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Why I invert the camera controls in video games: Empathy

Science is finally studying the beautiful minds of inverted gamers. Dr. Jennifer Corbett is the co-head of Brunel University’s Visual Perception and Attention Lab in London, and she’s planning to study people who invert the Y or X axis when controlling a camera in a video game, according to a report from The Guardian. Her team wants to understand why some people want the camera to look up when they press down on a joystick.

But I already know why I do this — it’s about how I empathize with the characters and world in a game.

OK — it’s not exactly true to say that Corbett and her researchers want to understand “why people invert their controls.” Instead, the study is more about determining how different people process visual information. And learning more about this topic can have far-reaching consequences.

“Understanding these sorts of individual differences can help us better predict where to place important information and where to double-check for easily missed information in everything from VR gaming to safety-critical tasks like detecting weapons in baggage scans or tumors in X-rays,” Corbett told The Guardian.

But I want to get into the why because I think it’s something that we gloss over when we argue about inverted controls. People often explain why it makes sense to them, but we don’t get into the underlying philosophy that makes us choose inverted in the first place.

And for me, this comes down to this idea of understanding the connection between myself and the onscreen action.

When you play Super Mario 64, you’re actually controlling two characters

When Nintendo launched Super Mario 64 in 1996, the game inverted the camera controls for both the Y axis and X axis. That might sound wild now, but Nintendo’s reasoning made sense to me then — and it’s the biggest reason I’m still inverted today. The reality of a third-person 3D game is that you are controlling two different characters at once. And Super Mario 64 visualizes that with Mario, the main character, and Lakitu, the floating cloud creature who serves as Mario’s camera person.

If you think about the camera as controlling a separate cameraperson, inverted controls make a lot more sense. You press up to levitate the camera higher, which will aim the perspective down by keeping the subject at the center of the frame. To look left, you need to strafe Lakitu around Mario to the right.

Inverted X has faded over the years, but that’s because most games don’t use Mario 64’s free camera. A game like 2018’s God of War attaches the viewfinder right to Kratos’s back. You’re not really supposed to think about the camera at all. Instead, when you want to look left or right, you need to move Kratos physically left or right to do so. But even in this situation inverted Y still makes the most sense. If you want to look up, Kratos isn’t going to begin hovering. Instead, you need to tilt the camera back (by pulling down on the stick) to shift the perspective toward the sky.

First-person shooters are similar. I invert Y on a controller because pulling down on the stick matches up with tilting the character’s neck back to look up. But I don’t invert X because pushing right is about rotating the character’s entire body to the right.

Inverting is about considering our connections to games

But the above is just a quick list of explanations for why inverting the camera makes sense to me in certain circumstances. Other people will have other metaphors that work for them. But however you visualize it, the point is that inverted players are thinking about the mechanisms and levers that move a character through a world. We are considering why certain actions have a certain effect.

To me, this comes down to empathy. I am not the character on the screen or the camera. But I am controlling them, and I want to be thoughtful about how I am interacting with them. And this creates a more direct connection to these in-game objects. So when I am controlling them, I’m not sending them commands. Instead, we are linked together and acting as one unit.

I suspect that people who use direct-style controls don’t think about it as much. When they want to look up, they just want the screen to move up. So they hit the up button to tell the screen to do that.

And while I can’t play games that way, I’m not judging those who do. You actually are holding a controller to interact with a video image on a screen. As an inverted-control player, I need to build that link with the onscreen action because the cameraperson, the character, and me are all in this together.

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