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In a game, we would normally use the directions in a normal way to move, i.e. "up" for move forward, "down" for move backwards, "left" for left, and so on.

Although, when we play a flying game, why are the controls opposite, so "up" is down, and "down" is up, "left" is right, and so on.

How does this effect come naturally when we play it?

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Many people play First-Person Shooters (or any game in the First Person perspective) with the vertical axis controls reversed. It's all down to personal preference. For me, it feels like pushing the head/gun forward to look down and pulling the head/gun backwards to look up. –  RedSirius Apr 15 at 15:13
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Imagine the joystick comes out of the top of the plane. What direction do you move the joystick to make the plane point downward? –  Mooing Duck Apr 15 at 22:46
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The left and right are usually not inverted, I've yet to see an example where someone inverts them. –  vsz Apr 16 at 6:08
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I'd like to point out that in flight simulators (as opposed to say, arcade shooters), player controls are not "flying up" and "flying down", but rather "rotate upward" and "rotate downward". When seen as such, it feels natural. –  el.pescado Apr 16 at 14:00

6 Answers 6

up vote 34 down vote accepted

In an actual plane, the steering column isn't really pulled up or down. Instead the pilot pushes the steering wheel or joystick away to dive, and pulls it towards him to pull up. Same goes for games which you control with a joystick. You push it away to go forward, and back to go backward.

This forward and backward motion is most probably why inverted controls are intuitive for flying in a game. Leaning forward makes your body face towards the ground , leaning backward lets you face upward. This corresponds to the mental model we have of flying a plane and the associated tilting of the plane itself.

So why have the up and down keys inverted? Arrow Up maps to a forward motion of the joystick/yoke, which maps to a dive in an airplane. Arrow down maps to a backward motion of the joystick/yoke, which maps to pulling up.

Edited the answer to incorporate some of the comments made by GalacticCowboy and Austin French

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Also, many aircraft do have a control stick, not the wheel looking column. Jet fighters, ultra lights, helicopters for example. –  Austin French Apr 15 at 16:06
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@AustinFrench However, the control stick works in effectively the same way - push forward to dive, pull back to climb. –  GalacticCowboy Apr 15 at 17:20
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@AustinFrench Notably, also all Airbus airliners (except the A300/A310) have control sticks rather than yokes. –  ntoskrnl Apr 15 at 19:46

Here is a nice explanation from What Grinds My Gears:

Flight simulators were one of the first three-dimensional PC games where the mouse could be used as a controller, to control the orientation of the camera (in other words, the airplane). The most natural mapping of the mouse axes to control the "aircraft" was, of course, to simulate the movement of the yoke (the "control stick" of an airplane), in other words, moving the mouse forwards would be equivalent to moving the yoke forwards, which would make the airplane (ie. the camera) pitch downwards, and likewise pulling the mouse backwards would be equivalent to pulling the yoke backwards, making the airplane pitch upwards.

And, here is a simple description of how the yoke functions, from a Wikipedia description of an airplane yoke

When the yoke is pulled back the nose of the aircraft rises. When the yoke is pushed forward the nose is lowered. When the yoke is turned left the plane rolls to the left and when it is turned to the right the plane rolls to the right.

Therefore, given that the "joystick" comes from aviation, it stands to reason that its application in aviation games, and "flight mode" in first-person games, would include the "inverted y-axis" as an option.

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I believe that comes from how actual planes are controlled. If you pull back on the stick, it pulls the elevator up, which causes the plane to go upwards. I think the same thing is for the side aileron controls, pushing left causes the left aileron to move, which makes you move right.

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You are on the right track: Pulling back lifts the elevator angling the plane UP. Intuitively, when you pull back, you look up / lean back yourself. So coming out of a climb you slowly put your body from an up position to an at rest position and the plane is sort of following the movement of your shoulders. Google images illustration: 0.tqn.com/d/rcvehicles/1/0/S/7/-/-/Elevators.png –  Austin French Apr 15 at 15:31
    
Thanks for the tip @AustinFrench –  Perchik Apr 15 at 15:37

The controls are opposite because that is how the controls work on a real plane. If you want to point the nose up you pull back on the stick, and if you want to point the nose down you push the stick forward. When I was a kid this made no sense to me, and I thought someone down the line was an idiot, but if you are in a plane, it makes a lot of sense. If you put the nose up you will be pushed back into your seat (good 'ol gravity). Now if you have to push the stick forward for "up", you'll be fighting gravity and have a harder time flying. The same goes for putting the nose down; it's easier to control the stick by pushing it forward than it is to attempt to pull it into your chest while gravity is pushing you right into the stick.

It takes getting used to, but after a while it becomes second nature, and as a gamer user I can tell you the experience of flying with the controls not reversed is very unnerving. Not everyone agrees of course but that's why you always want to include the option to invert the controls. The most customization provided to the user the better.

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The answers here basically say, "because that's how the controls on a plane work."

There's still an obvious follow-up question: "why?"

Many planes have control yokes like this:

Cockpit with control yoke

The yoke has two degrees of freedom: rotational and telescoping. It does not move horizontally or vertically. To pitch the plane up or down, you control the elevators by pulling or pushing the yoke towards or away from you, respectively. It's natural, in that if you lean your body forward, as if wanting to go down, then the nose points down.

Even in airplanes that are controlled by a stick…

Cockpit with control stick

… the convention remains the same: push down, pull up. Taken out of context, though, it would seem that the convention for the joystick is backwards.

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It is natural because when you look down you tilt your head forward, when you look up you tilt your head back.

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