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Vibration, rumble, haptics, game interfaces, force feedback, touch, tactility


Toward a Critical History of Touch Feedback in Video Games

David Parisi (College of Charleston)


Haptics technologies, which promise to let us feel and touch in computer-generated worlds, present a seductive image of more seamless, natural, and embodied interactions with computers. Such devices, however, have been long on promise and short on delivery. After its 1997 debut in Sony’s DualShock controller, dual-motor rumble quickly became the dominant mode of adding touch sensations to computing, using vibrations sent through the hands to represent on-screen events and objects. Frequently denigrated as an imperfect instantiation of haptics that will inevitably be left behind with the rise of more robust feedback systems, rumble has nevertheless endured for more than twenty years, in spite of repeated challenges from products that offer more complex and nuanced modes of touch feedback. Consequently, I suggest that rumble represents the successful and impactful domestication of haptics technology more generally, with its stability across consoles and across successive generations of console controllers smuggling a value-laden model of technologized touch into the home. Through a look back at some of the foundational promises made around haptics, I show how rumble’s interweaving of video game history and the history of haptics implicates games in a broader set of issues around the commercialization, disciplining, and legal regulation of tactility by media interfaces.

When the Controller Stopped Rumbling

In 2006, months in advance of releasing its third-generation PlayStation console, Sony brashly declared that rumble feedback would be missing from the new console’s controllers when they debuted that November. It was a striking announcement, given that Sony had been responsible for establishing vibration feedback as a standard feature of game consoles when it introduced the DualShock controller back in 1997.1 The dual-motor system used to produce vibrations in the DualShock had been subsequently imitated by Microsoft when it released its Xbox console in 2002, with games for both systems widely employing rumble effects as a way of layering touch sensations onto the images and sounds of console games. Sony president Phil Harrison justified rumble’s omission by touting the new console’s SIXAXIS controller, a gyroscopic motion-sensing system that would allow players to navigate game worlds simply by tilting the controller. Rumble, Harrison claimed, would interfere with the SIXAXIS’s ability to reliably and accurately sense the controller’s movements. According to Sony’s calculus, vibration feedback was a “last-generation feature” that would be out of place in a next-generation console.2 Although rumble’s removal may have been grounded in a purported incompatibility between the technical systems of motion-sensing input and vibration output, justifying the feature’s omission involved a full-scale denouncement and denigration of the purportedly obsolete system.

Harrison was true to his word: when Sony released its third-generation console, bundled with a SIXAXIS controller, the rumble sensations players had come to expect from their games were simply gone. Rumble’s absence was particularly glaring when playing backward-compatible PlayStation 2 games on the new console,3 as enthusiasts frequently pointed out on internet forums shortly after the console’s release. Without the tactile feedback they’d been conditioned to expect from familiar games, players often found the experience incomplete. Some even described a sort of phantom vibration effect, where they felt vibrations emanating from the controller during memorable scenes and events, even though they knew this capacity had been stripped from the device. Rumble’s much-lamented omission from the controller, however, proved to be temporary: in 2007, Sony released a new version of the controller—the DualShock 3—that included both rumble and motion sensing. The same dual-motor rumble mechanism included in the first-generation DualShock controller—with one Eccentric Rotating Mass (ERM) motor housed in each of the controller’s handles—was later carried forward into the console’s fourth-generation controllers in 2013; there are now likely around one billion rumble-enabled PlayStation controllers in circulation worldwide.4 Harrison’s pronouncement of rumble’s imminent demise, then, proved to be wildly incorrect.

Lurking in the background of Sony’s will-they-or-won’t-they drama over vibration feedback was a patent infringement lawsuit the haptics firm Immersion Corporation had filed against both Sony and Microsoft back in 2002. Immersion’s suit claimed that the dual-motor rumble mechanisms in both consoles’ controllers were a violation of two crucial Immersion Corporation patents (US patents 6,424,333 and 6,275,213; see figs. 1–4), both titled “Tactile Feedback Man-Machine Interface Device.” Microsoft moved quickly to resolve the suit, entering into a complex licensing and development agreement with Immersion in 2003 that would see them pay Immersion $20 million to license its patents and another $6 million to acquire a 10 percent stake in the company.5 Sony, however, refused to capitulate. In round after round of court battles, victories stacked up on Immersion’s side. Finally, in 2005, a California judge ordered Sony to pay Immersion $90.7 million in damages and took the even more drastic step of issuing an injunction that prevented Sony from “manufacturing, selling and/or importing into the US infringing PlayStation consoles, DualShock controllers, and 47 games that were found to infringe on one or both of the patents.”6 Sony immediately asked for a stay on the injunction’s implementation, which the court granted, citing a compelling public interest in allowing Sony to continue peddling its wares while the company appealed the ruling. During this time, Immersion CEO Victor Viegas and Sony’s Harrison waged a very public and very heated war over rumble’s value in the overall ecosystem of game experience. Harrison’s declaration that the PlayStation 3 would be released without rumble was not a result of Sony balancing two mutually exclusive features, but instead, a costly trial balloon, floated to test rumble’s importance to Sony’s audience.7 Once Sony finally relented and settled the suit—paying Immersion $97 million in damages and establishing a $22 million licensing agreement similar to Microsoft’s from 2003—the feature was seamlessly woven back in, with its year-long absence from the PlayStation a barely registered stumble in rumble’s uninterrupted march toward dominance.8

Figure 1

Patent drawing from Immersion’s US Patent 6,424,333 depicting vibrotactile units positioned around the body that could be used to simulate “water flow and wind,” with the user on the couch experiencing a beach scene in virtual reality. The lamp positioned in the corner of the drawing provides heat, simulating the sun. (Source: Mark Tremblay and Mark Yim, US Patent 6,424,333 B1, July 23, 2002)

Figure 2

Patent drawing from Immersion’s US Patent 6,424,333 depicting vibrotactile units that would be used to provide vibrations from various orchestral instruments. (Source: Mark Tremblay and Mark Yim, US Patent 6,424,333 B1, July 23, 2002)

Figure 3

Patent drawing from Immersion’s US Patent 6,424,333 depicting a user wearing a sensing glove that can feed tactile signals back to the user from the screen. The system functions as follows: “When the virtual graphical hand (1906) touches (1907) a virtual object (1905) on the monitor, the computer sends a control signal to the vibrotactile unit driver (1903) which then sends the activation signal to the vibrotactile units.” (Source: Mark Tremblay and Mark Yim, US Patent 6,424,333 B1, July 23, 2002)

Figure 4

Patent drawing from Immersion’s US Patent 6,424,333 showing the components of a vibrotactile communication system, which can be used either in conjunction with a computer monitor to relay digitally generated sensation or attached to a device that captures and transmits data from the physical world. (Source: Mark Tremblay and Mark Yim, US Patent 6,424,333 B1, July 23, 2002)

Rumble’s Unshakable Persistence

This episode, covered extensively in popular press articles at the time but absent from most game histories, focuses our attention on rumble’s complex life as a historical object: a standardized mechanism for providing touch feedback from games to players, it is under the legally enshrined control of a single corporation whose expressly stated mission—declared in the corporate tagline “We Are Haptics”—is to become synonymous with haptics technology at large. Immersion’s centrality to rumble’s story introduces the core thesis I will advance throughout this piece: rumble’s slow, gradual, and at times contested proliferation via the console controller represents the domestication of haptics technology more generally. Game controllers, without much by way of commentary from video game historians or theorists, have quietly smuggled haptics technology and its attendant assumptions about touch’s function as an information reception sense into the home, while normalizing a practiced receptivity to coded, machine-generated touch sensations. Although rumble, over its twenty-two-year history, has been frequently denigrated by members of the video game industry and hapticians alike,9 it remains the most successful and enduring application of haptics technology, capable of imparting complex haptic vocabularies through a simple system of dual-vibration motors. Consequently, the incorporation of vibration feedback into video games—which began with a select handful of arcade games in the 1980s10—meant that the trajectory of haptics development came to be bound up with and fueled by its potential uses in gaming. Despite the long-standing hope among haptics enthusiasts that the technology would be widely adopted in scientific, industrial, and medical applications, video games have remained the primary use case for haptics since the 1990s. At the same time, those in the field of academic game studies—including video game historians—have also engaged in a sort of passive neglect of rumble’s history and formal qualities, resulting in an underdeveloped account of rumble that perpetuates rather than challenges assumptions about its simplicity, while also flattening the depth of rumble’s technogenesis.

To correct this situation, I take some initial steps here toward writing the history of haptics into the history of games, with the intent of showing how rumble tacitly and explicitly implicates games in a broader set of issues around perceptual technologies, including the disciplining and training of the senses, the political economy of the sensorium, the semiotics of tactility, and the contested hegemony of vision. My aim in this piece is not to give a definitive or exhaustive account of touch feedback in games, but rather to push for a more expansive treatment of gamic touch, using rumble as the lynchpin that links the genealogy of haptics I provided in Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing to a new project that hones in more specifically on video games as a widespread instantiation and domestication of haptics technology.11 By domestication, in this context, I am referring to the process by which a given media technology is gradually “integrated into the structures, daily routines and values of users and their environments” to such an extent that it fades into the background,12 no longer treated as exotic, threatening, or wondrous. While it is difficult to identify the cultural moment at which rumble went from celebrated to banal, Sony’s (temporary) removal of the feature in 2006 prompted a wave of discussions in various internet forums where gamers actively negotiated the value vibration feedback added to gameplay, with such discourse actively shaping rumble’s social status. Although studies of domestication often rely on ethnographic observation to show how users adapt media to their everyday habits, I focus in this article mainly on the discursive construction of rumble in technical and advertising documents, situating these as cultural works vital to the movement of haptics technology out from research labs into domestic space.13

To open, I outline four orienting observations about rumble’s present status as the dominant application of haptics in games. These observations stage a move backward to outline a basic history of haptics, with an emphasis on a moment in the mid-1990s when the history of haptics collided with game history at the MIT Media Lab, several years in advance of rumble’s embedding into console controllers. From there, I ratchet up the macrolevel theoretical stakes around rumble, situating it as part of a broader project aimed at bringing about a wholesale upheaval in the established hierarchy of the mediated sensorium. I close by highlighting the crucial tension between the categorical promises made around touch feedback in games and rumble’s persistence as the default mode of gamic tactility—a tension pushed to the surface by the marketing rhetoric around the latest generation of haptic bodysuits, vests, and gloves for new virtual-reality platforms. My strategy here is to go back to the start: to return to the moment when rumble emerged as the dominant mode of touch feedback in games, so that we can get a better understanding of its present status, and to examine the way the project of haptics more generally sought to reconfigure the technologized sensorium. I hope that the preliminary historical work presented here will spark further debate and empirical research on rumble, at the exact moment when it is staring down its latest existential threat.

