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Foundations Of Alternative Controller Games (GAME 202)



This class introduces physical computing and interaction design concepts critical for building novel physical interfaces. It employs a combination of theory and practice ranging from gamepad, circuit, and interaction design to in-class activities, homework assignments, and solo/group projects creating alternative controller games.
Course Title: GAME 202: Foundations of Alternative Controller Games
Course University: University of California, Santa Cruz
Course College/School: Baskin School of Engineering
Course Department/Program: Games & Playable Media / Serious Games MS Programs
(Computational Media Department)
Course Level: Graduate
Course Credits: 5
Course Length: 10 weeks
Course Medium: Face-to-face
Course Keywords: Alternative Controllers, Novel Interfaces, Physical Computing, Interaction
Design, Arduino, Prototyping, Gamepad
This class introduces physical computing and interaction design concepts critical for building novel
physical interfaces. It employs a combination of theory and practice ranging from gamepad, circuit,
and interaction design to in-class activities, homework assignments, and solo/group projects creating
alternative controller games.
Increasingly low cost, availability, and ubiquity of sensors have made incorporating novel
technologies into games and their controllers a viable practice for many developers. The resulting
alternative controller games have become a popular phenomenon—1) utilizing emerging technologies
to expand the scope of digital games through novel material mediums; 2) moving players and
designers beyond the screen through diverse and customizable physical interactions; and 3) enabling
innovative ways of engaging with both player and spectator through space, objects, and theming.
1. Edward F. Melcer, Dr. Edward Melcer is an independent game developer, director of the Alternative
Learning Technologies and Games (ALT Games) Lab, and Assistant Professor in the UC Santa Cruz Department of Computational
Media. He explores the usage of novel gameplay mechanics and emerging technologies (AR, VR, 3D printers, wearables, and so
forth) to enhance learning outcomes in educational games.
Foundations of Alternative Controller Games provides an introduction to physical computing and
interaction design concepts critical for students to build these novel physical interfaces. It employs
a combination of theory and practice, ranging from the basics of gamepad, circuit, and interaction
design to in-class activities deconstructing existing alternative controller designs and building circuits
to test a variety of switches and sensors. Project-based learning is also applied in the form of midterm
and final projects that guide students through building their own novel alternative controller game
prototypes, combining numerous electronic components in tandem with Arduino and a game
engine—such as Processing or Unity—to create unique player experiences. This course ultimately
aims to improve its students’ overall game design skills by broadening their perspective and
understanding of how the physical affordances of a controller can drastically impact the interactions
and design choices that best fit a game.
The specific course objectives to meet this purpose and goals are as follows:
Develop a set of skills and experience necessary to design meaningful hybrid digital-physical
Analyze context and possible applications of custom physical interfaces for digital games, toys
and other interactive experiences.
Understand the differences and relationship between physical and digital affordances with
respect to games.
Employ physical computing concepts (i.e., the application of various sensors and switches) in
the creation of alternative controller games.
Develop a broad toolkit of circuits, code, and so forth that can be combined in various ways to
achieve different sensing and feedback outcomes.
Apply DIY methodologies to incorporate open-source software tools and rapidly prototype
physical interfaces/interactions.
Create game prototypes that utilize customized novel interfaces and alternative controllers.
Develop unique portfolio pieces (in the form of alternative controller games) that are
submittable to relevant game festivals such as IndieCade, Come Out & Play, alt.ctrl.GDC, IGF,
PAX, and so forth.
Foundations of Alternative Controller Games is currently an elective course offered to graduate
students as part of the Games & Playable Media and Serious Games professional masters programs
within the Computational Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. It has also
been offered previously as an upper-level elective course simultaneously open to both the B.S. in
Computer Game Design and B.A. in Art & Design: Games & Playable Media degrees. Notably, due
to the novelty of the content for most game design students and the heavy hands-on/project-based
nature of the course, the teaching between undergraduate and graduate sections remains almost the
same. The main difference being that students in the graduate section are given a bit more leeway
on groups, with the option to tackle the midterm and final projects solo if they desire. Furthermore,
in both undergraduate and graduate cases, the students that attend this class are generally quite
experienced in making purely digital games, completed a prerequisite introductory programming
course, and have some experience creating analog games in the form of board games or playground
games. However, these students generally have very little (if any) prior experience designing or
playing hybrid digital-physical games. They are also expected to have no real experience with physical
computing or prototyping video game hardware. Therefore, the course experience focuses heavily
on a broad application of interaction design and physical computing concepts in applied activities
rather than diving deeply into electrical engineering or interaction design theory—as students have
little prior background in either. I.e., instead of getting ‘buried in the weeds’ on topics that would
derail the ability of the course to enable quickly and successfully building alternative controller games,
the teaching emphasis focuses on a practical understanding of how electronic components map real-
world phenomena into digital or analog input/output that can be incorporated into games. This
is done through 1) presentation of existing alternative controller examples for design inspiration
at the beginning of every class; 2) analysis activities (both in-class and for homework) that deeply
explore existing systems to develop an intuitive sense for the broad design space of alternative
controllers; 3) design activities centered on understanding physical affordances and their relationship
to digital affordance for both player and spectator; and 4) in-class prototyping activities that create
electronic circuits, arcade game interfaces, simple alternative controllers, and so forth to understand
how electronic components work and can be applied in novel physical interfaces.
