Learning To Walk Using Your Hands

Learning To Walk Using Your Hands

I have a nephew and he is one years old. Around one month ago he took his first steps. I watched as he stammered for three or four steps then fell. And cried. Five minutes later he was back on his feet — this time he made it five steps. Before falling again.

I said out loud — ‘this little guy learning to walk for the first time is like me trying to walk using just my hands.’

I thought to myself, how cool would it be to learn to walk with your hands?

Then, last night, a twitter conversation with a good friend who was playing Metal Gear Solid 3 for the first time — he complains about the controls. He feels as though he’s been dumped into a foreign field with absolutely no instruction. I sympathise, then I say…

“It’s sort of like learning to walk using your hands.”

And then it clicks.

Relearning something familiar, through a brand new set of rules, a brand new set of controls — it can be frustrating at first, but if you persist you are left with what feels like a genuinely new set of skills. And when a game leaves you feeling rewarded in that way, it can be a completely beautiful thing.

Learning to walk using your hands — it’s that moment when a game reinvents the way in which you control it, forcing your muscle memory to reset to ground zero. It’s a moment that terrifies some, but some, myself included, live this period of discovery, this chance to try something new — indulging in the joy that comes from stumbling into a balanced state, slowly taking your first steps in a brand new universe, before breaking into an exuberant sprint that defies the odds.

1996, Mario 64. I had seen the video trailer, I had seen the game running in Toys R Us, but nothing prepared me for the moment when I first made Mario slowly tip toe using the analogue stick — those first steps, pushing into a run, sprinting in circles triple jumping with giddy effervescence. WAHOO! Those are the moments in gaming we should live for. Those first steps, the slow mastery of something that initially seems impossible.

2007, Skate. After years of playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, I was genuinely shocked when I pushed the ‘A’ button on my Xbox controller and my avatar simply pushed his skateboard instead of ‘ollying’. The ‘A’ button is the ‘jump’ button for God’s sake — why wasn’t EA made aware of this? Flick the right analogue stick to ‘ollie’? What wizardry is this?

I was learning to walk using my hands.

Learning To Walk Using Your Hands

Games are often thought of as a visual medium, and rightly so, but I often find that the kinaesthetics of video games — the actual manner in which I use the controller to interact with the game — are just as important to my experience as the actual response onscreen. Even small things, like Gears of War’s active reload, the fact that I have to press twice to reload, and time my second push correctly — that tiny additional mechanic is enough to make me feel like I’m learning something new, physically, and that is a rewarding thing.

Yet it seems as though that joy of discovery is taken for granted and, in most cases, perceived as an obstacle that must somehow be removed. Video game controls must congeal and blend into the blandest, most accessible concoction possibly — left trigger for iron sights, right trigger to fire your weapon. ‘X’ to reload, ‘A’ to jump, push in the analogue stick to sprint, ‘B’ to melee.


Dull acceptance of this is the rule and any attempt to move outwith is frowned upon, not just by designers themselves, but some gamers, who want to have the same physical experience with a different coat of paint. We are so intolerant of experimentation.

I’m an adult. I took my first step at 13 months, which means — by my calculations — I’ve been walking for 28 years and 10 months. I’m over walking. I’ve been walking my entire life. Walking with my legs is boring. I want to learn to walk using my hands.

Yesterday I saw my nephew for the first time in a month. The last time I saw him it felt as though every single step he took was the end result of some monumental, colossal effort. Now, just one month later he looked like the inheritor of a bold, new world — like the sole owner of every single piece of land he traipsed his tiny feet upon. Already he is trying to run, because walking is boring. He wants to sprint round in giddy circles like Mario and do triple jumps. WAHOO!

And I’m so jealous, because always and forever, running will be nothing but a chore for me — the blandest form of exercise possible.

Maybe I should start practising handstands…

Happy birthday Elijah! And good job with all the walking!


  • I thought for sure this would be a Kinect article, maybe, some how beneath the subtext it totally is. Either way, I liked it.

  • Playing shooters on PSP was interesting. Using the face buttons as a D-Pad and the stick (Left hand) to control the camera.
    It’s not a huge difference, but took some time to get used to.

  • I am in agreeance with the frustrating everytime 1 or 2 buttons are different on a 1st person shooter (on Xbox). To this day, I could not tell you which is the best for me. They all work, sure I can change (some of) them to suit me better, but that takes away the fact its a new game, I am meant to be learning it from scratch.

    /Start of PC vs Console debate
    On PC, you can control what buttons do what for EVERY game, console not so much. To me this makes a PC gamer less adaptable. Too much customisation and you take out the difficulty.

    Having been on PC from Duke Nukem 2 and Castle Wolfenstein, right through to BF2 & Guild Wars, I prefer consoles for the extra challenge factor they provide in the controller. I am a person who finishes a game, no matter how frustrating it is, just to say I gave it a proper go.

    Console controls to me are “walking with my hands” for gaming. That plus not having to update the PC every 6-12 months. Do I miss seeing the game run at best framerates etc. Absolutely. But I prefer the challenge the console controls give, on top of the game itself. Its more satisfying head shotting someone with the controls of an XBox then a super accurate laser mouse.

