Fire up any console video game, start playing, and within minutes your character will likely hit a wall or get attacked—and bzzzt, the controller rumbles in your hand. It’s not so exciting, now that virtual reality headsets blow our minds with total visual and audio immersion, but at one time vibration was king.
Here is the history of vibration in gaming, from kitschy add-on to flagship feature to expected addition, with a slight double life as a tool of sexual awakening along the way.
ARCADIA: THE BIRTH OF HAPTIC FEEDBACK
The earliest attempts to introduce rumble-assisted games to the masses were experiments by arcade machine creators desperate to stand out from the herd. The most likely contender for first mass-market vibrating game is the Americanized version of Sega’s motorcycle simulator Moto-Cross, released in Japan in 1976. Thanks to its US owners’ ties to television, the company was able to cash in on the popularity of Happy Days and rebrand the game with everyone’s favorite leather-clad party boy, the Fonz, emblazoned on the side. Seriously. It also introduced rumble in the cabinet’s handlebar controller, making it many players’ first experience with “haptic feedback.”
Other arcade machines followed suit, like the 1983 Atari car racer TX-1 and the 1989 Earthshaker!, the first rumbling pinball title. By the mid ’90s, most of the racing genre games had vibration—but meanwhile, home computing was quietly tapping the nails into the arcade industry’s coffin. To supplant the experience, computer companies released peripherals. The New York Times claims that the first vibration-enabled mass-market joystick was CH Products’ FX Force in November 1996, which was soon followed by the Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro in October 1997. Take a look at this ad for the latter and you’ll see how they pitched the rumble feedback as true immersion to their apparently young male demographic.
Of course, by fall 1997, Microsoft already had a ton of competition from another source of gaming in the home—consoles—which scared them enough to get into the market themselves. But not in time to introduce the majority of video game players to vibrations in their hands.
THE GREAT CONSOLE VIBE-OFF
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: While the Nintendo Famicom was a hit in Japan in 1983, its revamped North American version, the Nintendo Entertainment System, hit the struggling home-gaming world like a thunderclap in late 1985. The now classic NES cast aside its predecessors’ cabled boxes and joysticks for a simple controller with a dedicated directional pad on the left and face buttons on the right, establishing a standard that every console has followed since. When Sega released its 8-bit Master System to the North American market in June 1986, the two console colossi locked horns for a decade of rivalry. Despite progress in one of its war labs with a CD-based add-on to the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Nintendo couldn’t come to terms with the expansion system’s creator, Sony, and the collaboration dissolved. Sony salvaged the research into its own video game system: The PlayStation.
Released in Japan in December 1994, The PlayStation beat Nintendo at its own game, first introducing players to fully three-dimensional worlds while their friends were stuck with flat 2D sprites and Starfox-style false-3D on the SNES. It would be a year and a half before Nintendo debuted its N64 console, in June 1996 in Japan, sticking with cartridges instead of compact discs. While both companies were butting heads in the market, their engineers toiled away to get a new technology into players’ hands: vibration. Of all the wacky peripherals and add-ons to each console, “force feedback”-equipped controllers and paks proliferated the most.
But which console got there first? In truth, it’s a photo finish: Sony released its vibrating Dual Analog Controller in Japan on April 25th, 1997 while Nintendo packaged its N64 Rumble Pak controller accessory with Star Fox 64, which came out on April 27th. Just like each console release, those outside the East Asian island nation had to wait patiently for the brand-new force feedback devices to make it over to America and then the rest of the world. In a quirk of corporate strategy, Sony snipped the vibration out of the Dual Analog in order to get it out to non-Japanese regions more quickly; they’d have to wait until mid-1998 to get their hands on the rumble-ready DualShock controller.
The results were fascinating. Remember that ridiculous Sidewinder flight stick commercial? With the explosion noises and quick cuts? Amplify that by the vigorous Nintendo-versus-Sony high-stakes console grudge match. Which, naturally, had to be dialed up to Saturday Morning Cartoon-level absurdity to get their kid-and-teen demographic invested. Feast your eyes on this gem sent out in June 1997 on VHS tape to loyal Nintendo Power subscribers, in which straw corporate spies for “Sega” and “Sony” abduct a loyal Nintendo company man and interrogate him about Starfox 64’s incredible capabilities:
These commercials, which I can only description as “kaleidoscopic insanity,” illustrate what the games industry was proposing: that vibration brought players closer to the game than sight and sound alone.