This course employs a constructivist pedagogical approach [1,2,3], focusing on problem-based
learning [4] and learning through doing [5]—i.e., in the form of group projects, live coding/
prototyping lectures, and a variety of in-class activities applying the technology and theory learned
earlier in the lecture. This in turn helps students develop their own skills for learning and applying
new technology/information outside of the traditional classroom setting. In this constructivist
learning approach, rather than treating information and theory as a set of facts that students are
expected to merely memorize for a grade, basic principles of game design, interaction design, physical
computing, and so forth are taught as tools [6]. These tools can in turn be applied as lenses to critically
assess existing systems and/or combined as techniques to build novel interactions into one’s own
systems. Tying theory to practice also offers three major benefits to students: 1) it develops strong
fundamentals for designing and creating interactive systems through practical experience [5]; 2) it
provides concrete, interactive examples to ground and enhance theoretical understanding [7]; and 3)
it offers the flexibility to creatively experiment with course material through projects that afford a
deeper understanding of underlying concepts [8].
The learning through doing aspect of the course also inherently utilizes the DIY method from which
its content draws heavily upon [6]. Students are given homework assignments that tie the theory
presented in class to practice, providing open prompts that allow for creation and exploration of
custom physical interfaces as well as modification of existing games to incorporate novel physical
interactions. Most importantly, students are encouraged through extra credit to be creative in their
own explorations at the intersection of digital and physical, ultimately learning through failure as they
attempt the challenge of simultaneously combining hardware design with game design in a unique
way. In this way, students develop valuable practical skills for discovery learning [3] which helps them
move from structured-inquiry to guided-inquiry within the paradigm of inquiry-based learning [9].
To that end, it is critical that this course merges theory, practical examples, and hands-on projects.
• None
Hardware for Students
Arduino Starter Kit ($30 – $50) — There are a number of cheap Arduino hardware starter kits
available online that provide both the Arduino microcontroller and a variety of sensors
needed for the in-class activities, homework assignments, and group projects. The
recommended starter kit is the ELEGOO UNO Project Super Starter Kit, however most are
fine. The kits should come with a minimum of the following components to be useful for all
class lectures/assignments (most do):
1 x Breadboard
30 x Jumper Wires
10 x Resistors (220, 10k, and 1meg preferred but most resistance values will work fine)
4 x Pushbuttons/Buttons
4 x LEDs
1 x Potentiometer
1 x Passive Buzzer
1 x Photoresistor
1 x Thermistor
1 x Tilt Switch
1 x Ultrasonic Sensor
Laptop with Web Camera — For running software and web camera for AR.
Optional Components – These components are not required for the class or covered in the
lectures, but are easy enough to learn how to use and provide additional unique input/output
Reed Switches
Accelerometer and Gyroscope
RGB Color Sensor
Capacitive Touch Sensor
Conductive Rubber Stretch Sensor
Linear SoftPot
NeoPixel LED Strips
Hardware for Instructors
Arduino Starter Kit — Same as the students’ hardware kits for live wiring, coding, and
prototyping during lectures.
Additional Components and Materials — These sensors and materials typically do not come with
starter kits, but can be purchased relatively inexpensively in bulk from most electronics
websites (e.g., SparkFun, Adafruit, and so forth) and returned/used over multiple years:
Electret Microphone
Piezo Element
Conductive Tape
Electrical Tape
Conductive Thread and Fabric
Soldering irons, Solder, and Helping Hands
22 AWG Solid Wire
Solder Smoke Extractor/Fan
Arduino Web Editor (Free) — Communication with the Arduino microcontroller.
Processing and/or Unity (Free) — Prototyping of digital games and communication with
Arduino microcontroller via serial communication. |
Serial Communication Library for Unity — If working with Unity, this is a useful GitHub
repository that sets up and manages communication with Arduino over serial.
Arduino Connector Class:
Fritzing (€8 for Executable, Free from Source Code) — Circuit diagramming of hardware
interfaces and prototypes.
In-Class Activities
Each in-class activity is designed to build upon what was taught earlier in that class (and previous
lessons) by providing a more creative context to apply the new piece of technology, sensing technique,
design analysis, etc. Often involves building the circuit in real time with the class and then live coding
the Arduino to use the circuit.
Each homework assignment is designed to provide additional practice outside of class that reinforces
knowledge, skills, and design thinking learned from previous weeks. Homework will focus more
heavily on brainstorming and understanding how to apply sensing techniques in novel ways within
alternative controller games. Please see expanded course outline for individual homework
assignments and objectives.
One core aspect of being a game developer that creates alternative controller games is submitting
and presenting these games at festivals since festivals are the primary medium to distribute and
showcase such work. Learning to give an elevator pitch and quickly present any game (but especially
an alternative controller game) is a crucial skill that is typically only developed through experience
of doing so. Therefore, many of the homework assignments also come with an in-class presentation
component to help students develop their presentation skills and ability to discuss the design of an
alternative controller game.
Midterm Project
The midterm project focuses on tying learning content from multiple weeks together in order to
produce more complex alternative controller games (i.e., a hardware component using Arduino and
a variety of sensors combined with a digital component created in a game engine). It also allows
small teams of students to think more broadly about how the various sensing technologies they have
learned can be incorporated into games and enables them to apply this knowledge in the creation of a
more ambitious and functional game prototype than on the homework assignments.
