Input Devices for Gaming

Originally, game players on the PC used the arrow keys or letter keys on the keyboard to play all types of games; I remember putting Larry Bird and Dr. J through their paces in the original version of Electronic Arts One-on-One basketball with an 84-key keyboard! As you can imagine, this limited the number and type of games that could be played on the PC.

Analog Joysticks and the Game Port

As video standards improved, making games more realistic, input devices made especially for game play also became more and more popular. The first joysticks made for the IBM PC were similar to joysticks made for its early rival, the Apple II series. Both the IBM and Apple II joysticks were analog devices that lacked much of the positive feedback game players were accustomed to from the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, or arcade joysticks.

These joysticks also required frequent recalibration to work properly and were far from satisfactory to hardcore game players. Also, these devices required their own connector—the 15-pin game port. The game port found its way onto many sound cards as well as onto multi-I/O cards made for ISA and VL-Bus systems.

Even though joysticks began to add better features, including spring action, video game-style gamepads, and flight control options, the analog nature and slow speed of the gameport began to restrict performance as CPU speeds climbed above 200MHz and high-speed AGP and PCI video cards made ultra-realistic flying, driving, and fighting simulators possible. USB controllers offer the additional speed necessary for more sophisticated gamers.

USB Ports for Gaming

The very versatile USB port has become the preferred connector for all types of gaming controllers, including joysticks, gamepads, and steering wheels. Instead of making a single inadequate joystick work for all types of games, users can now interchange controllers using the hot-swap benefits of USB and use the best controller for each type of game.

Although a few low-end game controllers still on the market can connect to either the venerable game port or the USB port, serious gamers want USB because of its higher speed, better support for force feedback (which shakes the game controller realistically to match the action onscreen), and tilting (tilt the gamepad and the onscreen action responds).

As with USB mice, your USB-connected gaming controllers are only as good as their software drivers. Be sure to install the latest software available to keep up with the latest games.

Compatibility Concerns

If you play a lot of older games designed in the heyday of the 15-pin gameport, consider keeping a gameport-type controller. Even though the vendors of USB game controllers strive to make the USB port emulate a game port for use with older games, some older games can't be fooled. If you have problems using a USB game controller with a specific game, check the game's Web site for patches, as well as your game controller's Web site for tips and workarounds.

Programmable Game Controllers

Some of the latest controllers are programmable, enabling you to develop profiles that provide you with features such as one-button operation of keyboard shortcuts or other game commands and adjustments to range of motion. To use these profiles, be sure you install the driver software supplied with your game controller and change to the profile you have customized for a particular program whenever you start that program.

Choosing the Best Game Controller

If you're a serious gamer who likes various types of games, you might need about as many game controllers as a golfer needs clubs. An increasing number of specialized controllers are on the market, and even familiar favorites like joysticks and steering wheels are available in new variations. Table below provides a quick reference to the many types of game controllers available today for PCs.

Controller Type

Suitable For

Desirable Features

Sample Products


Action games, including flight and shooting

Force feedback; programmable actions; rudder panels

Microsoft Sidewinder Precision 2; Logitech WingMan Extreme Digital 3D; Thrustmaster Top Gun AfterBurner II Joystick

Steering wheel

Driving games

Force feedback; programmable actions; foot pedals

Microsoft Precision Racing Wheel; Logitech MOMO Force and Speed Force; Thrustmaster Force Feedback Racing Wheel-PC

Game pad

Driving and sports games

Force feedback; motion sensing; programmable buttons; mouse and keyboard emulation

Microsoft Sidewinder Freestyle Pro; Thrustmaster FireStorm Dual Power Gamepad; Logitech WingMan Rumblepad

Voice chat and control

Most multiplayer games

Voice communication with other players in a game (such as conferences with members of your team or taunting an opponent)

Microsoft Game Voice

Strategy controller

Strategy games

Programmable buttons; shortcuts; record actions as you play; can control camera movement in many 3D strategy titles

Microsoft Sidewinder Strategic Commander