My first orienting observation is that rumble, throughout its long life, has consistently been targeted with claims about its obsolescence and impending demise, akin to Harrison’s suggestion above that rumble was a “last generation” feature. Such claims generally come in two flavors. In the first, critics dismiss rumble as a simplistic form of touch feedback that is ultimately superfluous and unimportant in video gaming’s overall sensory ecosystem. For example, Kudo Tsunoda, Microsoft’s General Manager of Game Studios, controversially brushed rumble aside as “a rudimentary form of haptic feedback” when asked if he was concerned that the company’s touchless Kinect controller would suffer from its inability to provide haptic feedback.14 A second variety of criticism picks up on this same purported simplicity, anticipating the emergence of more complex modes of touch feedback (such as haptic vests or gloves) that will be capable of simulating a wider range of haptic sensations, pushing rumble into the dustbin of obsolete feedback devices. Those in the field of haptics tend to be especially dismissive of rumble as an instantiation of haptics, asserting that “haptic technology is still in its infancy,” in spite of the widespread adoption of vibration feedback in video games and mobile communication devices.15 According to these narratives, haptics will not be here until it is finally capable of projecting a more fully formed body into computer-generated worlds via some Ready Player One–style haptic suit.16 Where rumble is in a state of perpetually imminent obsolescence, haptics is in a state of perpetually imminent—but perpetually deferred—arrival.17

Second, because rumble has survived these repeated existential challenges, it continues as an assumed constant of game hardware, never really improving, but also not disappearing. Rumble is just sort of persistently there, an unwavering presence in the face of much-celebrated improvements to video game graphics (higher pixel counts! better frame rates!), sounds (more channels! stronger bass!), and control schemes (motion capture! gesture recognition!). Nintendo’s HD Rumble for Switch controllers attracted some excited attention around the time of the console’s release, but the feature quickly receded from the headlines, taken as an iterative step rather than a transformative one. In the transition from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One, Microsoft added two new motors—“Impulse Triggers” located in the shoulder buttons—to the console’s controller, and in spite of some positive press at release time,18 these have generally gone underused by developers.19 Some games do rumble notably well, and others implement it annoyingly poorly. However, an individual title won’t succeed because of best-in-class rumble effects, and no game has ever failed because of bad rumble design, in part because almost every game gives players the ability simply disable rumble if they find it disagreeable. No one waits with bated breath at the annual game awards shows to see who will take home the prize for best haptic effects because (a) no such prize exists, and (b) the game’s lead director typically does not know who on the team was responsible for coding its rumble sensations. Rumble is such an essential part of the sensory environment of console gaming that its presence recedes into the background, with rare moments such as the SIXAXIS saga serving as antienvironmental events to remind us that it’s been there all along. It seems, then, as if rumble has been succeeding for the past three decades simply by surviving, simply by enduring, rather than by thriving. As I show later in the article, the current complacency around rumble stands in contrast to the hopeful enthusiasm surrounding the introduction of force feedback in games twenty-five years ago.

Third, although rumble’s stagnation across multiple generations of consoles may be viewed as limiting by some critics, we can conversely understand this stability as generative, with rumble’s enabling constraints leading to a wide range of cultural, material, and technical formations. These formations include: (1) the concretization of best practices for vibration feedback design among game developers; (2) the acquisition of vocabularies of touch that are constant across particular games and game genres;20 (3) the development of haptic effects editing tools that visualize tactile sensations and allow for easy design of rumble effects; (4) the emergence of a dedicated hacker and modder community around rumble, along with the creation of artworks that make use of rumble material affordances;21 (5) the enshrining of rumble as a legal object (due to the Immersion patents and the related lawsuit); and (6) the settling of supply chains around the production of the two vibration motors used in rumble-enabled controllers. Each of these formations presents the opportunity for further empirical investigation that would help to put flesh on rumble’s presently skeletal archive. And in isolation, such formations vary in their degree of significance. But taken together, they suggest that rumble, precisely because of its stability across multiple generations of consoles and controllers, has already brought important and long-lasting changes to the organization of the mediated sensorium that we have yet to seriously and systematically confront, precisely because we assume that rumble anticipates the development of some future, superior mode of touch feedback computing.

My fourth and final orienting observation concerns this paucity of systematic and programmatic knowledge about rumble. Even as it continues to be steered mainly by a single corporation, rumble is defined not by the presence of any single unifying historiography or theoretical account, but instead by a set of conspicuous absences: the absence of anything beyond a cursory history that would expand and complicate what are conventionally thought of as the tributaries of game technologies; the absence of an archive of materials (hardware, design documents, advertisements, user studies, etc.) that could consolidate knowledge about its origins; the absence of a canon to showcase rumble’s expressive potential; the absence of a formalized and readily accessible language for categorizing rumble effects; the absence of a theoretical framework for thinking through its epistemological and phenomenological ramifications; and the absence of standards for classifying different tiers of rumble feedback (terms like HD Rumble used for the Switch Joycons and HD Haptics used for the Steam Controller are empty marketing speak that feign precision by borrowing terminology from visual and audio media).22 Even the term rumble itself lacks a set of stabilizing definitions, operating as a semiformal designator—an imperfect resolution to the debate over whether vibration feedback technically constitutes a type of force feedback. And technically it doesn’t: force feedback refers to the application of force through the interface, typically using a steering wheel or joystick, to simulate real-world experiences of movement and resistance. But it’s mostly those in the haptics field who want to die on this hill, while nonspecialists and especially those writing popular press accounts of the technology have been content with a conflation of rumble with force feedback. The industry continues to fluctuate between terms: in Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, for example, rumble motors are controlled through “force feedback effects assets,” while the haptic feedback in Nintendo’s aforementioned JoyCon is branded as HD Rumble, and Unity uses the more descriptive term vibration. Twenty-two years later, then, rumble still bears the imprint of Nintendo’s branding via its first-to-market Rumble Pak, even with Sony’s subsequent attempt to use the language of shock to distinguish its dual-motor variant, beginning with the launch of its DualShock controller in 1997.23 In June 2019, Netflix made headlines by announcing that its developers completed work on Project Rumble Pak, an experimental add-on for Netflix’s mobile app that adds vibration effects to video content watched on a smartphone screen, not by adding new hardware (as Nintendo’s original Rumble Pak did), but instead by patching the Netflix app so that it could control the smartphone’s existing vibration motor.24 The takeaway here is that the situation becomes murkier with each new product release. Marketers ratchet up the stakes for the purported accuracy and impact of new feedback mechanisms with overinflated promissory rhetoric; engineers rail in frustration against imprecision in the vernacular use of specialist technical terms; and game journalists, working under pressure to make touch technologies legible to their readers while satisfying the demands of an attention-driven economy that traffics in sensationalism at the expense of accuracy,25 attempt to connect these disparate narratives. Those of us working in academic game studies, too, form our histories of rumble and theories of gamic touch from a scattered archive and a set of imprecise definitions. Rumble, then, exists in a strange liminal space: it is produced by a material component of the game controller that is present at hand but hidden from view. Everyone who has played a console game knows what rumble feels like, yet I suspect that very few players have ever broken a controller open to look at the two motors responsible for producing those touch sensations.26

Neglect alone, however, is not sufficient cause to warrant scholarly attention. Perhaps the conspicuous absence of programmatic research on rumble is merely a consequence of it not being all that compelling as an object of investigation; maybe rumble’s detractors have been correct all along in asserting that touch feedback in games will only get interesting once we’ve moved beyond rumble, once we’ve made good on those lofty promises to bring a full-formed haptic system into computer-generated worlds. Maybe there’s just no there there.

Throughout this article, I advance the opposing argument, showing what can be gained by making rumble a focal point of dedicated historical analysis and archival organization. Writing rumble’s history is not simply a matter of completing an incomplete record. Nor should the goal be to provide a definitive and authoritative origin story for this mode of gamic touch. Rather, the historical study of rumble shows how the interface between controller and hand became a contested site—a space where power relations between competing corporate actors were expressed and negotiated; where ideas about the strategic utility of touch in an economy of information circulation were articulated; and where subjectivities have been imparted, formed, and resisted. As with technologies that transmit images and sounds, technologies that transmit touch involve the circulation and propagation not just of messages but also of power and power relations. Moreover, the tacit claim that touch can have its own dedicated set of technical media provides a radical rejoinder to conventional media histories that narrowly define media as involving the circulation of messages relayed through the eyes and ears. Histories of game hardware largely reflect this audiovisualist research agenda, emphasizing the genesis of video game graphics and sounds while neglecting to consider the possibility that the production of gamic touch, too, has a textured history worthy of deeper archival research and programmatic investigation.27 In short, we can read the absence of any dedicated history of gamic touch—twenty-two years after rumble’s debut and standardization—as symptomatic of the field’s bias toward audiovisuality.