Final Project
The final project builds upon the hands-on skills developed in the midterm, enabling student teams to
polish their designs, games, and hardware from either the midterm or a student’s previous homework
assignment. Student teams are also able to create a new game from scratch for their final project if
they desire, but this is not advisable without a strong creative vision for the game before starting.
This project also focuses on teaching students how to present their alternative controller work to the
outside world and the best ways/venues to do so.
Class participation 10% of grade (attendance, discussions, and in-class activities).
Presentations 10% of grade (presenting certain assignments to the class).
Homework 30% of grade (each homework assignment counts equally).
Midterm project 25% of grade.
Final project 25% of grade.
For the latest course materials such as slides, code examples, and so forth please see:
Similarly, an extensive and up-to-date archive of alternative controller games that can be drawn on
for design inspiration and analysis activities can be found here:
Week 1: Introduction and Overview of Alternative Controllers
Class 1 – Introduction to Alternative Controller Games and Concepts
Class Topics/Activities
Course overview
What is a controller?
Input and output device
Combination of mapping and abstraction
What is an alternative controller? [10]
Historical examples of alternative controllers in games [11]
Shooting Gallery, Joyboard, Power Glove, Power Pad, R.O.B., DK Bongos, Steel
Battalion, Wii Balance Board
Examples of current alternative controllers in games
Wiimote and Nunchuck, PlayStation Move and Eye, Microsoft Kinect, Leap Motion,
Myo, and Ring-Con™
What can alternative controllers be?
Importance of physical interaction [12,13]
Understanding and designing for affordances of the controller, environment, and body
Controller affordances dictate the interactions and design choices that best fit a game
Three unique advantages of alternative controller games
Employing diverse forms of input and output
Physically theming gameplay
Engaging spectators
How can alternative controllers help your games?
10 minute in-class activity
Break into small groups and brainstorm alternative controllers for favorite existing
commercial games
5 minutes to brainstorm followed by 5 minutes to share ideas
Fun examples to show before or after discussion include:
Dark Souls with a Banana Controller (
Exergame version of Katamari (
AR version of OutRun (
Class 2 – Designing Alternative Controller Games
Class Topics/Activities
Designing for the body and objects
Embodiment [16]
Embodied interaction [17]
Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs) [18,19]
Embodied metaphors [20]
Three ways to physically theming gameplay
Physical actions mirror the narrative
Physical objects act as props to enhance the narrative
The transformative power of costumes [21]
Incorporating analog technology
Designing for interactions between the digital and physical
Transforms conceptualize a space and describe the relationships between physical/
digital actions and physical/digital effects [22]
Designing for space
Manipulating the magic circle [23,24]
Embracing and designing for spectators
Tips for idea generation of alternative controller games
Tips to keep in mind when creating your own alternative controllers
Assignment: Homework 1 – Game Show Interface Analysis
Game shows have a surprising amount in common with alternative controller games, i.e., utilizing
novel interfaces/interactions and designed for spectator engagement. Therefore, game shows are
interesting case studies to analyze the designs of. Look up an existing game show interface and
analyze how different aspects of the design impact player and spectator experiences. E.g., think about
narratives, affordances, physical interactions, gameplay, and emotions that the interfaces evoke.
Create 3 – 4 slides highlighting some of these aspects:
The first slide should explain how the game show works or have a link to a short video that
shows the core gameplay
The remaining 2 – 3 slides should highlight some of the points above
Use images, gifs, or short video clips of the gameshow to help illustrate your point.
Grading Rubric (Missing any of these will result in the corresponding number of points taken off)
2 Points – One slide explaining the game
3 Points – Multiple slides analyzing the game (no more than 4 slides)
5 Points – In-class presentation
Stretch Goals (Extra Credit)
1 Point – Use a game show from a culture outside of the USA or a novel/creative game show
Due by class 3. You will also present these slides at the beginning of classes 3, 4, and 5 (the
presentation order will be randomly selected).
Week 2: Introduction to Circuits and the Arduino
Class 3 – Circuit Basics and Software Setup
Class Topics/Activities
Student presentations from homework 1
What is electricity?
Electronic sensors
Forms of energy
Conductors and insulators
Examples of surprising insulators and conductors (such as the Jello piano)
What is a circuit?
Ohms Law
Voltage, current, and resistance
Introduction to currents
Alternating Current vs. Direct Current
Introduction to the core tools for the course
Jumper Wires
Understanding how a breadboard works
10 minute in-class activity – Setting up the Arduino
Do this activity live with the students following along
Class 4 – Digital Output and First Circuit
Class Topics/Activities
Student presentations from homework 1
Digital vs. Analog
Our first digital electronic component: Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
Using LEDs for output
• Resistors
How they work
Reading the resistor color code
Why they are important (prevent your components from blowing up)
How to calculate appropriate resistance (using an electronic component datasheet)
Building circuits with Arduino
In-class activity – Building our first circuit (making an LED light)
‘Live wire’ a simple circuit that connects a red LED to 5 volts, a 220 ohm resistor, and
Use an external web camera or document camera to display your hands, Arduino, and
breadboard on the classroom project screen for students to follow along
How to control LEDs using code
In-class activity – Controlling an LED using the Arduino
‘Live wire’ changes to the previous circuit to enable the Arduino to control the LED
Live code turning an LED on/off every second
Adding more LEDs
Series vs. Parallel Circuits
LEDs in Series and Parallel
Old vs. new Christmas lights example
Week 3: Handling and Diversifying Input
Class 5 – Digital Input
Class Topics/Activities
Student presentations from homework 1
Understanding digital input and output
Using switches for input
Pushbuttons/momentary switches
Switch contact types
Pull-up and Pull-down resistors
In-class activity – Making a button operated LED with Arduino controlled digital input/output
‘Live wire’ button and LED circuits on the breadboard that are connected to Arduino
Live code handling digital input from the button and digital output to control the LED
What is a circuit diagram?