Hyperbolic advertising aside, doesn’t the addition of a little rumble in your hands sound gimmicky?
“It became obvious pretty quickly that this was not a gimmick, but another step in the evolution not just of the controller, but the experience overall,” says Darren Denenberg, lecturer in the Informatics department at the University of California, Irvine. “Now, you wouldn’t just have the audio and video feedback, but you would actually feel, at least somewhat, like you were actually in the car as it veered off the road, or taking bullets in a shootout.”
To Denenberg, the “little rumble” completes a fourth axis in a Tetrad of Immersion: we moved on from white blocks in Pong to experience semi-3D graphical immersion in 1974’s Maze War, audio immersion in 1981’s Yar’s Revenge, and control immersion in the standardized NES remote in 1983. The DualShock and Rumble Pak completed the geometry of human-game interaction at a massive scale.
Controller vibration isn’t complicated—or more accurately, it’s barely changed since it was introduced almost 20 years ago. While Nintendo’s peripheral had a single vibrator in its plastic casing compared to a rumbler in each of the DualShock’s two handles, both of their mechanisms were just basic motors with unbalanced weights attached. Newer generations of controllers have allowed developers to vary the intensity of vibration to differentiate between light enemy hits and careening full-speed into walls. (See these videos for a demonstration, and note that one side has more weights than the other, for greater variance in rumble types. Science!) To Denenberg, that makes all the difference.
“Haptic feedback has evolved so it’s not just generic vibration but specific to the type of gun, or if your car veers off the road onto dirt or drunk bumps or into a jersey wall you can have the specific vibrational feedback that matches that particular situation, which informs the experience in a much more complete way, completes the axes, and really pulls the gamer, the user, into the experience,” says Denenberg.
Plenty of peripheral makers have tried to introduce new haptic experiences over the years, from vests and helmets loaded with rumble units to feedback chairs. None have achieved mainstream adoption like first-party controllers, which continue to rest atop the vibrating pyramid, nestled in the hands of over 40 million PS4 owners and over 19 million Xbox One owners.
But that isn’t all the places vibrating controllers have been.
THE SEXY STUFF
“Games” have stimulated people since the 1700s. Of course, we’re talking about mechanical apparati, and the earliest David Parisi, Ph.D has discovered is the Electric Kiss. This 1740s carnival demonstration had a woman standing on a wax pedestal store charge from an electrostatic generator, ready to discharge a powerful electric shock to any man brave enough to lock lips with her. It was the first in a long line of electrotactile games that filled “shock arcades” throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, relics of which still stand in San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique curio museum.
“It’s really important to recognize that the standards of pain and pleasure are ultimately cultural,” says Parisi, an associate professor of Emerging Media at the College of Charleston. His research focuses on the history of haptic feedback in human-computer interaction, to be detailed in a book to be published next year. “The point wasn’t to inflict pain but to learn about electricity. You taught yourself to be receptive to different kinds of electric shock.”
At some point in the 1920s or 1930s, scientists gradually transitioned from experimenting with electricity to other sensory substitution systems—like vibration. Engineers built a “hearing glove” to translate spoken word. This was the “scientifically significant” route of study, translating vision into feel and feel into hearing. Eventually, the quest to translate “feel into feel” led to developments in reproducing complex sensations through a touch interface. This science of haptic feedback eventually led to stuffing rumble into video game controllers.
And then there were vibrators. The electromechanical vibrator emerged in the late 1800s, appearing as what Rachel Maines called a “socially camouflaged” technology, showing up in Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogs while everyone politely pretended not to recognize them for the sex toys they were. Unsurprisingly, vibration for pleasure’s sake wasn’t respected in the scientific community. So the similar haptic feedback technologies were developed in parallel, with vibrators continuing to be made by men and designed by men and marketed by men without female input until recently. In other words, they haven’t changed much in years. But remember how the vibrating systems in video game controllers haven’t really changed in nearly 20 years?
If you go to sex shop, get a $10 vibrator and crack it open, and go get a DualShock and crack it open, you’d probably find that they’re nearly identical.
