Is a game controller an input or output device?

If you are using a game controller every day it is probably a good idea to understand whether it’s an input or output device. The technology behind game controllers has significantly improved over the years and has allowed for a more seamless gaming experience.

Game controllers are one of the most important input devices in the world. They are used by gamers across many different platforms, and around 48 million members of the gaming community Steam use them every day. Their inputs generally control an object or character in the game.

With so many more features included in a controller than two decades ago, the lines between input and output devices have certainly become more blurred. So let’s dive into what input and output devices are, then look at what makes a game controller and input device.

What are input and output devices?

Let’s take a look at the difference between an input and output device to help us understand why a game controller is an input device.

Input Devices

A touchpad is an input device, as is a mouse. An input peripheral is used to send information to a computer or device. Both a touchpad and a mouse record your movement and input the information to your computer.

Input components transmit data to your CPU, which sits on your motherboard, rather than receiving instructions from it as output devices do.

Output Devices

A plotter is an output device, as are speakers. An output peripheral receives information from the CPU, which is a processing device, then actions these instructions by outputting something. A plotter outputs large designs and architectural drawings, and a speaker outputs sound.

Output components receive data from your CPU, rather than sending instructions to it as input devices do.

Is a game controller an input or output device?

A game controller is an input device that tracks the buttons you press on the control and relays the data to the console. They typically use a mixture of small joysticks and buttons to capture your input, although depending on the device game controllers can vary a lot. The information is then sent to your device which controls the character on an object in the game.

Game controllers that come with modern consoles are also known as gamepads. These are even making their way into PC gaming because they are significantly easier to use than a keyboard and mouse. As well as four action buttons, most game controllers now have shoulder buttons and movement joysticks for finer control. 

We’ve discussed joysticks and keyboards in-depth in other articles, the mechanics for how game controllers function is a mixture of the two.


The first game controller was included in the Magnavox Odyssey 100 console in 1972. It was an input device but far more rudimentary than modern-day game controllers. The definition of a game controller is pretty broad so included in the umbrella term are things like racing steering wheels, pedals, light guns, and even touch screens for mobile devices.

Since the advent of home entertainment consoles game controllers have played a crucial role in allowing us to input and control in-game characters and objects.

Why is a game controller an input device?

Game controller data flow
Game controller data flow

A game controller is an input device because it predominantly transmits data to the central processing unit but does not depend on information coming from the processor to operate. It collects your inputs via the joysticks and buttons that comprise a game controller and keeps the CPU constantly updated.

Storage devices like hard drives and flash drives receive information from the processor and then store it. When you access it later on the CPU then retrieves the data from the storage device. In this example, a storage device doesn’t act as either an input or output device. 

In contrast, your input devices send information to your CPU which then processes it and instructs other parts of the system.

Input devices generally capture human behavior. Webcams capture images and video, while microphones capture your speech. Mouses, joysticks, and game controllers all capture the movement of your fingers to control elements of your computer.

On the other hand, output devices predominantly rely on data input from the CPU to function correctly. While a microphone captures our speech, then forwards the information. A printer takes instructions from the processor then outputs hard copies of your documents. 

All components transmit and receive information from the CPU in some way.  But we don’t categorize all devices as input/output because it doesn’t reflect reality. It is also not a reflection of the primary job they perform. 

We organize computer components based on what they are mainly used for. Therefore, the reason a game controller is an input device is that its main job is to gather movement data from you and forward it to your CPU.

Keeping track of how information moves between the components in your devices is an excellent way to understand the differences between inputs and outputs.

Conclusion

A game controller is an input device, not an output device. It collects your finger movements via joysticks and buttons then updates your computer with the information. Getting a grip of the different components in your device is a perfect way to grasp how everything fits together. 

If in doubt remember it’s generally the flow of information that defines what is an input and what is output. A device that predominantly sends information to the CPU is a hallmark of an input device.

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