dark mode light mode Search Menu

History of Game Controllers

Marco Verch on Flickr

Close your eyes and pretend that you’re playing your favourite video game. Can you picture what’s on the screen? What you’re doing with your hands? Maybe the gameplay feels so natural that you forget you’re using a controller!

Tech companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Atari have spent years making video game controllers feel like an extension of your body. Their first controllers, on the other hand, weren’t so slick. Let’s hop into a time machine and take a peek at your controller’s ancestors. You can even fetch your controller and see how it compares!


Spacewar is considered the first video game. It was designed to show off the power of the new Programmed Data Processor-1 (PDP-1), a computer so massive you’d be lucky to fit it through a doorway. In Spacewar, two blocky spaceships are controlled by eight switches which can be flicked up and down. The switches are lined up in a row and built into the computer itself. The two players had to stand next to each other and fight for elbow room! In fact, the gameplay was so bad that Spacewar’s creators realized they needed to add a small, detachable device to the setup. The first controller was born.

Spacewar running on PDP-1 by Joi Ito


In the 1970s and 80s, kids spent their time (and pennies) playing arcade games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Pong. Arcades were giant neon-lit rooms. Each machine looked like a cross between a vending machine and a television. Controllers ranged from joysticks to paddles to big plastic guns, and game were played standing up.

Arcade by Cicada Strange

3) ATARI AND PONG (1975)

Pong was so popular that in 1975 Atari made a controller just for Pong: a box with two knobs. Each knob could be twisted to move a paddle up or down. While this worked well for Pong, it became awkward when people tried to play other games. To solve the problem, Atari added a joystick to their controller in 1977. Still, the “Atari Sears Tele-Games Pong System” was the first successful “at-home” controller, and it’s is the reason you play video games at home today!

Atari Super Pong by Frédéric Bisson


Inspired by miniature calculators, Nintendo wanted to create a device that was small, portable, and cheap. So small and cheap, in fact, that a joystick couldn’t fit on it. To solve this problem Nintendo invented the ‘d-pad’ — a cross-shaped button that could move a character forwards, backwards, or sideways. Now, d-pads are everywhere. Does your controller have one?

Nintendo NES Controll by William Warby


By 1995, controllers looked like spaceships: sleek, aerodynamic, lots of buttons. The dual-shock controller was special because it had two joysticks and a d-pad. So many input possibilities! A player could control their character with one joystick and the camera with the other. The controller also had two ‘rumble-packs’. These were small motors in the sides of the controller that vibrated in response to onscreen events: earthquakes, explosions, etc. Chances are your controller looks a bit like the Sony’s dual-shock. What’s different? What’s the same?

Dual Shock 3 by credit_00


The wii looked simpler than older models; it was a white rectangle instead of a cool spaceship. But the wii changed the game by introducing motion sensing. Instead of just sitting around and clicking buttons, or flicking switches, or pulling joysticks, players could swing, punch, throw, and do all kinds of cool movements.

Wii controller by Joe Goldberg

7) XBOX KINECT (2010)

In a sense, the Kinect is the end of the controller. Instead of holding a physical device, players set up a sensor on a flat surface. The sensor detects all their movements — no clicking required! And while the Kinect allowed developers to create a new range of games with full-body motion, playing with the Kinect isn’t as slick as a good ol’ fashioned “spaceship” controller.

Xbox 360 Kinect by Intel Free Press

Long story short, controllers have evolved a lot in the last 50 years. And with trends like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and mobile tech, controllers going to change even more. What do you think the video game controllers will look like in the future?

ACTIVITY: Using paper and a pencil, or your favourite sketch app, draw the video game controller of the future

Learn More

A more detailed history of video game controllers:


Demonstration of PDP-1 and Spacewar


Demonstration of Pong