Most game controllers (game pads, joysticks) use the left hand for directional control, which is also the task that requires the most dexterity. Most people are right handed, but end up using their favoured hand for button mashing.

Back in the day

In the early days of gaming there was often one joystick and one button. Most 8 bit computer systems used a one button joystick, often the "Atari standard" type. I would hold the base in my left hand and the stick in my right, giving me the best possible control.

(note that both buttons on the sticks below are wired together, i.e. there is only one logical button)

8 bit era joysticks

Left handed controllers

At some point it seems that Japanese developers settled on left handed controls, with the buttons on the right. Nintendo's Famicom/NES game pad is an iconic example of this, which was based on their earlier Game & Watch platform. Arcade systems that used joysticks also seemed to go the same.

Nintendo game pad

Modern controllers still stick to this basic layout. Often there are two joysticks and a gamepad now, but always favouring the left hand for precise control and the right hand for button pressing. Some players cross their arms so that they can use their right hand for control, but it only works on fairly large arcade style joysticks.

Question: Why is this the norm now? Is it a case of everyone simply copying early systems? Am I and others who prefer to operate the joystick/d-pad with our primary hands unusual? I think it is probably something most players don't think about, and simply accept as the way things are.

Update: I built a right handed joystick. I find it much easier for shoot-em-ups and bullet dodging. Since I mostly hold the fire buttons down I don't find I have any loss of control there.

For Final Fight it took some getting used to and I'm not sure I'm as good as with a left handed stick yet. It might be due to the more precise button inputs required, I'm not sure.

Next I am thinking about doing a left handed rotary joystick to play Midnight Resistance with.

  • 2
    The right hemisphere of your brain is responsible for spatial tasks - mostly. The right hemisphere controls left hand movement - mostly. Having the left hand control movement through space in a game takes advantage of the stimulus-response-compatibility principle - which is based on hemispheric differences in information processing. – user1757436 May 22 '14 at 18:31
  • Interesting point, but why then do I and everyone I know use the right hand for movement when given a classic style joystick? When given a perfectly symmetrical controller the natural thing seems to be to use the right hand. – user May 22 '14 at 22:54
  • Potential factors involved might be: preference based on handedness, absence of a secondary task, and absence of training. Right-handed people will perform a manual task with the right hand in the absence of a secondary task, e.g., controlling the 6 buttons on the right side of a gaming controller. The default choice of the right hand in the single-task joystick situation is habit/preference. The default choice in a single-task situation for pressing 6 buttons is, likely, the right hand. However, putting both in a dual-task situation results in the gaming controllers we see today. – user1757436 May 23 '14 at 14:18
  • @r-j-hode The stimulus-response-compatibility principle does address learned response but also addresses stimulus-response-compatibility that is inherent in the way the brain works. See this book for an overview. Stopping a car in response to a red traffic light is learned response. This is not an example of stimulus-response-compatibility as I use the term in the comment above. – user1757436 May 23 '14 at 14:48

As a leftie myself, I would challenge your assertion that game controlers are left handed.

Lifting your finger / thumb off the game pad to press different buttons requires more dexterity than holding your thumb on the joystick / direction pad. The joystick movements have direct visual feedback on the screen as you turn around, helping you to make adjustments. With the buttons, if you press and miss then you just miss it (you can't even look, so no visual feedback).

  • I find it easier to do complex directional movements with my primary hand, e.g. the "HCF" required for a fireball in Street Fighter. I mostly play shooters and find my right hand lets me dodge bullets much more precisely. So what you are saying is that I am in a minority of gamers who prefers direction control with their primary hand. – user May 21 '14 at 10:41
  • @MoJo It's tricky to say. Handedness isn't yet fully understood. There is a massive grey area between people who find their left hand virtually dead to them, and people who must do everything with their left. It could be that most right handers are still flexible enough to do direction with their left. It could be related to the type of game. I would think that navigation is easier to do with your secondary hand then "dodging" which is more a reflex (I can't respond as quickly with my right hand in sports, even though I have the dexterity to write/draw with both hands). – Franchesca May 21 '14 at 11:47
  • I find the same thing, I can't respond as quickly or as accurately with my left hand. I play better with my right hand on controls. Button pressing doesn't require much dexterity and is rhythmic, so much more suited to left handed operation. – user May 21 '14 at 14:01
  • And older joysticks required a lot more energy to keep moving, so a stronger dominant hand is preferable. In a first-person shooter, moving with the left is good enough because I'd rather use the right hand to aim and fire. – JeffO Jan 19 '16 at 20:56

@ user1757436 stimulus response association is built not innate, we aren't born associating a red traffic light to the braking pedal. We learn it. So is stimulus response of game controllers. In other words, most people grow up using left handed controllers and therefore it becomes natural to them.