Fritzing introduction
In-class activity – Recreating the Family Feud interface
Watch videos of people using the Family Feud button/buzzer interface
Recreate that interface in class to practice circuit diagraming, wiring, and coding
buttons as input and LEDs as output
The Family Feud interface should have the following:
Two buttons (one for each contestant)
Two LEDs (one for each contestant)
The first contestant to hit their button will cause their LED to light up
The other contestant’s LED can no longer light up until the Arduino is reset
Use Fritzing software to diagram the Button and LED circuits
This should be live in front of the class with the students making suggestions
and the teaching guiding them to the correct circuits
‘Live wire’ the circuit based on the Fritzing diagram
Live code the Arduino to make the interface function similar to the Family Feud one
Assignment: Homework 2 – Simple Button & LED Game
Design and sketch a hardware circuit overview (using Fritzing) for a game interface that uses multiple
switches and LEDs. This could be your own original game creation or a simplified version of an
existing game interface (e.g., a trivia game buzzer, a soundless version of Simon, or a slightly reduced
version of Cyclone). However, do not do a Family Feud interface since we already covered that in
class. Then build a that circuit and write the code to make this interface work.
What’s required for submission, a .zip file containing the following:
An image file showing your hardware circuit overview
A small writeup explaining what the interface is and how it works (this could be through the
submission comments or as a small text document inside the zip file)
The code for your hardware circuit (it should be a .ino file if you download it from the web
A short 1-minute video recording showing your working hardware in action
Grading Rubric (Missing any of these will result in the corresponding number of points taken off)
2 Points – Sketch of a game interface with multiple switches (1 or more buttons) and LEDs (1
or more LEDs)
6 Points – Building a working interface based on the sketch (code and hardware)
2 Points – Video documenting the interface and how it works
Stretch Goals (Extra Credit)
1 Point – Use 3 or more buttons
1 Point – Use 5 or more LEDs (HINT: this will require you to wire them in parallel)
1 Point – Make something really fun/creative
Due by class 7
Class 6 – Analog Input and Variable Resistors
Class Topics/Activities
Debugging a circuit (various approaches)
Ensure all individual electronic components are working properly
Draw/diagram the circuit
Trace the current through your circuit to make sure it is going where you would expect
Follow the path of least resistance
Check for open or short circuits
Use a multimeter
Use a circuit simulation program
Use the serial monitor in the Arduino IDE/web editor
What does analog mean?
Digital vs. analog
Digital provides discrete values (on/off or 1/0)
Analog provides continuous ranges (0 – 255 or 0 – 1023)
Switch vs. sensor
How Analog works with the Arduino
Variable resistors
• Potentiometer
How a potentiometer works
Different kinds of potentiometers
Introducing the Serial Monitor in Arduino
In-class activity – Making a potentiometer with serial debugging
‘Live wire’ the potentiometer circuit feeding into one of the Arduino’s analog input pins
Live code reading the analog input and printing the values to serial for debugging
Show how to use the serial monitor to see the values written there
Using variable resistors
Photoresistors (LDR)
How a photoresistor works
Everyday usage of photoresistors
Game usage of photoresistors (light guns)
Voltage divider circuit – The heart of using variable resistors
The magic of variable resistors
Same circuit and same code, but different sensing capabilities based on what variable
resistor we are using
In-class activity – Using variable resistors
‘Live wire’ a photoresistor circuit
The code from the earlier potentiometer function is the same so we can just reuse that
Show how changing the light levels (by covering the photoresistor) changes the values
Swap the photoresistor with a thermistor
Show how we can now detect changes in temperature
Using flex/bend sensors for input
How a flex sensor works
Game usage of flex sensors (Power Glove)
In-class activity – Creating a ‘soft’ flex sensor from scratch
Flex sensors are not the cheapest variable resistors, but luckily we can actually make
our own from scratch to better understand how they are varying resistance
Requires velostat, single-sided conductive tape, foam, electrical tape, and hot glue
Break students up into groups of 2 – 4 and have them follow the instructions here to
create their own flex sensor:
Week 4: Analog Output and Advanced Analog Techniques
Class 7 – Communicating to the Player with Analog Output
Class Topics/Activities
What is pulse width modulation (PWM)?
Duty cycle
PWM pins on the Arduino
In-class activity – Making a fading light with analog output
‘Live wire’ a simple Arduino controlled LED circuit
Make sure that the anode of the LED is connected to one of the PWM pins on the
Live code changing the brightness of the LED using analogWrite
In-class activity – Controlling an RGB LED
‘Live wire’ a RGB LED circuit with the r, g, and b pins each connected to a different
PWM pin on the Arudino
Live code changing the color of the LED by changing the brightness sent to the r, g, and
b pins
How does sound work?