Treating rumble—and haptics more generally—as part of game history opens the field up to broader questions about the political economy of the mediated sensorium, prompting a reflection on the constitution of media as a distinct category of technology. Rumble, as the domestication of haptics technology, provides a material and empirical counter to the theoretical argument—circulated in aesthetics, in psychology, and in media studies—that touch is a sense hostile to mediation.28 Beyond merely completing and correcting the historical record, attending to rumble’s complex life as a contested object pushes the historical study of games to confront what medical historian Robert Jütte understands as the use value that particular senses take on in a given epoch.29 Rumble, by ordering touch as a mechanism for both increasing the affective bonding of players to game worlds and a way for game machines to more efficiently route information to players, links game interfaces to the ongoing project of instrumentalizing, rationalizing, and commodifying tactility identified by scholars working in the field of sensory studies. By neglecting touch, game historians have unwittingly participated in an inaccurate and ahistorical narrative that situates tactility as natural, intuitive, counterrational, and countermediatic; weaving the archive of haptics into the archive of game history undoes this error, forcing a confrontation with the power relations expressed through rumble.

As noted above, discussions of rumble and gamic touch are characterized by ambiguity and fuzziness, lacking in agreed-on meaning and common vocabulary. Such definitional imprecision and multiplicity echoes the meanings of touch, which frequently slip among a variety of definitions, sometimes referring to an affective feeling, while at other points designating a site of physical contact between bodies, and still at other moments indicating a sort of synesthetic translation between sense modalities.30 These confusions and slippages around the meaning of touch have been well chronicled in the growing literature on touch, and engaging with them is beyond my scope in this article.31 I raise them instead to first show how rumble shares certain genetic traits with the discourse around touch more generally, and second, to provide game historians a way around this confusion by isolating and confining touch feedback as a discrete object of historical investigation and theoretical analysis. Steve Swink’s formulation of game feel is emblematic here: although “game feel is the tactile, kinesthetic sense of manipulating a virtual object,”32 his operationalization of this concept often slips away from the material tactility of game sensations, highlighting instead gamic experiences that are greater than the sum of their perceptual and sensory components. In response, I suggest that, due to its standardization and domestication, dual-motor rumble should be the focal point of an investigative program around gamic touch, related to although distinct from other modes of vibration and touch feedback in games. Because of the many objects, devices, and experiences it excludes, this is an admittedly limiting approach, but one that has the advantage of allowing us to construct a coherent and targeted body of knowledge around rumble. I therefore embrace rumble as a shorthand for the dual-motor system common across controllers for the Xbox, PlayStation, and PC. Part of my argument concerns the material specificity of rumble: it is not just that rumble is a physical characteristic of game hardware, in the form of these two differently sized motors, but also that rumble motors are driven by software that connects the tactile elements of games to their audiovisual counterparts, establishing firm links between visual, audio, and tactile signifiers. Alternatively, we might approach a genealogy of tactile feedback systems by stimulus type (the literature on tactile communication extensively debates the merits of electrical stimulation over vibration stimulation, for example), by the part of the body the feedback system targets (haptic vests act on the torso; rumble localizes touch to the hands; some bodysuits act on the limbs as well; the PG2 PlayStation-themed shoes from Nike—although not game controllers themselves—come equipped with vibration motors for the feet), or we may wish to reject this materialist, hegemonic segmentation of the senses altogether (a move Teddy Pozo makes in their formulation of counterhaptics, where haptic media producers provide “haptic critiques of haptic media”33). My point here is not to insist on one singular approach, but instead to carve dual-motor rumble off as a specific historical and material formation in order to more fully appreciate the complex nexus of issues at stake in its technogenesis.

The Colliding Histories of Games and Haptics

As a positive response to the conspicuous absence of historical work on rumble, I spend the remainder of this article situating rumble’s development in a macrohistorical context, linking it first to the project of haptics more generally, and then to the more specific mission of incorporating touch feedback into video games. While rumble embodies a consequential domestication of haptics technology, it also represents a diminution of the lofty and transformative hopes imagined around touch feedback computing. These intertwined aims of radical transformation through domestication are still in tension today, as the revolutionary promise of new haptic gloves and bodysuits developed for virtual reality is blunted by the practical challenges of successfully bringing a more complete version of the haptic system into computer-generated environments. Haptics technology, as “the next frontier in video games, wearables, and mobile electronics,”34 will only have arrived with the successful domestication of devices that provide more robust haptic experiences than rumble is capable of—but the domestication of such devices has remained enduringly impractical, in spite of sustained efforts by game developers and interface designers over the last twenty-five years.

The field of haptics initially developed as a subfield of psychophysical psychology in the late nineteenth century, formally defined as “the doctrine of touch with concomitant sensations and perceptions—as optics is the doctrine of sight, and acoustics that of hearing” by the experimental psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener in the 1901 volume of James Baldwin’s Dictionary of Psychology and Philosophy.35 Titchener articulated haptics as a doctrine in response to the growing body of empirical research on touch that his fellow psychologists had carried out during the preceding half century. Haptics—as a scientific program for studying the tactile senses—ordered touch as a set of discrete but intertwined information reception systems that take in data about the physical world. Using specialized laboratory apparatuses that each targeted a different submodality of touch, hapticians embraced the idea that touch’s inner workings could be revealed through progressively more intensive programs of empirical observation, which involved subjecting both hapticians and their human guinea pigs to a range of artificial stimuli that included electric shocks, ice-water enemas, and sharpened compass points pressed against the skin (see fig. 5 for examples).36 As psychophysics—or “the new psychology” as it was dubbed at the time37—did to the senses more generally, haptics aimed at uncovering the smallest perceptible changes in sensory stimuli, offering the concept of the “just-noticed difference” (JND) as a basic building block in the psychotechnics of perception.38 The JND prefigured the later emergence of cybernetics and information science; by isolating the smallest bits of information perceptible by the senses, psychophysics provided a map of the senses that proved vital to information theory and the development of technical media in the twentieth century.39 However, this research on touch had little practical utility in its early years, producing a progressively more accurate accounting of the tactile system’s capacity for discerning different sensations, without any defined application for this accrued knowledge. The situation changed a bit in the mid-twentieth century, when experimental attempts to use the sense of touch for the communication of sounds, images, and words sparked new interest in the discriminatory capacities of the skin.40 But for most of the century, the scientific study of touch remained a marginalized area of inquiry, with researchers frequently articulating feelings of isolation and detachment from their parent field of psychology.

Figure 5

Ensemble of Dermal Apparatuses. A collection of instruments used to study the tactile senses at Clark University in the late 1800s. (Source: Clark University Archives, Worcester, MA)

However, those self-conscious attempts by researchers from the 1950s on at transforming touch in a so-called communicative sense (by which proponents meant a sense that could function as a receiver of coded messages) seeded the field’s gradual mutation throughout the twentieth century into an engineering field concerned with developing utilitarian applications for this science of touch. A critical inflection point for this field came in the 1990s,41 when Mandayam Srinivasan established the Laboratory for Human and Machine Haptics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (less formally known as the Touch Lab) and subsequently announced that this “new discipline” of computer haptics should be concerned with “generating and rendering haptic stimuli to the human user” in the same way that the field of computer graphics seeks to advance and refine the generation and rendering of visual stimuli.42 This formulation of computer haptics as analogous to computer graphics recapitulated the formulation of haptics as analogous to optics and acoustics a century earlier: in both cases, the structured application of scientific methods and apparatuses was understood to be the means of evolving the primitive sense of touch into something more compatible with the prevailing epistemology of the day. Unlike haptics research in the late 1800s, however, the potential utility of computer haptics was both immense and immediate; its proponents hailed the new field as a means of transforming the way we interacted with computer-generated worlds that could also upend our understanding of the relationship between perceptual modalities. In Srivinasan and Cagatay Basdogan’s foundational article declaring the arrival of the new field, they outlined applications for the technology in a range of areas, including medicine, education, industry, graphic arts, and entertainment.

We do not, then, have to search for long to find video game history lurking around literally in the backyard at this vital moment in the formal articulation of haptic interfacing as a discrete domain of empirical investigation: one of the groundbreaking projects undertaken at MIT was Margaret Minsky’s Sandpaper System for the computerized simulation of textures via a haptic joystick (fig. 6). Before beginning her doctoral work at MIT, Minsky had worked for Atari Cambridge Research Labs (ACRL), participating in the design of Atari’s Hard Drivin’ arcade game, which employed vibration motors to provide tactile sensations, transmitted through the game’s steering wheel. It was partially as a result of Minksy’s efforts that the term haptic came into more frequent use as a general descriptor for touch feedback technologies, which had previously been referred to as kinesthetic displays, tactile computer graphics, force feedback, and physically tangible graphics.43 Minsky’s dissertation work embodied the crucial intersection of two fields—psychophysics and computer science—to form computer haptics, with luminary expert in the psychophysics of haptic perception Susan Lederman serving as her dissertation supervisor, and computer-science pioneer Frederick Brooks—who had built one of the first force feedback computing displays at Chapel Hill back in the late 1960s and collaborated with Minsky on force display research in the 1980s—as an external reader.44 Minsky’s sprawling “Haptics Bibliography,” which she made publicly available through MIT’s website, provided a generative snapshot of a rapidly cohering research domain, with over two hundred references to haptics-related literature in robotics, computing, and psychology (see fig. 7 for examples). As with forward movement in any field, the history of haptics should not be reduced to single actors, and Minsky’s narration of the pathway that led to her interest in haptics maps a range of related contemporaneous projects.45 Nevertheless, Minsky was uniquely positioned: her father Marvin, known for his work on artificial intelligence, had coined the term telepresence in 1980, after a decade of building remotely controlled robotic limbs. In the article where he first proposed the term, Minsky suggested that more effort should be devoted to encoding and transmitting touch sensations, speculating that “someone could develop … devices for telepresence—vibrating patterns that would convey sensations of ‘hot’ or ‘cold.’” What he perceived as a paucity of knowledge about touch (“very little is known about tactile sensations”)46 had left them in a curious situation, unable to feed complex tactile sensations back from a remote limb to its human operator. “We have nothing,” Minsky lamented, “that can translate feel into feel.”47

Figure 6

Minsky’s Sandpaper System, which repurposed the joystick developed at Atari Cambridge Research Lab to serve as a device for perceiving computer-generated textures. (Source: Margaret Minsky et al., “Feeling and Seeing: Issues in Force Display,” I3D '90 Proceedings of the 1990 Symposium on Interactive 3D Graphics 24, no. 2 [1990]: 235)

