Play Stuff Blog

Switches and Screens: Researching Video Game Interface Design

Sim City box art In Will Wright’s game design documents for SimCity (1989), he wrote on his graph paper pad, “Interface?” Around the word, Wright drew a box, as if to highlight it. On the rest of the page, there are a random assortment of notes: “Fixed / Mobile Cursor,” “Navigate / Edit / Tool Select.” On the page, Wright also drew a series of arrows that show early design possibilities for the buttons used in SimCity to rotate buildings or move them from one tile to another.

Atari Asteroids arcade game, 1979 A lot of careful planning and design goes into deciding what game interfaces look like and how they work. From the design of the mouse cursor to the symbols and functions of in-game buttons, everything in a game or computer interface is designed for a particular reason. And yet interfaces are meant to be unobtrusive and unnoticed. They mediate our experience of the game world, from the hardware buttons we press in an arcade cabinet to the software “buttons” we click on a computer screen. Video game interfaces are designed to be intuitive, “invisible,” and relatively easy to interact with. The moment we notice them it’s usually because we are experiencing frustration or confusion. We might click on something and find out it doesn’t perform the action we would like, or we might struggle to play a game because of a “sticky” or non-functional button in an arcade cabinet or game controller. In this way, video game interfaces are important because they directly influence the way we interact with games and how comfortable we might feel playing and engaging with them.

Asteroids design sketch In July 2017, I was a Research Fellow at The Strong National Museum of Play, and I spent time doing research in The Strong’s extensive video game archives. The main goal of my research was to look at game design documents to get a better understanding of how video game interfaces are designed, and what kinds of decisions are made during this process. Something that stuck out to me was the design documentation for Atari’s Asteroids (1979) arcade cabinet. One of the game documentation folders contains pages of graph paper with pencil sketches where designers were drawing out the dimensions of each of the different types of asteroids on graph paper. I also encountered lengthy memos where people at Atari were deciding whether the arcade cabinet should use flat pinball-type switches as buttons or Cherry switches (the switches commonly used in mechanical keyboards). After reading the documents, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit The Strong’s arcade game collection and play the finished version of Asteroids. I could see onscreen what the asteroid sketches look like when implemented on the cabinet’s vector monitor and confirmed that Atari ended up choosing pinball buttons for the cabinet itself.

Asteroids ship design sketch

A great deal of thought goes into what we see on screen and the hardware we use to interact with video games. The Strong’s collection is a wonderful resource, filled with documents and playable artifacts that allow museum visitors and researchers like me to look at the game design process from start to finish—from the graph paper sketches by Will Wright that imagine what interfaces could be to the final design of game cabinets in the museum’s collections.