Dissertation Research

I have a fascination with console controllers and believe they are far more important to how we understand gamer identity than has been researched.

Controllers, by design, are meant to disappear in the player’s hands; they are meant to be ignored, as actively thinking about finger movement in response to events in-game diminishes reaction speed. Controllers are the tools used to enter and participate in digital game spaces—and are most effective once habitualized by the player. Keogh (2018) notes it is through controllers that videogames not only “train their players but prime them to affectively orient themselves to the videogame in a particular way” (p. 90). The questions become: who is being trained to orient their bodies? whose body is being taken into account? whose hands were controllers designed to disappear in? and what impact, both historically and presently, does that have on gaming culture?

My research brings together three strands of game studies: gaming culture and gamer identity; representation in visual media, including advertisements and public gaming spaces; and peripheral design in games.

While the social construction of gamer identity has been extensively researched and discussed, gaming peripherals—such as controllers—are either minimized or left entirely out of the conversation. Gaming controllers are designed to disappear once they are in a player’s hands, and as a result, disappear from conversation. However, it is important to consider whose hands controllers were designed for. My project aims to fill this gap, exploring how the design of controllers helped establish a gamer identity that is young and male and curated an experience for that identity, resulting in a gaming culture that is notable for its open hostility towards women and marginalized identities. In visual media, including advertisements and gaming spaces, masculinity was showcased, situating the controller as an important prop in identity and culture. Video games themselves often receive the blame for gaming culture’s faults; however, it’s important to look at the larger picture that the industry curated for its ideal (and imaginary) gamer. When we see the controller, who holds it and what does that mean for gaming culture?

This project foregrounds women’s voices and perspectives when discussing the process of designing and advertising controllers. By focusing on the design and advertisement processes through a narrative inquiry lens, this project makes a case for a feminist approach to interaction design in games and studying how hardware design—not just games themselves—have impacted gaming culture and understandings of gamer identity.

My project is action-oriented and grounded within the games community; by conducting research on and within the gaming community, I have an obligation to give back. My project is, ultimately, an act of love. I believe gaming culture can be better, but part of getting better is elevating stories that go against the dominant narrative and conducting an in-depth analysis of the designs and processes that have silenced—inadvertently or not—women’s voices.   

Research Arenas

Throughout Fall 2022, I will be collecting survey data on people’s experiences with controllers. If you’d be interested in sharing your experiences with controllers, please click here for information on the IRB-approved study.

In Spring 2023, I will conduct interviews with participants that are casual in nature and focus on experiences and memories with controllers.

An ongoing endeavor is conducting archival research on controller schematics and Game Informer magazines. During Summer 2022, I completed a research fellowship at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. The Strong houses the original schematics and drawings of Microsoft Xbox’s first controller, the Duke, as well as complete issues of XBN magazine. Currently, I am working with the Learning Games Initiative Research Archive in Tucson, AZ, to complete research on Game Informer magazines.