Figure 7

Sample references from Margaret Minsky’s Haptics Bibliography. These references illustrate the way that the field had matured and cohered by the mid-1990s, in advance of rumble’s debut in the DualShock. (Source: Margaret Minsky, “Haptics Bibliography,”

The work of bringing force feedback to video games carried out at Atari Games Corporation—using a large motor to simulate the sensation of forces transferred from a car’s tires to its steering wheel as it moved across a computer-generated road (see figs. 8 and 9)—was a far cry from the fine-grained encoding of tactile sensations that would be required for the elder Minsky’s robot hands to pass back detailed information about remote objects to their operator. And a practical, embodied knowledge of how it actually felt to drive a car proved to be more useful to the design and refinement of Hard Drivin’s force feedback system than the abstract understanding of touch’s inner workings pursued by psychologists since the late 1800s (lead designer Max Behensky recruited Doug Milliken, a renowned expert in car modeling, to help ensure that the experience felt as true to driving a real car as they could make it; see fig. 10).48 But in addition to this force feedback steering wheel, Behensky and Milliken, during their time at ACRL, also designed and built an early prototype of the “simple direct-drive, force-feedback joystick” that Margaret Minsky would later use in her doctoral project.49 Recalling the trajectory of this research, she cited the dominance of the joystick interface in video games of that era as the central motivator for building Behensky and Milliken’s force feedback system around that configuration.50 To test and showcase the joystick, the Atari research team wrote simple games, including a program where the player navigated through a maze using forces communicated through the joystick, and a fishing game where the joystick simulated the tug of fish pulling on a line.51 After the Atari Cambridge Research Lab folded, this work on touch feedback computing splintered, migrating to Vivarium (a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and Apple Computer) and to Atari Games Corporation (where Behensky and Milliken built Hard Drivin’52). The histories of haptics and the history of games, then, were inextricably linked, as Minsky repurposed what had initially been intended as a gaming device (see fig. 11) for her research on the tactile perception of texture through computer haptics.

Figure 8

Patent image for the force feedback mechanism used in Atari’s Hard Drivin’ game. (Source: Milton Loper III, US Patent 5,203,563, April 20, 1993)

Figure 9

Patent image for the force feedback mechanism used in Atari’s Hard Drivin’ game. (Source: Milton Loper III, US Patent 5,203,563, April 20, 1993)

Figure 10

Print advertisement for Atari’s Hard Drivin’ arcade game.

Figure 11

Margaret Minsky’s Sandpaper System encodes ideas about the psychophysical processes involved in the haptic perception of textures. (Source: Margaret Minsky, “Computational Haptics: The Sandpaper System for Synthesizing Texture for a Force-Feedback Display” [PhD diss., MIT, 1995], 15)

There is much more to be learned from probing this diffused archive further. But I want to drill down on one crucial detail pertinent to work on touch feedback in games at the time, which is related to the eventual migration of vibration feedback into console controllers via the rumble mechanism. Although we can retrospectively situate this pioneering work on force feedback in video games as part of the emerging field of computer haptics, the initial design of force and vibration feedback for games required much more engineering know-how than it did knowledge of the psychology and physiology of tactile perception. Haptics—as the science of touch—was unnecessary for the day-to-day activity of coding force and vibration feedback, even though it was increasingly linked to the project of bringing touch to video games both in spirit and by a series of increasingly tangled corporate machinations. With the widespread adoption of rumble for the PlayStation and Xbox controllers, layering the code that would produce haptic sensations onto the code that produced images and sounds became a routinized form of labor in game design (what I have in another context framed as “the labor of haptification”53). Using the palette of tactile sensations provided by rumble’s two motors, as with Behensky and Milliken’s work on Hard Drivin’, did not require any of the specialized knowledge about the thresholds of tactile perception that hapticians had struggled so doggedly to uncover over the previous century. It is difficult to overstate how much sustained effort the designers of tactile communication systems devoted to uncovering these “building blocks” for vibrotactile languages during the twentieth century:54 each new apparatus—from Robert Gault’s teletactor in the 1920s to Frank Geldard’s vibratese system in the 1950s and on to Paul Bach-y-Rita’s tactile television device in the 1970s—brought its own battery of tests intended to probe the specific capacities of the skin to notice and not notice the differences between applied tactile stimuli.55 This was a rigorously and fiercely empirical project, with each new machine understood to be facilitating a revision of existing theories about the possibilities for communication through the skin.56 And the rise of computer haptics in the 1990s revitalized the project, providing fresh infusions of intellectual energy and funding sources. This research, however, unfolded largely independent of work on rumble.

One might contend that rumble’s simplicity makes a precise scientific knowledge of tactile thresholds superfluous. However, this perspective downplays the vast capabilities of the dual-motor system (fig. 12). Each of the ERM motors in an Xbox controller, for instance, can be assigned a value ranging from 0 to 65,535, with the heavier and lighter motors working in conjunction to output a wide array of sensation.57 Because the two channels are not discrete—vibrations produced by the left motor are not strictly localized to the left hand—their outputs combine to form a single haptic sign. Taken together, it is mathematically possible to generate 4,282,908,855 different combinations of outputs. A strictly psychophysical approach would try to ascertain how many different combinations of outputs a player can differentiate between and then design rumble sensations with those parameters ready at hand.58 The practice of rumble design, however, builds upon no such cultivated wisdom. Even the sort of embodied haptic knowledge Milliken brought to the table in the design of Hard Drivin’ is typically absent from the labor of coding for rumble; what combination of vibrations from the large and the small motor can approximate the feeling of a sword striking flesh? And how many haptic programmers have an embodied referent for this sensation at their disposal? This is not meant as a damning criticism of rumble’s inaccuracy, but rather is intended to contrast the precision sought by hapticians with the ad hoc way rumble is often added to video games. While the field of computer haptics and the design of force feedback systems for games have intersecting origins, forward progress in haptics research over the past two decades has likely had little impact on the day-to-day activity of adding rumble to games. Rumble, as a coding practice, exists independent of haptics as the psychophysical isolation and quantification of touch. Conversely, rumble as a successfully commodified instantiation of touch technology cannot be divorced from haptics as a series of corporate claims of control over technologized touch.

Figure 12

The dual-motor rumble system for the PlayStation controller, showing the smaller and larger motor (controller pictured is a PlayStation compatible third-party controller). (Source: author image)

“An Entirely New Type of Game”: The Imagined Futures of Touch Feedback

When rumble debuted in 1997, excitement about the potential of haptics technology to transform games was just beginning to bubble up, even if the term haptics itself was infrequently used to describe the technology. Much of the hype centered on force feedback joysticks—akin to the one Minsky used for her dissertation research—that could be programmed to simulate physical sensations from game worlds via motors that created resistance as the user moved the joystick. Popular press articles—which often parroted the claims of haptics proponents—typically described touch feedback as transformative rather than additive, situating it as an entirely new mode of interacting with video games. As one journalist, gushing about the immense potential of adding touch to games, wrote: “more than any other advance in controller technology, force feedback joysticks promise to open up whole new ways of experiencing a video or computer game.”59 These enthusiastic declarations about the forthcoming addition of touch feedback to video games might seem on the surface to be nothing more than garden-variety technoutopianism. However, juxtaposing these claims with predictions from the 1960s and 1970s about the potential of haptics technologies more generally brings three specific, dramatic consequences forecasted about the technology into view.

The first claim about touch technology concerned the ability to extend the body—complete with a fully functioning haptic system—into computer-generated space. Ivan Sutherland, in a famous address outlining his vision of an “ultimate display,” took this to mean that a computer would be able to synthesize any haptic sensation for its user: “a chair,” Sutherland explained, would be “good enough to sit in,” while handcuffs would be “confining” and “a bullet … would be fatal.” The haptic simulation would exist in perfect fidelity to the real. Recalling Sutherland’s imaginary, Immersion Corporation president and founder Louis Rosenberg, in a 1996 interview, touted the company’s forthcoming release of a force feedback joystick that would “simulate the real physical dynamics of anything; gravity, a texture, a spring, or a car crash.”60 The dream of haptic realism was predicated on the continued engineering of progressively more complex haptic devices, with Sutherland’s ultimate display as the imagined endpoint. And as Sutherland’s presence here suggests, these intertwined histories—of video game haptics and haptics more generally—are nested in the broader history of virtual reality, guided by a pervasive fantasy of immersion through the computerized simulation of the senses.61

A second claim asserted that new touch feedback technologies would be able to successfully challenge vision’s dominance in the episteme of mediated communication. The addition of haptics to computing would not simply complement audiovisuality but disrupt and dethrone it. Michael Noll’s framing, offered in his 1971 dissertation on touch feedback computing, exemplifies this perspective: “man-machine tactile communication ... emerges not as a supplement for computer-generated visual displays but primarily as an entirely-new man-machine communication medium of vast importance for its own unique abilities to represent surfaces and objects.” Touch, for Noll, would not work in concert with vision but instead provide a countervailing mode of encountering computational data: “the tactile channel is a competitor to the visual channel, and this situation is something new to the field of computer science” (emphasis added).62 Noll’s hopes about the disruptive potential of haptics would be echoed in the pages of Next Generation twenty-five years later regarding force feedback in games, with one writer noting a trend of “game designers … starting to question the validity of a hyper realistic driving sim if you can only see and hear—but not feel—the action” (emphasis added). Graphics, the author suggested, had reached their apex, with appeals to touch ready to take their place as the primary selling point of games: “the technology exists for an entirely new type of game, where feel replaces graphics as the premium experience delivery mechanism” (emphasis added). With this upheaval in the sensory configuration of the interface, “gamers can then look forward to a true revolution in gaming,” a claim later echoed in the promotional copy for force feedback devices (see fig. 13).63

Figure 13

Box art for Microsoft’s Sidewinder force feedback joystick, produced in partnership with Immersion Corporation. The copy situates force feedback as opening up a dimension of reality that exists “beyond sight and sound.”

