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 Assistant 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 controller.

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

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, kick ball and dancing.

The issue with Kinect is that while its promise is 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 or 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 tools."

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 recognised 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 all together 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 are still nowhere near approaching realistic movement dynamics.

Most motion-based games use "movement metaphors," Isbister says.

"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 realising 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."

Wardrip-Fruin says the solution is to aim for a stylised control approach.

"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," he said. "This is also better suited to where we are technologically."

If the interface, the connection between player and game, is perfected, Kinect's greatest potential is how it could potentially 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 park.

"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 says 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."

Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.


    I think it would be good for anything that doesn't require the player to walk to another room. All the games involve the onscreen character being on the spot.
    I think move will be the better fleshed out experience.

    I'm looking forward to giving Dance Central a go with the wife.

    I hate to say it but I have Kinect pre-ordered with Sonic Free Riders (IGN gave it a pretty good score!) and I am looking forward to that new Steel Battalion. I might also pick up Fighters Uncaged since The Fight doesn't seem to be doing so well.

    I'm waiting to I do with everything. Except FF13...DOH!

    How is it a problem? Have these ppl even played kinect? It's easy, sure the running up and down on the spot games can take it out of you, but moving your arms and legs, is quite second nature, infact how is any different from whaling the wii mote around aside from not holding anything in your hand?

    Sure some games a better suited like dance central or that body fitness one and the kids are going to love kinectinmals just as they liked the fluffy eye pet thing on sony's eye toy and at least you have choice, with nintendo it's mandatory to use motion control (most games) and subsequently the game play has reflected that. It's not like Microsoft's asking us to play halo reach with it and the re-hash a bunch of old games with the new scheme.

    The core games will remain the same, the new audience and existing core audience will embrace it if they want too. I personally am not interested in it as i mainly play shooters, but even i can understand that adaptation to this product won't be difficult, accepting change will be.

      Exactly. What annoys me the most when people diss Kinect is that they act like they've suddenly been banned for life from playing CoD or Halo with a controller.

      IF YOU DON'T LIKE KINECT, DON'T BUY IT. It's really that simple. I don't see why people feel the need to bag it out constantly when it has absolutely NO effect on them at all.

        Hear hear, Its all about the experience.
        And for the kind of social gaming experience like rockband it will be fantastic, my gf isnt so interested in watching me blast supermutants but will happily play the drums or sing in rockband.

        I know its going to be great fun having the family over on xmas day and getting them all involved.

        This is just the first wave of games and it will improve over time I know there will be new applications such as head tracking and the faux "looking through a window" 3d.
        and games that utilise kinect as well as a controller.

        Btw I had a chance to test the bowling game at a display, at first I tried to move my hands as if I was using a wiimote doing a cheap flick and it wasn't till I actually made a motion as if I was bowling that it all came together, but overall it felt right in the way that Wii for all its ingenuity never did for me.

        Anyway its early days yet, I think it can only get better.

    I pray that this new technology doesn't become the norm. I'm disabled, and if this is the future of gaming, then I'm screwed.

    kinect needs 6 feet of open space have xbox in bedroom ... looks like im savign $200

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