[In his latest 'Persuasive Games' column, game designer and writer Ian Bogost examines both Natal-like gesture control devices and Brenda Brathwaite's experimental board game Train, suggesting: "Perhaps the souls of our games are not to be found in ever-better accelerometers and infrared sensors, but in the way they invite players to respond to them."]
Games have flaunted gestural interfaces for years now. The Nintendo Wii is the most familiar example, but such interfaces can be traced back decades: Sony's EyeToy; Bandai's Power Pad; Mattel's Power Glove; Amiga's Joyboard; the rideable cars and motorbikes of '80s - '90s arcades; indeed, even Nintendo's own progenitors of the Wii Remote, like Kirby Tilt 'n Tumble for Game Boy Color.
Recently, all three major console manufacturers announced new gestural interfaces. Nintendo introduced the Wii Balance Board last year, a device capable of detecting pressure and movement on the floor. This year, the company released Wii MotionPlus, a Wii Remote expansion device that allows the system to detect more complex and subtle movements.
At E3 2009, Sony demonstrated prototypes for the PS3 Wand, a handheld rod that uses both internal sensors and computer vision, via the PlayStation Eye camera, to track and interpret motion.
And Microsoft announced Project Natal, a sensor system that foregoes the controller entirely in favor of an interface array of cameras and microphones capable of performing motion, facial, and voice recognition.
With few exceptions, designers and players understand gestural control as actions. Lean side to side on the Joyboard to ski in Mogul Maniac. Grasp and release the Power Glove to catch and throw in Super Glove Ball. Bat a hand in front of the EyeToy to strike a target in EyeToy: Play. Lean a plastic motorbike to steer in Hang On. Swing a Wii Remote to strike a tennis ball in Wii Sports.
Gestures of this sort also strive for realistic correspondence of the sort advocated by the direct manipulation human-computer interaction style. Input gestures, so the thinking goes, become more intuitive and enjoyable when they better resemble their corresponding real-world actions. And games become more gratifying when they respond to those gestures in more sophisticated and realistic ways.
Such values drove the design of all of the interface systems mentioned above: MotionPlus, Wand, and Natal all involve high-resolution technologies that hope to capture and understand movement in more detail.
Physical realism is the goal, a reduction of the gap between player action and in-game effect commensurate with advances in graphical realism. As one early review of MotionPlus put it, "It's like going from VHS straight to Blu-ray."
As much as physical realism might seem like a promising direction for gestural interfaces, it is a value that conceals an important truth: in ordinary experience, gestures not only perform actions, they also convey meaning.
Consider body language. According to an oft-summarized but infrequently cited study (psychologist Albert Mehrabian's 1971 book Silent Messages), half of human communication takes place through non-verbal actions.
Gestures like crossing one's arms, tilting one's head, and rubbing one's forehead telegraph important attitudes and beliefs. In these cases, gestures are intransitive; they do not perform actions.
Instead they signal ideas or sensations: impatience, disbelief, weariness, and so forth.
Other gestures take indirect objects. When we wave hello or flip someone the bird, we do not alter the physical environment in the same way a racquet does when striking a ball or a hand does when grazing a pool. We may, however, change the way the recipient of the gesture thinks or feels about us or the world in general.
(Lionhead's "Milo" demo for Natal offers one approach to such a goal, although it apparently uses vocal recognition over gestural recognition; hand gestures once again become actions, like reaching in to disturb the surface of a pond.)
But gestures, be they transitive or intransitive, direct or indirect, can also alter an actor's own thoughts or feelings about the world or himself. These sensations can be complex, and they can evolve. Flipping someone off may impress delight, then guilt, then shame. Reaching into a clogged drain may instill dread, then disgust, then relief.