Understanding your speakers
What are piezo elements?
How piezo buzzers work
Passive vs. active buzzers
Controlling tones with the Arduino
In-class activity – Making music with a passive piezo buzzer
‘Live wire’ a passive piezo buzzer circuit
Live code playing a short (8 note) melody on the buzzer
Class 8 – Advanced Analog Techniques: Calibration
Class Topics/Activities
What is a theremin
How does a theremin work
Emulating a theremin with a photoresistor and buzzer
In-class activity – Creating a simple light theremin
Use Fritzing to ‘live draw’ the circuit for the light theremin with the guidance of the class
‘Live wire’ a simple circuit with a photoresistor and passive piezo buzzer connected to
the Arduino
Live code the simplest solution for the theremin
I.e., take the raw read value from the photoresistor (between 0 and 1023) map it
to an audible pitch range for the buzzer (between 50 and 4000)
Then change the mapping to an index for an array of note pitches to play a
simple c scale (between 0 and 7)
Use serial debugging and the Serial Monitor to highlight how photoresistor values do
not cover the full range of 0 – 1023 and therefore does not play all the notes no matter
how hard we try
Photoresistors are highly dependent upon lighting conditions
Handling different lighting conditions
Different kinds of calibration
Calculating and using calibration values
Improving our light theremin
In-class activity – Calibrating the simple light theremin
Live code how to calculate the average, low, and high read values from a photoresistor
at setup
Use the high and low read values to change the mapping range from 0 – 1023 to low –
Show how this calibration allows us to now play all the notes now using our light
A quick recap of the many electronic components we know how to use now
What components we will learn about in the next few weeks
Tools for brainstorming alternative controller game ideas
An interesting way to conceptualize interactive systems
The many ways data can be transformed from input to output
Iterative design
Different prototyping techniques
Ideation/mental simulation
Physical/paper prototyping
Assignment: Homework 3 – Brainstorming Arduino with Processing Games
Brainstorm 2 potential games or interactive experiences that use Arduino and Processing/Unity
for your midterm project. These can be entirely original or (substantial) expansions on existing
prototypes you made. You can use any hardware for the Arduino, even if we haven’t covered it in-
class. Make sure to bodystorm the interactions to ensure that they are physically reasonable for the
Submit a google document with at least 1) a 1 sentence elevator pitch, 2) a list of electronic
components the game would need to work, and 3) a 1 paragraph explanation for each game/
experience idea to elaborate on how it would work. You will then be asked to pick and present your
favorite of the two ideas for 1 minute to the class on 2/4.
Grading Rubric (Missing any of these will result in the corresponding number of points taken off)
4 Points – First brainstormed game/interactive experience that uses both Arduino and
This must include a 1 sentence elevator pitch, a list of electronic components the game
would need to work, and a 1 paragraph writeup explaining the game in more detail
4 Points – Second brainstormed game/interactive experience that uses both Arduino and
This must include a 1 sentence elevator pitch, a list of electronic components the game
would need to work, and a 1 paragraph writeup explaining the game in more detail
2 Points – In-class presentation (1 minute MAX)
Stretch Goals (Extra Credit)
2 Points – Make and include a circuit diagram/overview for each game on your google
Due by class 10. You will also give a 1-minute elevator pitch to the class for your favorite of the two
game ideas (the presentation order will be randomly selected). Use this to help recruit teammates or
find a team you would be interested in joining for the midterm project.
Week 5: Getting Serial – Communication with Arduino and Processing
Class 9 – Advanced Analog Techniques: Thresholds
Class Topics/Activities
Using a sensor as a switch
• Thresholds
In-class activity – Miniature lamp post
Use a photoresistor and LED to mimic the functionality of a lamp post, i.e., when it gets dark
the light turns on and when it gets bright the light turns off
‘Live wire’ a circuit with a photoresistor and LED with the class
Live code the simplest solution first with a hard threshold
E.g., if value drops below 500, then turn light on
Dim the lights and restart Arduino to show that this kind of threshold is highly
dependent upon lighting conditions
Refine code to use a relative threshold based on the calibrated average photoresistor
value from last week
Show how this works regardless of lighting conditions
Show that there is still an issue with the LED flickering if the light level is near the
“Switch bouncing” and the wobble effect
Using debouncing to avoid the wobble effect
Multiple (state dependent) threshold to avoid bouncing with our photoresistor values
In-class activity – Refining the miniature lamp post
Live code a more complex thresholding solution that keeps track of the current lamp
state and uses high/low relative thresholds to prevent bouncing
What is piezoelectricity?
Piezoelectric materials
Detecting vibration with piezo elements (disk)
In-class activity – Using a piezo element
Live wire a simple piezo and LED circuit
It is helpful to tape the piezo element to the table to get better vibration readings
Live code tweak the refined threshold code from the miniature lamp project to only
turn the led on if there is a certain amount of vibration
Class 10 – Sending and Receiving Data via Serial Communication
Class Topics/Activities
Student presentations from homework 3
What is serial communication?