A third promise built on the previous two in suggesting that touch feedback would not only recreate and synthesize realistic haptic sensations—a sort of photorealism for touch—but that haptics technologies would go a step farther, allowing for the experience of tactile experiences that were completely foreign to humans. In William Atkinson at al.’s essay “Computing with Feeling,” the authors claimed that the limits biology places on tactile experience can be overcome and transcended through tactile interfaces, leading not just to an entirely new type of touch experience, but further, to a transformation in the constitution of touch itself.64 Writing over twenty years later, Minsky reiterated Atkinson et al.’s claims about the surreal and hyperreal possibilities opened up by touch feedback, speculating on how this would play out specifically in video games: “In the future, imagine these scenarios. Pocket pets are popular—whose fur you can stroke? Clay studios are popular—what about feeling clay on a pottery wheel from home? Rainforest sleep settings on clock/radios are popular—what about feeling the warm breeze? Current entertainment designers can ask ‘What if you could feel like you are piloting a race car, an airplane, a submarine?’ Research in novel haptic interaction techniques will let entertainers ask ‘What if you could become a tumbleweed, a bird, a dolphin?’”65

Taken together, these three claims established a lofty mission for video game haptics that a spate of devices at the time seemed poised to complete. In 1994, Aura Systems released its Interactor vest as a peripheral for game consoles, allowing players to “feel punches, explosions, kicks, uppercuts, slam-dunks [sic], crashes, bodyblows [sic] and more” by converting game audio into vibrations transmitted through the vest’s motors (fig. 14).66 Over the next half decade, several companies (including Immersion Corporation, Microsoft, and Logitech) partnered to produce a range of touch feedback–enabled gaming devices, including force feedback joysticks (such as Microsoft’s famous Sidewinder) and haptics-enabled computer mice (notably, Logitech’s iFeel Mouse; see fig. 15), suggesting that a wave of haptics devices would soon come crashing into living rooms everywhere. A 1997 Gamasutra article, regrettably titled “Cop a Feel …with Haptic Peripherals,” opened with a definition of haptic and proceeded to lay out detailed guidelines for developers who wanted to program for the bountiful force feedback joysticks and steering wheels that were just about to hit the market (see fig. 16).67 In this context, rumble’s arrival seemed to be an iterative and temporary step along the pathway to the eventual emergence of something much more substantial and robust than spinning motors that could only vaguely hint at the rich sensations they were meant to signify. However, none of these competing feedback mechanisms, before or after rumble’s debut, was able to achieve its widespread deployment. And no device has managed to deliver on the vast, revolutionary promises made around haptics.

Figure 14

Box art for the Aura Interactor virtual reality gaming vest.

Figure 15

Box art for Logitech’s iFeel Mouse, produced in partnership with Immersion Corporation (2000).

Figure 16

List of available haptics devices in 1997. (Source: Chuck Walters, “Cop a Feel… with Haptic Peripherals,” Gamasutra , December 19, 1997,

The Political Economy of Stagnant Haptics

I close this story by making a rough cut to the present, with rumble facing an existential threat from a new generation of haptics peripherals for virtual reality—including haptic bodysuits, vests, and gloves—that resuscitate the transformative mission of haptics. Many of the same claims mobilized around the potential of touch technology in the 1990s are echoed in the advertising copy and marketing rhetoric for these devices; some companies have even embraced the previously obscure term haptics in their branding (notably, UltraHaptics, which makes a device that creates tangible holograms using what it refers to as “mid-air haptics,” and HaptX, which produces a motion-capture force feedback glove capable of simulating temperatures, textures, and shapes). The 2018 cinematic adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One prominently featured a haptics-enabled bodysuit throughout the film, prompting a wave of speculation in the popular press that we were inching closer to an inevitable moment where we would be able feel the sort of lifelike sensations in VR that Sutherland had imagined over fifty years ago.68 It is too early in the life cycles of these new products to know if they will have any staying power or if games will end up as their primary use case;69 as of this writing, the only haptic bodysuit brought to market for this recent generation of VR platforms has already been discontinued.70 Reports of rumble’s demise, then, remain as premature now as they were a decade ago: the ERM motors that provide rumble’s material foundation have even migrated to VR, found as standard components in the controllers for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

One of the questions that hapticians must grapple with when thinking about the history of haptics concerns precisely this stagnation of progress around commercial applications of the technology. The stalled state of commercial applications stands in stark contrast to the swelling body of knowledge produced by the field: the number of scholarly publications related to haptics technology has increased from roughly 250 in 1995 to over 4,500 in 2015 and over 7,200 in 2018;71 there are journals, book series, and conferences dedicated to making progress on solving the complex engineering problems around touch feedback computing; and new streams of capital are flowing into the bourgeoning haptics industry. Gaming, as its primary and most long-standing commercial application, provides sort of a microcosm of the haptics field more generally: despite massive amounts of research and investment and experimentation and hype and promise, as in the examples cited above, we are left with rumble. Why? We might offer speculative cultural responses to this question (“we’re still not ready for more robust instantiations of haptics technologies”) or technical ones that highlight the need for more intense programs of research and development (bringing realistic haptics to VR, according to Oculus chief scientist—and longtime game programmer—Michael Abrash, would require “breakthrough research” that was not on the short-term horizon in 2015, and still remains elusive four years later72).

These explanations, I suspect, only get us partway there. A more complete picture emerges by returning to the episode with which I opened this article: Sony’s protracted legal battle with Immersion Corporation. David’s series of courtroom victories over Goliath validated Immersion’s strategy of aggressively pursuing violations of its growing haptics patents stable. As haptic feedback became a more prominent feature of mobile phones, smartphone touchscreens, and wearables, Immersion targeted manufacturers of those devices using the same tactics they’d practiced in the cases against Sony and Microsoft: file an infringement claim, use the court battle to pressure the company into a licensing agreement, and then use funds from that agreement to develop and acquire more haptics patents. In addition to Microsoft and Sony, Immersion has sued Apple, FitBit, HTC, Google, Samsung, and other major digital media companies. Immersion continues to maintain an active influence on new gaming technologies, planting its flag firmly in VR first by releasing a development tool intended to provide an easy interface for programming vibration cues for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (see fig. 17), and second, by entering into a licensing agreement with Sony that allows Sony to use Immersion’s haptics technology for gaming and VR controllers.73 Rumble’s life as a legal object has likely had consequences both for development of haptics in games and for the commercialization of haptics more broadly, as Immersion’s pugnaciousness forced innovation in the haptics sphere to pass through its funnel (see figure 18).74

Figure 17

Promotional image of Immersion Corporation’s TouchSense Force.

Figure 18

Partial list of Immersion Corporation’s 3,500 patents.

Rumble as a Semiotic Regime

It appears, then, that we are left with rumble, in all its glorious apparent simplicity. The enduring significance of rumble’s domestication, I suggest, involves its stabilization as a semiotic regime—a system of tactile signifiers that players assimilate themselves to, through a complex process of machinic language acquisition.75 My perspective echoes Maurizio Lazzarato’s formulation of media as “signifying machines” that depend on producing new forms of machinic and mediatic subjectivity that reinforce rather than disrupt capitalist processes of value extraction. Cinema, for instance, operates by “suspending perceptions and the habitual coordinates of vision, making the sensorimotor system malfunction.”76 In this respect, cinema once held the capacity to cultivate a new and disruptive subjectivity that would threaten the operation of conventional semiotics. But cinema’s threat to the ordering of associations between objects and their referents was quickly neutralized through its incorporation into the culture industry. Instead of being disruptive, film images become “focal points of subjectification,” with the cinematic apparatus producing a new type of rationalized subject of media machines, one who responds to the constant flow of sensorimotor malfunctions in a routinized and manageable way. Through the routinization and management of responses to otherwise disorienting sensory stimuli, the cinematic subject came to generate value for the commercial film industry; the internalization of these perceptual habits and dispositions is the sensory foundation upon which the entire cinematic economy rests.

Building on Lazarrato’s argument, we can take this claim that media involve processes of submission to machinic signification systems as a prompt to suggest that rumble’s often-denigrated stability operates as a disciplining mechanism of the game interface. Like cinema, we can think of rumble—as a subset of haptics technologies more generally—as having a disruptive potential that is neutralized and constrained by its embedding in the apparatus of the commercial video game industry. The potentially disorienting and disruptive tactile chaos of vibrations resulting from the whirling motors in the controller’s handles acquires structure from the images and sounds affixed to them. Rumble is offered not as a challenge to the ocularcentric ordering of the senses by media (as Noll implied), but instead as a means to anchor, confirm, and reinforce the visual. If rumble’s stability is generative, as I have maintained, then part of what it generates is a neutralization of the categorical threat haptics posed to the ocularcentric ordering of the senses—a blunting of the disruptive impact haptics was intended to have on the organization of the mediated sensorium.

Program for a Historiography of Rumble

Throughout this article, I have used rumble as a means of bringing the history of haptics into dialogue with the history of games; my aim in doing so is to show the value of making this overlooked component of the game interface a subject of dedicated investigation. Going forward, I suggest that game historians and game theorists treat rumble simultaneously as (1) a technical system with a history rooted in mid-twentieth-century efforts to transmit information through the sense of touch; (2) a language—or more accurately, an assortment of languages, with haptic vocabularies associated with specific games and game genres—that addresses players as informatic subjects; (3) a disciplinary mechanism predicated on players acclimating themselves to the reception of machinic tactile sensations; (4) a set of legal and economic arrangements necessary for rumble’s continued presence in game systems; and (5) a perceptual technology ideated as a means of threatening and upending the hegemony of vision in media systems by replacing it with an epistemology of touch. Rumble provides the haptic unconscious of video games, creating systems of meaning that are assimilated to although largely unnoticed, while also quietly importing a hegemonic, technicist model of touch through the game interface. Rumble weds this hegemonic tactility, developed initially by experimental psychology and later by computer haptics, to a hegemonic visuality, inscribing normative models of bodies, of pleasure, and of sensory functioning into the materiality of the game interface. Attending to the history of rumble forces game historians to confront vibration feedback not simply as an isolated component of game hardware, but instead as a site where conflicting ideas about the biopolitical function of the mediated sensorium have been expressed, embedded, and, in some cases, resolved.

