Infographic Of The Day: A Family Tree For Video Game Controllers

At first sight, this is just a cool poster for super nerds. But on closer inspection you can learn a lot about how the video game industry has changed.

Pop Chart Lab, one of our favorite creators of infographics, has done it again: a poster which every gamer should get RIGHT THIS SECOND. Having already tracked everything from wrestler names to beer, they’ve created what is surely the definite history of the video game controller, all presented in a superb family tree showing when everything was made, what it came from, and what it begat:

Aside from being catnip for uber-geeks, you can actually descry some fascinating history trends in here. Back in the early 1980s, when video games were just starting to experience wildfire growth, the controllers all start off pretty similarly. Each one looks almost indistinguishable from the others, and they’re all basic attempts to package a couple buttons and maybe a joystick into a totally rational case:

But by the mid-1990s/early-2000s, a different logic has taken hold: Controllers have gone ergonomic. That in itself tells you what was happening in video games. The extremity of their shapes and swells tells you how intense the game play experience has become; video games, once seen as something a kid might enjoy for maybe an hour at a time, are now becoming something that kids gorge on for 15 hours at a time. Hence the need for some serious ergonomic thought. (After all, remember how dead your fingers were pounding on those old NES boxes?) Meanwhile, as the capabilities of video games expand, the buttons are expanding as well:

Another subtle thing you’ll notice in the controllers above is how distinct they all look from each other. We’ve now entered the age of the corporate video game mega-brand. Whereas in the early 1980s, video game companies were tiny and relatively obscure, they’re now massive, globe-trotting concerns. They think about branding, and so the controllers are each meant to set them apart from competitors in a visceral way.

Today, something else entirely is happening. The video game controller might in fact be dying out, after 30 years in the spotlight. Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect, and PlayStation Move are all virtually button-less--and in the case of the Kinect, the "controller" isn’t actually something you’re holding with your hand anymore:

Of course, the most disruptive video game "controller" of them all isn’t actually on the chart. It’s the iPhone, as well as all the current generation of smartphones, which could very well render every controller you see here a historical footnote.

Click here to buy the poster at Pop Chart Lab.

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6 Comments

  • XmarX

    I'm with Gene. Kind of expected the body to be at the end of the timeline as opposed to the Kinect sensor. Nevertheless, a great job!

  • Tom Auger

    Fantastic. One could argue there's a whole subcategory of third party controllers (MS flightcontrol, logitech GT steering wheels etc) that are being excluded. I suppose one of the limiting criteria was that they had to be controllers made by the OEM.

  • Gene

    Nice infographic, but I noticed that the xBox Kinect sensor is shown towards the bottom as a controller. I thought the body was the controller? It would have been a better story about the evolution of controllers if the infographic had ended on the human body after showing all the joystick iterations the industry has gone through.