How serial communication works
Using serial data for communication between Arduino and Processing
Sending serial messages from Arduino to Processing
In-class activity – Whack-A-Mole game
Build a simple single button interface with Arduino that sends a message to Processing
when the button is pressed or released
‘Live wire’ a simple 1 button circuit
Live code reading that value on the Arduino and sending it to Processing via
serial write
Refine code to only send data over serial when the button state changes (to save
valuable bandwidth)
Build a simple infinite Whack-A-Mole game in Processing that tries to whack the mole
whenever it receives a button press message from Arduino via serial
Make sure to provide students with the assets they need to make this work
before class
Live code receiving the Arduino value via serial read
If the player pressed the button when the mole was up, it disappears and
Sending serial messages from Processing to Arduino
In-class activity – Light Mapper
‘Live wire’ a simple 4 LED circuit and connect it to the Arduino
Live code the Arduino to read an integer over serial (between 0 and 3) and turn on the
corresponding LED while turning off all of the others
Live code a simple Processing application that maps the x position of the mouse to a
value between 0 and 3
Students form teams for midterm project
Assignment: Midterm Project
Using your brainstormed game from homework 3 as a starting point, form teams of 2 – 5 students to
create an alternative controller game or interactive experience that has a hardware component with
the Arduino and a software component running a game on a game engine such as Processing, Unity,
or UE4. The hardware component must use a minimum of two different electronic components.
Solo projects are allowed but must be approved by the instructor first.
What’s required for submission, a .zip file containing the following:
An image file showing your hardware circuit overview
A small writeup explaining how the game works and how to play it (this could be through the
submission comments or as a small text document inside the zip file)
The code for your hardware circuit (it should be a .ino file if you download it from the web
editor) and code for your digital game
A short 1-minute video recording showing your working game in action
Grading Rubric (Missing any of these will result in the corresponding number of points taken off)
1 Point – Hardware circuit overview
1 Point – Writeup explaining how to play the game
2 Points – Code for hardware and software
4 Points – A fully functioning game with digital and hardware components
2 Points – Video documenting the interface and how it works
Stretch Goals (Extra Credit)
1 Point – Make a highly creative or polished game
Due by class 14. You will also give a live demo of the game in a class playtest session.
Week 6: Faking Sensing and Midterm Project Development
Class 11 – Faking Sensing
Class Topics/Activities
Faking sensing – degrees of separation between perceived input method and actual sensor
Examples of faking sensing
The Nintendo DS detecting how hard a player blew on the microphone
Understanding analog sound and transducers
Using electret microphones
In-class activity – Using an electret microphone
‘Live wire’ a simple electret microphone circuit
Live code a simple program to read the analog values from the microphone and print
them to serial
Use the Serial Monitor to show the sound waves that are created when the microphone
picks up noise
Finding peak values
In-class activity – Creating a ‘fake’ breath sensor
‘Live wire’ your electret microphone circuit a bit further to add an Arduino controlled
Live code a simple algorithm to detect the peak value of a sound wave and turn an LED
on relative to the strength of the sound wave’s peak value
This creates a ‘fake’ sensing effect where it appears that strength of breath is being
measured, but it is actually just measuring noise levels
Class 12 – Midterm Project Development
Class Topics/Activities
Break into Midterm project groups and work on games
Instructor goes from group to group checking on progress and offering suggestions
Week 7: Sensing Motion, Distance, and Midterm Presentations
Week 13 – Sensing Motion and Distance
Class Topics/Activities
How does sonar work?
Using ultrasonic distance sensors detect the distance of objects
In-class activity – Sensing distance
‘Live wire’ the ultrasonic distance sensor
Live code a simple program to read the distance values and print them to serial
Show how the sensor can detect the distance from an object
Detecting tilt motion
How tilt sensors work
Using tilt switches as an alternative to accelerometers
In-class activity – Building a custom motion controller
Accelerometers are expensive and not the easiest piece of hardware to work with.
Luckily, if we just care about the direction of motion (and not the speed of it) then it’s
possible to instead use tilt sensors to create a motion controller.
‘Live wire’ two tilt sensors to different sides of the breadboard to detect when the board
is tilted left, right, or is level
Live code a simple program that prints the state of the breadboard’s motion to serial
If there is extra time, create a simple Processing sketch that allows the breadboard
motion to control the movement of an onscreen object
Class 14 – Midterm Project Demonstration/Playtest Event
Class Topics/Activities
Break into Midterm project groups and demo/present midterm projects
Students can go around and play the games from other teams
Instructor goes around to grade all midterm projects
Week 8: Sensing Objects through Computer Vision: Engaging with Objects and the Body
Class 15 – AR and Computer Vision
Class Topics/Activities
What is augmented reality?
Examples and discussion of AR games
Window-on-the-World (WoW) vs Word-as-Support (WaS) interaction paradigms for AR [25]
Understanding infrared and computer vision
Commercially available technology for broader distribution (camera and Kinect)
Detecting the body with Microsoft Kinect
Video examples
In-class discussion of why it failed
Fiducial markers and tracking objects with reacTIVision, TUIO, and processing
Video examples
Face detection and tracking with Ketai OpenCV and Processing
In-class activity – Building an AR mask application
Live code an application that draws a mask image over a person’s face when it is
detected using computer vision
Use the Ketai library in Processing to perform basic face detection with a web camera
When the library detects a face, draw a mask image over it
Give students time and flexibility to find their own mask images online and customize
their applications
Discuss Final project
Assignment: Final Project
Form new teams of 2 – 5 students per project (or keep the original team from the midterm project).