Here, I echo other critical perspectives on the historical study of games in suggesting that the archive of game history needs to be expanded both in scope and in depth, so that it does more than just reify and perpetuate conventional historiographies drawn exclusively from easily accessible sources—what Carly Kocurek refers to as the “‘greatest hits’ of the historical record.”77 Erkki Huhtamo presents another variant on this argument in calling for game history to move beyond its “chronicle era,” which has been concerned mainly with “amassing and organizing data” as a self-justifying end.78 In response to Huhtamo, Raiford Guins argues that we have advanced past the chronicle era to an era of collection, where large and significant archives of games and related archival materials have been aggregated, preserved within the walls of dedicated collections, and—most significantly—made available to those interested in doing historical research, in the process changing who can write game histories.79 Kocurek, Huhtamo, and Guins each agree that game history needs to think beyond itself. For Kocurek, game history has much to learn from the missteps other fields have made in doing historical work, particularly concerning the way women’s labor was systematically excluded from American history and media history; for Huhtamo, video games are not singular instances of human-machine interaction, but rather, should be situated in a longer cultural lineage of struggles over the relations between human bodies and machines. For Guins, in recognition of new flavors of scholarship that infuse game history with an awareness of the heterogenous cultural contexts in which games are encountered and produced, video game history should progress beyond the game-centric narrative to incorporate other methods of historical investigation (design history, in the object lesson he provides). Bringing the history of haptics to bear on the history of games, via rumble, is very much in keeping with the urging to think past individual games and game systems when doing historiographic research.

However, where rumble is concerned, we do not yet have the luxury of progressing beyond a crude chronicle era: the readily available resources that might be used to construct rumble’s history are not readily available, scattered in fragments throughout various trade publications, lacking any sort of cohesion and consensus beyond the establishment of cursory milestones. We barely have an origin story for rumble that can be problematized and pushed back on because the history of rumble, as I have maintained throughout this piece, is inseparable from the history of haptics, and the work of constructing the archive of haptics has been left largely to hapticians too concerned with the day-to-day labor of engineering new haptic devices to chronicle their work. We should therefore try to bring the history of rumble into the era of chronicle and collection, through the construction of an archive of game haptics, while also being reflexively aware of the way constructing an archive can express and embody priorities of specific research agendas. This archive of game haptics should include not only experimental and abandoned devices, but also design documents, patents, popular press articles, records of internet discussions, details of user experiences (including hacking, modding, and other creative appropriations of rumble), and especially haptics software. At present, the archiving of haptics history—like much of game history had been—is primarily left to dedicated hobbyists, with many of the documents that might contribute to the historical record around the development of gamic tactility held by private corporations without much of an investment in preservation. The aggregation of this archive should not be understood as an end unto itself but rather as a means of grappling with the power relations expressed and negotiated through haptics technologies. Further, though I agree with Guins about the need to think beyond individual games, a history of rumble could benefit from the sorts of rich descriptions of rumble in specific games that those trained in doing game history would be uniquely suited to provide. Such accounts could connect practices of rumble design, for instance, to theoretical claims about touch’s capacity to serve as an aesthetic sense, or to the normative construction of pleasure through vibration. While I have taken some initial steps toward demonstrating what video game historians can gain from folding the history of haptics into the history of games, the full scope of these implications will only be revealed by conducting systematic and thorough empirical investigations in the history of gamic touch.


1. ^ The Rumble Pak for the Nintendo 64 was also released in 1997, shortly before the DualShock. But the Rumble Pak was an add-on for the N64 controller, while the DualShock controller made vibration feedback a standard feature of the PlayStation system.

2. ^ Sony Computer Entertainment president Phil Harrison, quoted in James Brightman, “Phil Harrison: ‘We Are under No Pressure to Drop the PS3’s Price,’” GameDailyBiz, February 26, 2007,

3. ^ The first two models of PlayStation 3 consoles featured backward compatibility with PS2 games, but this ability was removed early in the console’s life span.

4. ^ The estimate from Sony’s 2018 report that it had sold over 500 million PlayStation consoles across all four generations of its life span since the original PlayStation was introduced in 1994 is likely quite conservative, given that players often purchase multiple controllers for the same console.

5. ^ Robert Guth, “Microsoft to Settle Immersion Lawsuit,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2003,

6. ^ The list of games included some of the most valued properties in Sony’s library at the time, such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto 3, Final Fantasy X, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. See Martyn Williams, “Sony Loses PlayStation Patent Case, Must Pay $91M,” PCWorld, March 28, 2005,

7. ^ Immersion countered by commissioning an Ipsos-Insight study on the value of rumble, which it released on the Immersion corporate website in September 2006. Summarizing the results in a thirty-seven-page report, Ipsos concluded that “almost 3 in 4 respondents (72 percent) agree that rumble/vibration feedback enhances their game experience,” with only 5 percent agreeing with the statement “‘The rumble feature should be totally removed from all video game consoles’” (6). As an indicator of the paucity of research on rumble in games, the survey remains one of the most comprehensive studies of vibration feedback in games carried out to date. Ipsos-Insight, “Current and Next Generation Game Console Feature Study” (Ipsos-Insight, 2006).

8. ^ Microsoft’s earlier agreement with Immersion further complicated the outcome of the Sony case: in 2007, they filed a suit against Immersion, claiming that they were entitled to a share of the proceeds from the Sony settlement. Immersion paid Microsoft $20.75 million. Paul McDougall, “Immersion to Pay Microsoft $20.75 Million to Settle ‘Force Feedback’ Suit,” InformationWeek, August 27, 2008,$2075-million-to-settle-force-feedback-suit/d/d-id/1071386.

9. ^ Harrison’s comments were later echoed by Microsoft’s Kudo Tsunoda, who called rumble a “last-generation feature.” See “Kudo Tsunoda: Rumble Is Rudimentary,” Edge Online (2010),

10. ^ This history can be traced back even further in the lineage of arcade machines to Walting’s 1904 Vibratory Doctor, which dispensed purportedly curative vibrations through a long, phallic arm that extended from the center of the machine. However, unlike many of the electrotherapeutic machines it was positioned in response to, the Doctor had no underlying game mechanic, functioning more as a coin-operated medical device than an arcade game. For further analysis, see David Parisi, “Shock Grasps: An Archaeology of Electrotactile Game Mechanics,” Game Studies 13, no. 2 (2013), While many of the first uses of force feedback in games were in the racing genre, James A. Hodges documents its use in an early version of the Q*bert (1982) cabinet, though it is referred to as a “knocker assembly” rather than a force feedback mechanism (1592). See James A. Hodges, “How Do I Hold This Thing? Controlling Reconstructed Q*berts,” New Media & Society 19, no. 10 (2017): 1581–98.

11. ^ David Parisi, Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

12. ^ Thomas Berker, Maren Hartmann, Yves Punie, and Katie Ward, introduction to Domestication of Media and Technology, ed. Thomas Berker, Maren Hartmann, Yves Punie, and Katie Ward (Glasgow: Open University Press, 2006), 2. Domestication entails an active social shaping of technology by its users, where the technology escapes the control of its creator. However, throughout this article, my focus is primarily on the movement of rumble into the everyday (and in particular, into the everyday space of the home) rather than on user responses to and reappropriations of the technology. Future work should certainly investigate gaming forums, letters columns, and other cultural sites to illustrate the way communities made sense of and even modified this new mode of gamic touch. The Nintendo 64 Rumble Pak, for instance, has a history of being reappropriated in prisons as a makeshift tattoo gun. Luke Plunkett, “Convicts Inked Using N64 Rumble Paks,” Kotaku, July 27, 2007, For other examples of creative and artistic adaptations of rumble, see note 21 below.

13. ^ See, for example, Larissa Hjorth, “Domesticating New Media: A Discussion on Locating Mobile Media,” in The New Media and Technocultures Reader, ed. Seth Giddings (New York: Routledge, 2011).

14. ^ Tsunoda, in an interview with Edge Magazine, seemed to imply that Microsoft had developed other forms of more complex touch feedback in his dismissal of rumble: “The overwhelming thing we’ve discovered is that rumble is such a rudimentary form of haptic feedback. It’s not like a little rumble in your palm is your whole way of interacting with the world—it’s not like, oh, I stubbed my toe and I get a little rumble in my palm … It’s almost laughable the way people hold on to rumble as the holy grail of haptic feedback. We’ve gone so far past anything that can be done with rumble, or that kind of restrictive thing you have to hold. It’s been creatively liberating to work on this stuff.” See “Kudo Tsunoda: Rumble Is Rudimentary.”

15. ^ Antonio Bicchi, Martin Buss, Marc Ernst, and Angelika Peer, introduction to The Sense of Touch and Its Rendering: Progress in Haptics Research,ed. Antonio Bicchi, Martin Buss, Marc Ernst, and Angelika Peer (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2008), 2.

16. ^ Particularly with the release of the cinematic adaptation in 2018, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (New York: Crown, 2011) is the latest science-fiction text to prefigure the arrival of touch technologies; other fictional touchstones include Aldous Huxley’s feelies in Brave New World, the holodeck depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation (both discussed in Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace[Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998]), Lawnmower Man(1992), and The Matrix(1999). Popular press treatments of haptics technology—including rumble—over the past thirty years frequently make it comprehensible to audiences by references to these works. Also see Mark Paterson’s analysis of the relationship between Huxley and haptics in Senses of Touch (New York: Berg Press, 2007), and Abbie Garrington’s extensive treatment of Huxley’s feelies in Haptic Modernism: Touch and the Tactile in Modernist Writing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

17. ^ This narrative is exemplified in a 2015 New Atlas article on vibration feedback in video games, where the author, even after acknowledging that there’s a long history of widely deployed applications of haptics in video games and mobile communication, still claims that “haptics look set to be the next big thing in our interactions with the digital world.” Richard Moss, “Haptic Technology: The Next Frontier in Videogames, Wearable, Virtual Reality, and Mobile Electronics,” New Atlas, January 15, 2015,

18. ^ Ryan Taljonick, “What’s Next? Why You Should Give a Damn about the Xbox One’s Impulse Triggers,” Gamesradar, September 13, 2013, In the piece, Xbox’s PR manager David Dennis hails the potential of the Impulse Triggers to usher in a new era of haptic feedback in games: “Traditional rumble motors alone don’t provide as rich of an experience. Just like the upgrade from analog to digital TV is so much better and more lifelike, Impulse Triggers provide a similar level of upgrade for next-generation haptic feedback.”