    • Yet put a mouse in the hands of an xbox gamer and it’s like you’ve asked him to walk on his arms, no hands allowed.
      I remember the first time I used a mouse to aim, at school over a lan on Starseige Tribes.
      Until then all my games had been played purely on the keyboard or with a joystick for flight sims (I love you Xwing!)
      That was a walking-on-your-hands moment.
      I now play both PC and console and I prefer the mouse for strategy and fps, while I prefer the stick for third person games and fighting games.
      There may be differences, but I don’t think it’s more satisfying headshotting someone with a controller than it is with a mouse, especially with aim-assist.

  • I’m an ‘inverted y-axis’ kind of guy and it’s a crazy new world when games have it defaulted to ‘normal’

    • Play on Xbox, set your profile options to y-inverted, have every game respect your zany controller choices.

      • Yeah I do that (although I swear I had a game recently that was non conformist and left it on normal) but also have a PS3 which has no such feature.

  • Man, Skate was so confusing to learn. But the payoff was worth it, and the control scheme has sort of bled into other games like the latest SSX, so it’s doing good.

    I have a sudden urge to load up Skate 2 and start hurling myself off the tall buildings and breaking my bones again.

  • The skate part got me.. EXACTLY the reward I was looking for. I went back to a tony hawk game after 2007 and laughed at it. Seriously it felt so stupid, but i’d played them since the prior console version.

    But now imagine that a car that was made came up with a new control scheme. Where the pedals were for left and right and the wheel was for throttle (right for reverse, left for acceperate)… Now lets say we jump into this brand new car with the funky new controls and we took it for a great drive. one of the best drives of your life. Now, after a day of driving like this… stop at a rest stop and ask yourself, how was the drive. Im sure you will talk more about the controls, even if you mastered them… and you would miss the drive itself. I think that while games like skate were an AMAZING choice and a needed one, sometimes using the old controls allow them to be a simple interface that allows for the storytelling to shine through. Changing the controls could potentially hinder the goal of the storytelling developer rather than enhance it.

    I really like this article, and maybe I missed the point, but I think there should be games that take risks but there are others that benefit from the ‘accepted’ controls?

    • You know, that’s a really good point. I guess it goes both ways though. On one hand, we’ve got the accepted norm for configuration, which allows for an unfettered experience of the media in general. On the other, we’ve got the configuration in such a fashion that it actually allows for a deeper -yet subtle- sense of immersion within the game itself. Think back to the first time you pulled the right trigger to fire a shot, as opposed to pushing a button.

      In regard to a “walking on the hands” moment, I recently picked up WoW (don’t hate me) for the first time, and immediately got to looking at various keybinds. Learning not only a new game , but a new layout for controls sure threw me in the deep end.

  • The standardisation of controls (usually across genre) has happened for a bunch of reasons, not merely risk aversion by developers:

    – Every new control you put into a game requires hefty development, testing, and if people don’t receive it the way you’d like them to, it just gives people something to bitch at. I’ve never heard someone complain about a game because the controls were too standard. When using pre-existing controls (WASD, left stick to move, right to look), much, if not all of this development and testing has already been done.
    – Not everybody is willing to devote time to learn a separate control scheme for every single game they play (you know, when video games and your employment do not go hand-in-hand 😛 ). By using non-standard controls, you can alienate or de-motivate potential customers
    – Although it may be a ‘chicken or the egg’ question, the physical design of the controls has a lot to say about control schemes. Often you’ll need be operating multiple inputs simultaneously, and designers need to make sure you can perform this, and know what implications that has (ie if there’s a game mechanism whereby you need to push F1 and right control at the same time, the designer must understand you won’t be operating the mouse during this time)
    – They make sense. As much as possible, the current controls try and represent the action that you’re doing. The best examples to use are probably FPS’s, as I would consider them to have the ‘most’ standard controls. For a PC, the only analog input that everyone has (ie no joysticks, graphics tablets) is the mouse, so that gets the most important function in an FPS scenario, being sight (whether that be your avatar’s head, or a floating camera). In real life, looking is not a yes/no thing, sometimes you need to turn quickly, other times slowly. In console FPS’s, there are TWO analog inputs, so the second analog input gets the second most important function (your legs/feet).

  • For some reason I thought this was going to be an article about leg amputees who have to learn to walk with their hands, then I thought it was going to be about some wacky QWOP style game that had you walking using the analogue sticks.

    I agree with the article though, it’s always fun when developers shake up the accepted conventions and ergonomics by fiddling with the normally accepted controls. Who knows what kinds of better control schemes we could be missing out on because everyone thinks the current methods are best.

  • Woah! This morning I was thinking about how cool it would be to walk with my hands if I was crippled. Then I read this article. It’s like a new invasive type journalism! mind boggling…

  • This is a funny one, cause I totally, totally disagree. I want the control mechanism to disappear entirely. I want the situation to change, my decisions, motivations, consequences etc. Not the control scheme, not for no reason. If there’s a good reason to change the controls to get at a different aspect of the game, fair enough, but not just for the sake of it. I’ve actually said I wish I could import controls (and by implication, some of the avatar’s abilities) from one game into another, so i could “better access” what I feel the second game has to offer, but can’t quite deliver.

  • I’m reminded of Katamari’s control scheme – to me that felt completely original. Something I haven’t felt since I learned to drive manual

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