Solo projects are also allowed with instructor approval. Either continue working on finishing/
polishing the midterm project, choose a past homework to develop out further into an alternative
controller game, or create a new alternative controller game from scratch. Purely physical alternative
controller games are allowed for the final.
What’s required for submission, a .zip file containing the following:
An image file showing your hardware circuit overview
A small writeup explaining how the game works and how to play it (this could be through the
submission comments or as a small text document inside the zip file)
The code for your hardware circuit (it should be a .ino file if you download it from the web
editor) and code for your digital game (if there is one)
A short 1-minute video recording showing your working game in action
Grading Rubric (Missing any of these will result in the corresponding number of points taken off)
1 Point – Hardware circuit overview
1 Point – Writeup explaining how to play the game
2 Points – Game code
4 Points – A fully functioning alternative controller game
2 Points – Video documenting the game and how it works
Stretch Goals (Extra Credit)
1 Point – Create a video trailer of the game (for portfolio documentation and submission to
festivals in the future)
2 Points – Submit the game to an actual festival
Good festivals for submission include: alt.ctrl.GDC, IndieCade, IGF, Come Out & Play,
Bit Bash, and A MAZE.
Due by class 20. You will also give a live demo of the game in a class playtest session.
Class 16 – Final Project Development
Class Topics/Activities
Break into Final project groups and work on games
Instructor goes from group to group checking on progress and offering suggestions
Week 9: Making Robust Alternative Controllers: Soldering and Conductive Thread
Class 17 – Soldering and Conductive Thread
Class Topics/Activities
What could go wrong? Challenges in public display deployments [26]
Taxonomy of six categories for things that can go wrong with public displays
Weather, events, surroundings, space, inhabitants, and vandalism
Discuss ways to make alternative controller games more robust
Basics of soldering
Explain various soldering tools
Discuss proper way to solder and soldering techniques
The LilyPad, wearables, and conductive thread as an alternative to solder
In-class activity – Soldering practice (ONLY under instructor supervision)
Please ensure that the proper safety materials are present before starting the activity
Solder smoke absorber, a clear desk space with no nearby flammable materials, a
bucket of cold water in case of burns
Students do not have to participate if they do not want to
Set the soldering space up at the front of the classroom for easier supervision
Setup several protoboards, soldering irons, solder, soldering fans, jumper wire, and
helping hands
Allow students to take turns soldering 22 AWG solid wire to the protoboards under
direct teacher supervision
Class 18 – Final Project Development
Class Topics/Activities
Break into Final project groups and work on games
Instructor goes from group to group checking on progress and offering suggestions
Week 10: Final Project Polish and Playtest Presentations
Class 19 – Next Steps: Showcasing Alternative Controller Games
Class Topics/Activities
Who accepts alternative controller games work?
Festivals, festivals, and more festivals
There are so many festivals that support alternative controller games
IndieCade, alt.ctrl.GDC, Bit Bash, Come Out & Play, A MAZE., Makers Play, etc.
Creating a portfolio of work
Strong alternative controller game portfolio examples
Creating enticing gameplay trailers
Software for creating gameplay trailers
Tips for creating gameplay trailers
Work in Final Project groups
Class 20 – Final Project Demonstration/Playtest Event
Class Topics/Activities
Break into Final Project groups and demo/present final projects
Students can go around and play the games from other teams
Instructor goes around to grade all final projects
Tips and Tricks
‘Design inspirations’ in the form of existing alternative controller games can be extremely
useful for both students and instructor. Providing students with examples of 1 – 2 existing
alternative controller games as design inspirations at the beginning of class is 1) highly
engaging for the students, 2) expands their repertoire of alternative controller game designs,
and 3) gives the instructor an opportunity to prime the students for the piece of technology
they will be working on that day. For instance, showing students a video of Donkey Konga
and the DK Bongos on the same day that the piezo element (detects vibration) is introduced
provides a nice lead-in to talk about that electronic component for the class lecture.
Whenever introducing a new electronic component (e.g., photoresistor, piezo, microphone,
and so forth), it is useful to also incorporate video/GIF examples of games that have utilized
these components. This helps students to ground their understanding of how these
components work in an applied context and provides them with additional design
inspirations for their own games.
Learning to prototype circuits is difficult for students with no prior experience to understand,
even with pictures, videos, and circuit diagramming software such as Fritzing. One way to
greatly help students in understanding how to build a certain circuit is to do ‘live wiring’
during class lecture. I.e., setup an overhead camera (such as a document scanner camera), and
use it to project the breadboard, circuit, and your hands during class while you are wiring a
Another nice trick to use, if time permits, is to ‘live draw’ the circuits in Fritzing with the class
before wiring them or coding in Arduino. This is a time-consuming process, so it is not ideal
to do for every circuit that is wired in class. However, it is useful for teaching more
conceptually difficult concepts such as series and parallel circuits.
Providing real-world contexts and application areas for alternative controllers can serve to
greatly motivate students and help them view their work as more relevant. Giving extra credit
on the final project for submitting their alternative controller game is one nice potential way
to add motivation for students and help them to build a quality game portfolio.