19. ^ There’s a practical reason that developers have failed to capitalize on the potential of the Impulse Triggers: in games designed for play across platforms, rumble effects that specifically utilize the triggers would have to be added in to the Xbox One version of the game. The infrequent use of Impulse Trigger feedback as a marketing wedge underscores the point that the feature failed to do much to differentiate the consoles from each other.

20. ^ For one detailed example, see Immersion Corporation, “Best Practices for Use of Vibration Feedback in Video Console Games,” Immersion Corporation, 2010,

21. ^ For example, see Eddo Sterne’s Tekken Torture Tournament (2001), which used signals for the DualShock’s rumble motors to trigger electric shocks to Tekken players, interfering with their muscle control. Also Kyle Machulis’s work mapping rumble commands to sex toys (his 2005 “SexBox Vibration Controller” would eventually mutate into its current, far more evolved form as Machulis, “SexBox Vibration Controller,” Metafetish, February 24, 2005,; and Samantha Cole, “Every Video Game Is a Vibrator If You Believe,” Motherboard, March 1, 2018, Some researchers have also experimented with rumble as a means of making games accessible to those with vision impairments; see Mathias Nordvall’s Haptic Pong, described in Moss, “Haptic Technology.”

22. ^ The Switch is the latest in a series of devices that claim to offer high definition rumble; other variants on this terminology include high definition haptics and high fidelity haptics, found in the promotional literature for the Novint Falcon and the Steam Controller. But there are no formal criteria for identifying standard definition (SD) rumble or low-fidelity haptics the way there is with high-resolution audio formats and high definition (HD) and ultra-high definition (UHD) video formats.

23. ^ This conflation of vibration and electric shock is not new to touch feedback in video games: for one example, see The Adams Family arcade game, which had all the audio, visual, and haptic markers of an early twentieth-century electric-shock strength-tester arcade game but made the crucial move of substituting vibration stimulation for its electrical variant. See Parisi, “Shock Grasps.”

24. ^ With their Haptic Voltron video, Netflix developers Hans van de Bruggen and Ed Barker’s experiment not only appropriated Nintendo’s branding, it also borrowed software originally developed by Immersion Corporation back in 2014, when Immersion released a haptics-enabled trailer for the Showtime series Homeland. Subsequently, Immersion partnered with a range of companies—including Arby’s and Lexus—to embed haptics in smartphone video advertisements, and launched an extensive campaign to tout the success of “ads enhanced with touch” at increasing viewer engagement. See Tom Richards, Carenina Garcia Motion, and Marlee Tart, “Netflix Studio Hack Day,” Netflix Tech Blog, June 20, 2019,

25. ^ One particularly egregious violation of accuracy in a desperate attempt to grab clicks came in the recent Wired article “Haptic Controllers Bring Real Pain to VR Games,” which described a new set of touch feedback technologies purportedly intended to inflict pain on their users. Problematically, none of the devices mentioned (which include TEGway’s ThemoReal, HaptX’s Haptic Glove, and the Hardlight VR Suit) are meant to induce pain; commercial haptic interface designers, as much as possible, attempt to avoid inflicting pain and discomfort on those who use their devices. Zara Stone, “Haptic Controllers Bring Real Pain to VR Games,” Wired, January 4, 2018,

26. ^ Rumble continues to be an opaque component of video game hardware, perhaps by design. For example, Metal Gear Solid stands out as perhaps the only game that allows players to independently test the rumble motors in DualShock controllers; in spite of its advanced age, it remains a useful diagnostic tool for rumble enthusiasts. See Vobexr3, “Best Vibration Tester of Dual Shock 1, 2 & 3- Metal Gear Solid 1,” May 7, 2014, 6:00, YouTube video,

27. ^ The recent push toward weaving considerations of material design into game history helps to move the field beyond audiovisuality; see Raiford Guins, “New … Now? Or Why a Design History of Coin-Op Video Game Machines,” American Journal of Play 10, no. 1, Specific to the tactility interface between players and games, see Nicholas Nova and Laurent Bolli’s extraordinarily detailed design history of the game controllers, which creates genealogies of different styles of game controllers, and includes a short section on the use of vibration feedback. Nova and Bolli, Joypads! The Design of Game Controllers (self-pub., CreateSpace, 2014).

28. ^ For a summary of this argument in aesthetics, see Frances Herring, “Touch: The Neglected Sense,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 7, no. 3 (1949): 199–215. Specific to communication and media studies, see John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

29. ^ Robert Jütte,A History of the Senses: From Antiquity to Cyberspace (Malden, MA: Polity, 2005), 16.

30. ^ This formulation is commonly found in film and media studies accounts of touch, passed down from the art historian Alois Reigl to the media theories of Gilles Deleuze, Marshall McLuhan, and Laura Marks. For a productive summary of and response to Reigl’s account of the relationship between touch and vision, see Fiona Candlin, “The Dubious Inheritance of Touch: Art History and Museum Access,” Journal of Visual Culture 5, no. 2 (2006): 137–54. As scholarship in the history and anthropology of the senses has shown, touch turns out to be a notoriously difficult sense to pin down from a physiological standpoint, and culturally and discursively as well. Unlike the other four principal senses, touch is often said to have no solitary and localized organ; it is distributed throughout the body, in layers of the skin, with its receptors housed in the joints and muscles. Touch’s frequent use as an umbrella term or shorthand for a range of related physiological sensations—including movement, temperature, pressure, pain, vibration, and weight—further complicates these definitional challenges; debates over how to distinguish these various submodalities grew especially heated with the rise of experimental and sensory psychology in the late nineteenth century, as new instruments and investigative methods armed researchers with fresh knowledge about touch’s constitutive functions. Moreover, touch is often described as taken for granted and neglected in recognition of the more fully formed research traditions around seeing and hearing, with scholars in a range of fields calling for increased levels of research into the complexity of tactility and thus seeking to rectify this historical oversight.

31. ^ See, for example, Claudia Benthien, Skin: On the Cultural Border between Self and World(New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation(New York: Zone, 2007); and Constance Classen, The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch(Champaign: University of IllinoisPress, 2012). A pair of recent journal issues have been dedicated to media-focused investigations of touch; see David Parisi, Mark Paterson and Jason Archer, eds., “Haptic Media,” special issue, New Media & Society 19, no. 10 (2017),; and Jana Herwig and Alexandra Seibel, eds., “Texture Matters: Der Tastsinn in den Medien,” special issue, Maske und Kothurn 62, nos. 2–3 (2016),

32. ^ Steve Swink, Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation(New York: Morgan Kaufmann, 2009), xiii.

33. ^ Pozo’s strategy is to simultaneously provide complex, rigorous, and empirically informed histories of haptic media (such as vibrating movie theater seats and computer-controlled, networked sex toys), while also problematizing the sensory specificity implied by the term haptic media, and broadening the concept outward to include discussions of affect. A synthesis of queer games studies, the history of haptics, and feminist film theory, Pozo’s project exemplifies what can be gained from site-specific, historically informed engagements with technologies of gamic touch. Teddy Pozo, “Haptic Media: Sexuality, Gender, and Affect in Technology Culture, 1959–2015” (PhD diss., University of California–Santa Barbara, 2016), 7.

34. ^ Moss, “Haptic Technology.”

35. ^ Edward Bradford Titchener, “Haptics,” in Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, vol. 1,ed. James Baldwin (New York: MacMillan, 1901), 441.

36. ^ For a discussion of the relationship between psychophysics and the emergence of technical media more generally, see Friedrich Kittler, “Thinking Colours and/or Machines,” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 8 (2006): 39–50.

37. ^ G. Stanley Hall, “The New Psychology,” Harper’s Monthly Magazine, October 1901, 727.

38. ^ For a basic overview, see “Just-Noticeable Difference,” in Biology for Majors II (Lumen Learning), For its use in media theory, see Friedrich Kittler, “Thinking Colours and/or Machines,” Theory, Culture & Society 23, nos. 7–8 (2006): 39–50.

39. ^ This story is told in various forms around different perceptual registers and mediation technologies: around the sense of seeing in Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990) and Friedrich Kittler’s Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, trans. Anthony Enns (Malden, MA: Polity, 2010); around hearing in Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003)and MP3: The History of a Format (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); and around the perception of time in Jimena Canales’s Tenth of a Second(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). I layer a version of the narrative specific to touch and the history of haptic interfaces in Archaeologies of Touch, and elsewhere, Jason Archer and I take a reflexive view on sensory-specific media historiographies, pressing the case that the history of touch technology should be considered alongside the histories of image and sound media. Parisi and Archer, “Making Touch Analog: The Prospects and Perils of a Haptic Media Studies,” New Media & Society 19, no. 10 (2017): 1523–40.

40. ^ For an exploration of routing sound through the skin via the so-called Hearing Glove, see Mara Mills, “On Disability and Cybernetics,” Differences22, nos. 2–3 (2011): 74–111; specific to transmitting images through touch, see Mark Paterson, Seeing with the Hands: Blindness, Vision, and Touch after Descartes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016). In Archaeologies of Touch, I link together these traditions of routing different sense data through touch using electromechanical devices, in an attempt to provide a cohesive genealogy for tactile communication systems.

