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What is a Joystick?

Jeremy Laukkonen
Jeremy Laukkonen

A joystick is a type of gaming controller that may mimic the appearance of an aircraft flight stick. One typically consists of a stick, mounted on a base of some kind, that can be articulated in two or three directions. One of the oldest control methods for video games, joysticks are prevalent on arcade machines and may also be available for home use. Most home video game systems have had a variety of joysticks available as optional peripherals, with older systems even using them as the primary controller. They are often sought out in situations where a game requires precise inputs and a great deal of control, such as in flight simulators or games in the fighting genre.

While the joystick is typically an analog input device, digital versions have also existed. An analog joystick typically works by transmitting an angle reading to a video game system or computer. This way, the device can detect where the stick is moved, along both x and y axes, at any time. Models with a z axis are also able to transmit this additional date along with the x and y positions.

A joystick is a type of gaming controller.
A joystick is a type of gaming controller.

Analog joysticks often have what may be known as gates. These are a part of the movement mechanism, and allow the user of the stick to easily lock it into four or eight different cardinal positions. While the movement remains analog, this may be useful to some people that use a joystick for fighting-type games. Round gates may also be available, and it is often possible to modify a joystick with a different style of gate according to personal preference.

Digital joysticks operate in much the same way as the analog variety, though they are only capable of reporting that a movement has occurred, rather than the distance the stick was moved in that direction. These may still be capable of reporting in-between movements, such as an up-left movement, a down-right movement, or anything in between. They were commonly seen in many of the earliest home video game systems.

Many home computers may have a port that was originally designed specifically for a joystick connection. This port was later used for all kinds of game controllers, including console-like gamepads in addition to traditional joysticks. While most computers still have this port, modern joysticks may often be connected via universal serial bus (USB) or other ports, like IEEE 1394. Joysticks using these types of connections may include features like force feedback, with which the game can send a signal for the joystick to vibrate or resist movement.

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Discussion Comments


@Izzy78 - I believe gates are usually used more often to restrict the movement of a joystick. With something like a flight simulator joystick that you're using with the computer, you don't really want restricted movement. You want to be able to get very precise controls.

If you have an old game with an arcade joystick, though, you might need to limit the movements. Some of the older arcade games were only designed to accept up, down, left, and right commands. Later on, though, arcade games started letting people move the joystick in eight directions (added the four directions in between the four cardinal directions).

If a game can only accept 4 commands, and someone used a newer joystick to move northeast, the game would have difficulty registering the exact direction intended, and might not do like the player intended. What the gate does is restricts a newer joystick to only be able to move in a certain number of directions.


I loved playing flight simulator games and Air Force type games on the computer when I was a kid. It was always so much fun getting to feel like you were really controlling the plane. Some of the games could be really realistic, as well.

Back then, you couldn't really buy a USB joystick. You had to have the kind that connected with the pins. I remember a while back that I tried to plug my old joystick into the computer, and they don't even make computers with the ports to handle those type of connectors anymore.

I had never heard of gates for joysticks, though. I guess mine probably wasn't fancy enough for that. How exactly do the gates work on a joystick? Is it just like a button or something that you can lock down that keeps the joystick in the same spot?


@Emilski - I definitely went through my fair share of Atari controllers when I was little. I remember that one of the biggest problems with them was that you could actually pop the joystick right out of the socket with enough force. I remember a lot of heated battles that ended up with broken controllers after someone got mad.

The thing I think is interesting is that game controllers started out with the joystick as the main mode of movement. During the next wave of consoles like the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega systems they ditched the joystick in favor of directional buttons. Finally, once the Playstation came out, consoles started using buttons again. I guess the companies realized once they started making 3D games that they had to have joysticks to get more fluid movement from the characters.


I remember playing the Atari when I was growing up and using the little plastic joystick. It is amazing how games have advanced since then. Now the game controllers are so complicated that I don't even know how someone could keep track of all the different buttons.

I didn't know that there were different types of joysticks as far as the digital and analog went. I had heard those words used before to describe joystick but just assumed they were interchangeable.

The thing I have noticed now on the modern controllers is that most of them actually have two joysticks. I guess they usually control different types of movement. They are much smaller and easier to control than the joysticks I used to use.

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    • A joystick is a type of gaming controller.
      By: rosasto
      A joystick is a type of gaming controller.