For the homework assignments, providing stretch goals in the form of extra credit tasks is a
nice tool to address a broader range of students in the class. While the homework should not
be too difficult, the stretch goals can provide additional outlets of exploration for students
that are excelling and similarly motivate other students to attempt/learn from more
challenging tasks once they have completed the core homework assignment. Adding extra
credit for creativity or polish is also great since it encourages the students to explore more
and further engage with their game designs.
For homework assignments that were not presented to the class, it is also nice to highlight a
few strong homework submissions at the beginning of class. Students generally enjoy seeing
the great work done by their peers and it serves as extrinsic motivation. Make sure to
highlight as many different students’ work as possible through the course.
Sometimes is it helpful to take a problem-based learning approach [4,8] for certain classes,
such as when teaching advanced analog techniques like calibration and thresholding. Since
these techniques provide solutions to common problems, it is helpful to start by creating the
problem and using that to ground student understanding of the technique. For instance, when
introducing calibration, the class starts out with the simplest circuit and code solution
possible to create a light-controlled theremin. The class then proceeds to discuss the issue and
iteratively refine the light theremin (using calibration) until it functions much better—such as
being able to adjust to different lighting conditions.
Some students may be color blind, which makes reading resistor color codes nearly
impossible. There are a number of mobile apps that can take a picture of a resistor, determine
the color codes, and identify the resistance. It is good practice to mention or even show one of
these apps when first introducing resistors.
‘Live wiring’ and live coding are fairly intensive processes where students can easily fall
behind. It is important to check with students after every couple of wiring steps or lines of
code to make sure that they are caught up and conceptually understand what just happened. It
is also extremely helpful to have teaching assistants in the classroom to aid students who have
fallen behind or are less comfortable with programming/physical computing concepts.
Space is a very valuable resource for courses such as this one which rely heavily on hands-on
activities. Ensure that the classroom reserved for this class is a lab room or has a large, shared
desk for each row of students. In the past, this course was taught in a classroom that only had
individual desk chairs, and that was not nearly enough space for a laptop, electronics kit, and
One assignment that did not work extremely well in the past was to create a video trailer of
the final project game. While this was beneficial as it helped students to document their games
more formally and provided them with more submission material for festivals, it also proved
difficult for a number of students to create a video trailer in a short one-week span. Making
non-game design/development assignments optional (or for extra credit) can prove more
flexible in providing additional challenges to students that are excelling in the class while
alleviating pressure on those that are struggling a bit more.
Alternative Controller Game Examples from Past Courses
HyperMasculinity by Fernando Tapia, Cory Super, and Charisse Lo
Sengoku Rhythm by Eisaku Imura and Hesiquio Mendez Alejo
Beat Shift by Bradley Matias
Laser Archery by Andrew Cousins and Mallory Strout
Alternative controller games have continued to grow in popularity in recent years, with venues
such as alt.ctrl.GDC and Night Games at IndieCade garnering major attention. With this rise in
popularity comes additional polish and novel approaches that push the boundaries of ‘alternative
controller’. In order to support the broad range of potential games and interactive experiences
that could incorporate alternative controllers, there are a number of potential directions, topics,
assignments, and so forth that the course could address, including:
Accessibility is perhaps the single most important application area that this course does not
currently cover for alternative controllers. By enabling designers to control the physical
affordances of a controller, alternative controllers have enormous potential to bring greater
accessibility to gaming. Future iterations of the course should incorporate a class on designing
for accessibility, as well as an assignment to create an accessible interface for a popular
commercial game.
An assignment focused on repurposing existing analog technology (e.g., adding sensors to a
bike, couch, or television or even providing new ways to control a sewing machine or 3d
printer) could prove challenging and fun.
Teaching how to use and incorporating fabrication technologies such as sewing machines, 3d
printers, and CNC machines. This would enable students to create far more polished
interfaces for their games and provide them with valuable new skills for the future.
Escape rooms are a very common application of novel interfaces and alternative controller
technologies, so a class discussing the design of escape room puzzles would be valuable.
Furthermore, escape room technologies are almost always purely physical (no digital screen
component). Therefore, an assignment to create technology for an escape room puzzle would
present a useful set of design challenges that contrast well with the physical interface/digital
game requirements for the midterm project.
Increasing emphasis on wearable technologies, switching from the standard Arduino to the
LilyPad Arduino or Circuit Playground (which are better suited for projects with e-textiles
and wearables but still offer similar functionality to a standard Arduino), and exploring the
concept of playable fashion.
Live action role-playing games (LARPs) are a type of role-playing game where participants
physically portray their characters to enact the plot of a game [27]. Notably, employing
wearables to enhance and support the LARP experience has become increasingly more
accessible and popular. Therefore, a class discussing technologies currently employed in
LARPs and an assignment to build a LARP wearable could be a fun task that exposes students
to other interesting tools/materials such as EVA foam.
Ultimately, this class addresses a wide range of games, communities, and applications that are
generally ignored by most commercial game companies. As noted above, there are a variety of ways
this course could evolve over the next 3 – 5 years to better address these often overlooked but quickly
growing application areas.
The author would like to thank Kaho Abe for the many helpful conversations, suggestions, and
feedback provided when initially conceptualizing this course. Her experiences and insight from
teaching her own similar classes were invaluable in helping to guide the initial idea for Foundations
of Alternative Controller Games.
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