“If you go to sex-toy shop and get a $10 vibrator and crack it open, and go get a DualShock and crack it open, you’d probably find that they’re nearly identical,” says Parisi. “Honestly, it’s probably the same thing that’s in your electric shaver. It’s an unbalanced motor, basically.”
That’s right: clutched in your clammy gamer palms is a motor system just like those used in pleasure toys. Sure, the dual analog motors in a PS4 controller are subtle enough to provide something to the tune of 300,000 distinct vibration types, says Parisi, and the Xbox One controller’s triggers have additional motors in each (though very few games take advantage of it). But both are essentially plastic shells buzzed up by internal motors spinning weights.
Not that anyone has used console controllers for sustained intimate experimentation, or at least fessed up to such online. But vibrators of Maines’ era were just as domestic as video game controllers are today, says Diana Pozo, Ph.D candidate researching body-contact media interfaces at UC Santa Barbara.
“This means sexual experimentation with vibrating video game controllers and cell phones is part of a long history of household items being repurposed for sexual uses, and that this history has always included vibrators. In this light, I would never be surprised to hear of a young person discovering an interest in vibrators through a video game controller,” says Pozo. “One drawback is that video game controllers are hard to use as vibrators! They vibrate weakly and it can be difficult to position them for sexual use.”
Given how ungainly controllers are, it’s no surprise they’d be more gateway than dedicated tool, although a joke “massage” app giving players control over vibration for the Xbox 360 roused the expected brouhaha from a concerned public. The most high-profile sexual exploration with licensed video gaming gear comes from the notorious Trance Vibrator for the PS2, a device designed to pulse in time with the game Rez’s rhythmic audio and surreal visuals. Despite its handy size and washable sleeve, device creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi adamantly denied it was intended for sexual hijinks, claiming he liked having it vibrate his feet. Sure.
Failing any good sexual game controller peripherals, some folks made their own. Kyle Machulis hacked an Xbox controller to make the SeXbox (tutorial here), redirecting current from the internal motor to an actual external vibrator. The result: pleasurable buzzing in tune with whatever game was running. While it was more art project than functional alternative, the point is made: those with few options make do, hacking controllers to fulfill fantasies of controllers becoming more obviously or more efficiently sexual, as Pozo put it.
THE PREFERABLE, BUT NOT ESSENTIAL, VIBRATION
While vibration hasn’t been a game-changing technology for three console generations, VR’s new hotness has shelved haptic feedback’s “cool factor.” Now, new rumble products are introduced largely to supplement virtual reality’s audio and video immersion, though admittedly some go about it with super cool acousto-haptic (!!) transducers instead of whirling weights.
To UCI lecturer Denenberg, VR is clearly a more engrossing technology for players, but it practically mandates more immersive control schemes. He predicts force feedback-giving gloves and bodysuits to augment the virtual reality experience, potentially identifying where players are hit on their person. Further, haptics could affect the weight of a controller, using centripetal force to get heavier in big swords and turning off for light daggers.
“To be honest, I don’t see gameplay mechanics changing that much in VR, but control methods and appropriate feedback will definitely need to evolve to meet the expectations of the platform,” he says.
Debates abound on internet chatterhouses about the value of vibration in games today. Some users forget it’s there, but much like Invisible Edits in film, one only notices force feedback when it’s done poorly. Vibration sets mood and suggests tangibility in digital worlds. It’s the subtle character in how hard an enemy hits or how soft a car rumbles.
“It’s one of the constant themes that comes up around touch, that touch is our ‘taken for granted’ sense,” says Parisi. “When the [SIXAXIS] PS3 controller came out and didn’t have rumble, a lot of people had trouble. And it was precisely in that moment of absence that people noticed how much they liked it.”
On the other end of the Internet discussion are players vouching for memorable moments: how different guns kicked in Goldeneye 007 or what it felt like to gun the Arwing’s accelerator in a Starfox 64 boss battle. Developers would slip in extra tricks for rumble-equipped players, like the Stone of Truth in Zelda: Ocarina of Time or the myriad jokes across the Metal Gear Solid franchise. We may not move on from the dual-motors-in-the-handgrips model any time soon, but so long as we get drawn deeper in our worlds and thrown the odd joke here and there, it won’t be such a bad gaming life.