What Happened to My Start Button?

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I’m not sure if anyone else has as strong feelings as I do about the symbol on a controller button, but I feel I must provide some context to help you understand. The following is said out of love for the Xbox; the type of love that can send you into a swirling rant over the smallest thing.

In today’s ever-advancing world, it’s easy to forget that Microsoft is relatively new to the console production game. I’m of an age that I remember getting excited about upgrading to the SNES from the original Nintendo system. The first Playstation was the last console I had growing up and at the time, as a tween, it fulfilled most of my entertainment needs (-more on this in a bit). When I got back into gaming in my 20’s, I got really attached to Xbox Live. Once the 360 ran its course, the Xbox One seemed like the natural transition and I’m happy with the choice I made.

The Xbox One controller took a large part of the marketing focus during the console’s launch. It makes sense. The box itself is just that: a box. A much more sleek and modern-looking box, but a box nonetheless. (And now I can’t stop thinking about Silicon Valley.) The controller provided a better visual representation of the advancements made to the next generation console. It’s shaped differently; the triggers and bumpers behave differently; it’s more ergonomic. It no longer has the “Start” and “Select” buttons.

In their stead are the “Menu” and “View” buttons. Renaming the menu button seems logical as, in most games/applications, pressing it will often bring up a list of options much like the symbol that labels it. Its cutesy nickname of the “Hamburger” button, regardless of how endearing you find it, is a nice touch of marketing panache.  The view button was harder for me to wrap my head around both in name and function, but after some time (and I think a random tips video), I sort of get what it does. (Note that I will not even attempt to definitively describe its purpose.) Who really knew what the select button did without trial and error anyhow? But that to me is the first problem: start and select are easily identifiable to anyone who has ever held a controller. What did Microsoft hope to accomplish by renaming and relabelling them?

Granted, the buttons are in the same place they’ve always been and people will continue to use them in the same ways. However, as a student of semiotics, the change of the symbols is something that can’t be easily ignored. Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, can be an obsessive affair once you notice how much it permeates pop culture. Humans have inherited a prehistoric ability to get emotionally attached to symbols,  a method of communication that predates written language. It’s why advertising and logos work the way they do. The “Start” button means more than start to anyone who recognizes its accompanying symbol, the sideways triangle. It means play.

 

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Obviously, the word “play” is dear to any gamer, but here’s where I can tie in my experiences with my first Playstation console. This was the first time I had a gaming system that did more than just play games. As a growing music-lover, I got a lot of use out of the Playstation’s CD player. Over the generations, consoles have included more features to create a one-stop entertainment center. The word play applies to more than just games, it can be used with a lot of the media we enjoy consuming. I think it’s worth noting that Sony, alongside being a hardware manufacturer, is a massive entertainment company. Their hold across different media is something that is apparent in everything they produce, for better or worse.

So, this isn’t news. The new controllers have been out for years now and with a stated effort to end console generations, including the ability to carry over accessories to newer consoles, it doesn’t look like Microsoft will be redesigning them any time soon. (Incidentally, the redesign of the Playstation 4 controllers also lead to the removal of its Start button; so much of what I’m saying about Microsoft also applies to them.) However, this does speak to a concern I have that is tempering my excitement about advancements in console gaming.

To me, the end of the start button is a change that may seem insignificant, but when closely examined says a lot about the design process. If you know anything about huge corporations, you know that no change, no matter how small, is made without extensive research on its functionality and, perhaps most importantly, consumer perception. I find myself wondering if Microsoft knew of a subconscious connection of the triangle to the Playstation brand. This is just the tip of the iceberg of newness that lead to the somewhat tainted launch of the Xbox One. There had been so many innovations that were clouded by the perception that Microsoft was pushing changes on consumers that no one asked for. The most frightening part of that is the implication that they were doing it just to be different, to stand out.

We’ve definitely come a long way from that rocky launch, and changes in the Xbox leadership have lead to decisions and practices that make Xbox One users happier with each update. I’m deeply invested in the Xbox family of consoles. So much that my frustration at not being able to pause a movie with the “not-start” button spawned this whole train of thought. I just hope that in trying to break ahead in the console war, Xbox sticks to positive improvements instead of changing to be different.

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