but these were far outnumbered by the titles that didn’t. By the time the likes of Space Invaders and Pacman entered the picture towards the end of the decade, there wasn’t a decisive precedent for where a joystick should be placed on an arcade cabinet – be it electro-mechanical or video in design.

The ever-so-slightly dodgy flyer for Atari’s Gotcha (the pink domes were removed early into the final production run)

Consequently, our think our conspiracy fails on almost every level. Not only can we find no evidence to support it directly, but even the presumptions it’s based on turn out to be highly questionable. If there was no conscious conspiratorial shift, however, how did left handed controls become the industry standard? I think at this point it’s worth considering this passage from Alex Rubins book about the development of Missile Command, where Rubins explains the sheer amount of effort that went into field testing the game before it was launched:

Even with [the risk of industrial espionage] ever present, these field tests were vital to figuring our what players thought would be fun. The development teams would sit nearby, blending in as typical bar or arcade patrons, and take notes of how players were reacting to the game so they could make changes to the gameplay between field tests and fine-tune aspects of how the game worked.

These tests weren’t just for the gameplay, though: there were also used to test how people reacted to the cabinet and their attraction to it. This proved to be an extremely vital aspect of the Missile Command tests, as major revisions were made to the cabinet throughout these tests.

8-Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari’s Missile Command, Chapter 10

Considering that companies like Atari would have had access to a whole range of observational data (taken both from before the launch of new games and at the end of life of older titles) i suspect that the dominance of left-handed movement controls was a boring gradual shift that simply grew out of the hard data of how the machines were played. This is just my suspicion, however, and I also suspect there are people out there who are much better versed in the detail who can provide a fuller, more factual answer. What we can say with certainty, however, is that there was no single mythical ingenious arcade owner who had the honour of creating the control configurations we’ve used right down to the current day