41. ^ The history of haptics in computing extends back to the 1960s, with an initial wave of research carried out by A. Michael Noll at Bell Labs and Frederick Brooks and James Batter at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, but the specific term haptics was not adapted to describe this work until the 1980s.

42. ^ Mandayam A. Srinivasan and Cagatay Basdogan, “Haptics in Virtual Environments: Taxonomy, Research Status, and Challenges,” Computers and Graphics 21, no. 4 (1997): 393–404.

43. ^ Howard Rheingold’s best-selling Virtual Reality (New York: Summit, 1991) can be credited with giving the term its most widespread exposure in the early 1990s; the book featured interviews with many prominent touch feedback computing researchers, including Margaret Minsky, Mandayam Srinivasan, and Frederick Brooks. Minsky herself embraced the term as part of her personal brand, registering the domain for her professional website.

44. ^ Brooks, working at Chapel Hill in the late 1960s, had designed the GROPE-I, one of the first force feedback computer displays. At his lab, he carried out an active research program around kinesthetic displays during the 1970s and 1980s; Minsky took up a brief residence there in the late 1980s, where she collaborated with him and several others to design and test the Sandpaper System. See Margaret Minsky, Ming Oh Young, Oliver Steele, Frederick Brooks Jr., and Max Behensky, “Feeling and Seeing: Issues in Force Display,” I3D '90 Proceedings of the 1990 Symposium on Interactive 3D Graphics 24, no. 2 (1990): 235–41.

45. ^ Here, I embrace Hans Georg Rheinberger’s perspective on the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Rheinberger downplays the importance of any single scientific experiment or instrument, focusing instead on experiments as systems of knowledge production, with each individual experiment implying that others should be carried out to fill in the new gaps it exposes. Haptics research, especially as it gained steam in the 1990s, is best explained by this model; as Minsky’s bibliography illustrates, work on the problem of computerizing touch was being carried out in a range of different institutions spread across several fields. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

46. ^ This assessment was not quite correct, even in 1980. Had Minsky been aware of Lederman’s work, for instance, he might have revised his assessment. But roboticists in general, for those early years of research into remote manipulation, remained mostly unaware of the sustained research program psychologists had advanced around touch over the previous century.

47. ^ Marvin Minsky, “Telepresence,” OMNI Magazine, June 1980, 52. This essay was later republished in IEEE Spectrum,

48. ^ As Minsky touted in her dissertation, Hard Drivin’ and the follow-up Race Drivin’ were at one point the highest-grossing arcade driving games both in the US and Japan. Margaret Minsky, “Computational Haptics: The Sandpaper System for Synthesizing Texture for a Force-Feedback Display” (PhD diss., MIT, 1995), 24.

49. ^ Minsky, “Computational Haptics,” 23.

50. ^ Minsky, 23.

51. ^ Fishing simulators turned out to be one of the most popular applications of force feedback in games; the fishing game Tsurido figured centrally in Sony’s initial Japanese marketing push around the rumble-enabled DualShock controller. As Sony’s public relations coordinator Masashi Saeki recalls: “I felt that Tsurido was perfect for hardware advertising. That twitching sensation when a fish nibbles at the line is just right for the Dual Shock Controller.” Quoted in Reji Asakura, Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony PlayStation and the Visionaries Who Conquered the World of Video Games(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 138. For more background on force feedback in fishing games, see Polson Enterprises, “The Evolution of Virtual Fishing Games,”

52. ^ Atari Games Corporation was later granted a patent based on the Hard Drivin’ mechanism. See Milton Loper III, US Patent 5,203,563, April 20, 1993.

53. ^ David Parisi, “RealTouching from a Distance,” Logic Magazine 2 (2017),

54. ^ Frank Geldard, “Some Neglected Possibilities of Communication,” Science 131, no. 3413 (May 1960): 1585; and Frank Geldard, “The Perception of Mechanical Vibration,” Journal of General Psychology22 (1940): 1585.

55. ^ Frank Geldard, “Adventures in Tactile Literacy,” American Psychologist12, no. 3 (1956): 118. Geldard, in a 1956 address to his fellow psychologists intended to rally support for the development of new tactile communication systems, suggested that advances in knowledge about tactile communication would require a sustained attack on touch, part of which involved the invention of new and more accurate instruments for studying the parameters of tactile perception.

56. ^ Geldard summarized this relationship bluntly, noting how “recent developments in apparatus and method are important since our future facts are a function of them.” Geldard, “Perception of Mechanical Vibration,” 261.

57. ^ These values are based on Microsoft’s XINPUT framework; see Microsoft Corporation, “XINPUT_VIBRATION Structure,” December 14, 2018,

58. ^ As commentators from Michel Foucault to Jonathan Crary have noted, psychophysical research is problematic for the way that it generates and encodes normative models of the proper functioning of the senses, part of the production of what Mark Paterson has dubbed the “normate sensorium.” Paterson, Senses of Touch, x. Teasing out and specifying this political relationship between technoscience and touch was one of my significant objectives in Archaeologies of Touch.

59. ^ “Get a Grip,” Next Generation 2, no. 17 (1996): 41.

60. ^ “Get a Grip,” 43.

61. ^ I detail the conceptual and historical connections between haptics and virtual reality extensively in the fourth chapter of Archaeologies of Touch, particularly inspired by Ken Hillis’s critique of VR’s false claim to hapticity in Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

62. ^ A portion of Noll’s dissertation was reprinted as A Michael Noll, “Tactile Man–Machine Communication,” Society for Information Display 1, no. 2 (1972): 11.

63. ^ “Get a Grip,” 42.

64. ^ William Atkinson, Karen Bond, Guy Tribble III, and Kent Wilson, “Computing with Feeling,” Computers & Graphics2, no. 2 (1977): 97–103, quotation 97. The passage from this overlooked essay is worth quoting at length for the specific language the authors use to frame the distant horizon implications of their research: “Touch is now only a proximate sense; we can perceive objects or forms by touch only if we are directly in contact with them. Thus we are restricted to sensing objects which share the general size range of our bodies, which exist in time long enough for humans to perceive them, and which, if we are wise, are non-injurious. Touch communication mediated by touch interface and computer can remove all these limitations, expanding our touch horizons beyond present limits.”

65. ^ Margaret Minsky, “Haptics and Entertainment,” paper presented at HMH ’97: Workshop on Human and Machine Haptics,

66. ^ Quotation from the vest’s retail packaging. The device has enjoyed a curious resurgence as a cheap add-on to recent virtual-reality headsets. For contemporary popular press coverage, see Howard Henry Chen, “Electronic Vest Adds a Chest Full of Thrills to Video Games,” Baltimore Sun, August 27, 1994,

67. ^ This piece, written by Electronic Arts software engineer Chuck Walters, stands out for its comprehensiveness and technical detail. Walters includes screenshots of the two haptics effects editors available at the time, along with summary descriptions of various APIs used to control force-feedback devices. Part of the practical challenge of writing histories of haptics in games concerns the paucity of available documentation on the practice of designing touch feedback for games; Walters’s article stands out as a notable exception. Walters, “Cop a Feel … with Haptic Peripherals,” Gamasutra, December 19, 1997,

68. ^ For one example of this coverage, see Sarah Needleman, “Virtual Reality: Now with the Sense of Touch,” Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2018, A spate of similar articles stacked the VR suit depicted in the film up against devices currently in development, including offerings from Teslasuit, Ultrahaptics, HaptX, and Disney, suggesting that we wouldn’t have to wait long for this imagined future to arrive.

69. ^ The HaptX Glove was initially intended for use with video games, but the company rebranded and pivoted to industrial and scientific applications instead. Teslasuit made a similar move with its haptic bodysuit, and the company now focuses its promotional materials on applications like training and location-based entertainment. None of these companies has abandoned gaming altogether, but they have recognized that the consumer market for a VR gaming peripheral whose retail cost will likely exceed $1,000 is likely rather limited in size.

70. ^ Some vibration-enabled vests, like the SubPac and Kor-FX vest, work by transcoding sound, rather than by using dedicated code to control the operator of the motors. Nullspace, after raising $147,000 in a Kickstarter campaign for its VR’s Hardlight vest, shipped units to backers and then promptly folded in September 2018 due to a funding shortage. For details, see Lucian Copeland, “Post Mortem Report and the Conclusion of Hardlight,” Kickstarter, September 18, 2018,

71. ^ These estimates are based on the yearly number of Google Scholar results for the term haptics.

72. ^ Michael Abrash, “Oculus Connect 2 Keynote,” October 3, 2015, 32:11, Youtube video,

73. ^ “Immersion and Sony Interactive Entertainment Enter into Licensing Agreement for Advance Haptics,” BusinessWire, May 13, 2019,

74. ^ Although Immersion has generally worked hard to place a firewall between the company’s work on haptics and related applications in teledildonics and cybersex, these histories are also intertwined: Ramon Alacron, who invented the RealTouch teledildonic device, served as the director of Immersion’s Gaming and Entertainment Business Unit from 1997 to 2002, and it is rumored that Immersion created Internet Services LLC as a shell corporation to pursue violations of its intellectual property related to sex tech.

75. ^ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). More specific to games, we might think here of James Paul Gee’s formulation of video games as “semiotic domains,” involving what Brendan Keogh describes as an “embodied textuality.” Keogh, A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018). In a recent DiGRA paper, Ea Christina Willumsen and Milan Jaćević detailed a systemic and inventive methodology for analyzing rumble as a semiotic system, applying this method to a sample of PlayStation 4 games as way to develop a typology of rumble. Ea Christina Willumsen and Milan Jaćević, “A Typology of Rumble,” Proceedings of DiGRA 2019,

76. ^ Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), xx.

77. ^ Carly Kocurek, “Ronnie, Millie, Lila—Women’s History for Games: A Manifesto and a Way Forward,” American Journal of Play 10, no 1 (Fall 2017): 66,

78. ^ Huhtamo, “Slots of Fun, Slots of Trouble,” in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 16.

79. ^ Guins “New … Now?,” 24–25.