The fact that the right emisphere of the brain controls the left hand and it is at the same time responsible for spacial appreciation is inconsequential. As it would not explain why most people prefer the right hand for countless other spacial tasks.

  • Comment 1: Regarding 'stimulus response association is built not innate'. (1) stimulus-response-compatibility is not the same as 'stimulus response association' (to me at least). (2) Many interactions with technology, e.g., a traffic light, are learned. However, Gibson's concept of affordances suggests some interactions with our built environment do not require learning. (3) A broad statement 'stimulus response association is built not innate' sounds like behaviorism. This was a dominant school of psychology decades ago. Not so much today. – user1757436 May 23 '14 at 21:39
  • Comment 2: Regarding 'most people grow up using left handed controllers and therefore it becomes natural to them'. (1) Most people of a certain age have grown up with 2-handed controllers with the joystick operated by the left thumb. There are many gamers older than those controllers and did not grow up using the left hand. (2) 'natural' implies sufficient training overcomes design flaws of a controller violating the s-r-c principle. True. With enough training most behavior becomes natural. I do not think it explains the designer's choice to put the tracking control under the left thumb. – user1757436 May 23 '14 at 21:42
  • Comment 3 - Part 1: Regarding ' it would not explain why most people prefer the right hand for countless other spacial tasks.' The difference between the use of the controller and 'countless other spacial tasks' is the difference between single-task and dual-task performance. Google 'Wickens, Multiple Resource Theory, dual task' or start with this paper. – user1757436 May 23 '14 at 21:43
  • Comment 3 - Part 2: The point is this - the gamer has at least two types of manual tasks to perform: spatial, discrete. They require different resources which, fortunately, do not conflict and are best executed by different hands. The allocation of the tasks to the left and right hand represent an optimization of task performance based on the total workload in the dual-task scenario. There is more to the situation than I just described but this comment includes two ideas on where to learn more on this topic. – user1757436 May 23 '14 at 21:44
  • This doesn't appear to answer the question. – bdsl Jan 19 '16 at 23:57

Probably the reason why the left handed joystick became the norm was because the left handed pad became the norm. Nintendo was an industry leader, and monkey see monkey do. Street Fighter had in the Arcades a "Left Vs. Right" machine. unfortunately, they couldn't duplicate it at home, because Joysticks tended to be diagonally cocked for better contour, Both the Genesis and SNES had that angle in the buttons, and rotating it 180 would require a left/right switch, and more importantly give a "back-cock" on the wrist, which is even more painful than crossing arms or just playing left handed. (By the way left handed joysticks are not painful, they are just less accurate to those who prefer Joystick right. See above story on how not only I but others of our friends beat my famous gaming friend when they used a right handed stick and he was on his pad. I was pulling off dragon punches left and right, never missing. before I had a 90% misfire rate on a dragon punch, unless I telegraphed it my making 3 distinct motions, then he just blocked So the reason I beat him was improved execution rate and speed of specials.) If you tried that with a more contoured joystick, it would both be back cocked and "smile" at you, instead of "frown" which is a normal button contour.

So when they decided to release Street fighter sticks, making it right handed would be swimming against the stream. But some people like me are Salmons. It all stems back to the Nintendo decision to make right handed pads.

But why was that decision made initially? I have 2 pieces of evidence why the NES pad was stick-left,depsite the fact that Atari defaulted stick-right. The first answer was with their game and watch, where on their patent drawing for a d-pad on a game and watch, the control was originally right handed. need proof? visit http://metopal.com/2012/01/02/nes-patents/ and scroll down until you see the first game and watch drawing. It was originally right handed.

So why did the NES pad become left-handed when the original design was right handed? Because their 4 greatest arcade hits to that point were Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Popeye, and Mario Bros. And all of THOSE were left handed. And they figured to play their games on a joypad that would be the easiest thing to do.

But why was Donkey Kong left handed? Because Donkey Kong started as a way to recycle Radaarscope machines.

What's Radarscope? A typical, forgettable (at least compared to Donkey Kong) vertical shooter. That's why the screen was vertical. And the reason why it was left handed was most people thought to put the most important and time sensitive control in the right hand. And people thoguht rapidly pressing fire meant the right hand should be fire, so the right hand was fire. Shooters that required rapid fire tended to be opposite the rest of games. When there was only one player at a time and 2 or less buttons, some arcade makers graciously game buttons on both sides of the joystick. Some arcade owners added it too and advertised it as a feature. But most didn't touch Donkey kong beause of poor coordination in scurrying up the ladders which woiuld throw off many people, eating their quarters, making shorter games and more money per hour. That's why, back in the day, I was better at Colecovision Donkey Kong than Arcade Donkey Kong, because of the left hand coordination of scurrying up the ladders in the arcade vs either hand in the Colecovision days.

As to why the initial release of the Nintendo NES control pad wasn't flippable for ambidexterity, I don't know. Maybe the L/R switch and the wiring was too much. Also Sega stumbled upon another reason when they made their right handed joystick, even though they made left handed pads. How to remap the buttons. Sega thoght their games would make more sense if the left button stayed on the left and the right stayed on the right. I know of 2 games in my collection where that would work: Tuthankham, and Pac-land, where they have fire left and fire right buttons, and run left and run right buttons, respectively. In those games, that mapping makes sense. However in most of their arcade style games, the concept of left and right is irrelevant, and the concept of main fire and auxiliary fire was FAR more important, and the main fire you wanted on your index finger, left or right handed, especially when your rapid firing. So the button would have to be swapped relative to left and right to make sense relative to the index finger. Probably Nintendo saw that problem on the horizon and didn't want to touch it. So they picked a side, stuck with it, and that's how history goes, leaving all Atari 2600 and other right-hand joystick players discombobulated. I still feel awkward playing with a Master System joystick with the rapid fire on the middle finger.

Ironically, it took an unauthorized device maker Beeshu to make ambidextrous and right handed joysticks. But Nintendo said to avoid those like the plague or else your warrantee would be voided. I don't know if Beeshu applied for a license for NES or SMS (if they even thought of accessory licensing, because Sega was making 95% of Master System games. It was a sinking ship in the US, but it was THEIR sinking ship. In Europe, it did well. In Brazil it so dominated like the NES in the US, that over there, it outlasted the Dreamcast.) and got rejected because it was seen as competing, or whether Beeshu wanted all the money to themselves, but they did get a license to make one model for Turbo Grafx 16, and I have a version of that joystick, and that joystick is the smoothest 2 button joystick I've ever played. And of couuse, it's ambidextrous. (But Pac-Land won't work right with the left buttons.)

Does Nintendo still honor NES warrantees. If not, enjoy a Beeshu joystick. What is Nintendo going to do, not honor a long-expired warrantee?


For me as a left handed gamer, though from a PC side, I use the mouse in my left hand and thus have to use my right hand for directions (wasd, or in my case the numpad 8,4,5,6) so If you a right handed gamer you would use your left hand for directions to keep your good hand on the mouse.

I had always assumed that was why, completely forgetting that there have been controllers longer than mice :P

Personally I wish I could map the right joystick on my controller to move rather than look, so I can have the mouse in the left hand and the controller in the right and get the best of both worlds :D

  • Welcome to UX.SE! Do you have an answer to the question? – Benny Skogberg Jan 20 '16 at 5:47

I've got some anecdotal evidence. During the days of the Genesis, I had a custom right handed joystick. I was with 4 friends. Usually they beat me in Street Fighter except i I beat them all thuroughly in Street Fighter: New Challengers. 3 of them tried the right handed stick. All liked it. 2 compared it to a leftie stick. They both preferred right. The one who didn't try it was famous video game champ Jamal "Zophar321" Nickens. He wouldn't acknowledge it because of his ego. This was when then Genesis was THE system. (though some would argue SNES, but that's beside the point)

Since then, I had to take some medicine whose side effect is slowing down reflexes. I'm not saying I can beat him today in either SFNC Or Ultra SF 4, and fighters have been less depenent on ability to pull off dragon punches, but my will/action ratio for pulling off Dragon Punches was literally 100 percent, compared to 30 percent with a Genesis 6 button pad, 5 percent with a Super NES and even 50 percent with a left handed stick. the secret is on the Genesis pad it place controller on the ground, and "type" directions and buttons with index and middle fingers. Can't do that with SNES.

The ultimate reason is that fingers on both hands can type or press a button press well. so you gravitate to right stick. Thumbpads tend to put rapid fire as the dominant funtion FOR THUMBS. (remember, I typed until SNES, and even then, I avoided holding the pad if I could) thumbs need to pump on button and hold the other for Mega Man. And then the momentum of Nintendo took over. Since then only 2 authorized sticks were either right stick or ambidextrous. Sega Master System joystick (but the buttons were backwards for games that didn't have a right and left action, but had an index and ring action) and the Beeshu Turbo Grafx joystick.

There's probably enogh people who'd like to try it right handed. Therefore make an ambidextrous stick with hardward based reassignable buttons. comes in handy for games that only acknowledge joypads and not sticks. Hopefully, if the company I'm scouting is reputable, they can fix a stick (long story) and sell a new model for those right stick curious. "try it right handed. If it works, you've gained an advantage. If not, you still have a nifty lefty"

Jamal, if I can convince them to mass make the stick, and want to use your sales pitch, I'd be honored if you take the right handed challenge. Practice right handed for an hour. If you get better dragon punch motions vs the CPU or an opponent, put your seal of approval on it. Even if you don't acknowledging my story could get you paid.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site. As far as I can tell, your post doesn't answer the OP's question of why game controllers are left handed. You may want to consider editing your post to answer that. – Graham Herrli May 24 '15 at 3:16

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