Why Playstation Controller Buttons Are Symbols, Not Letters

By  |  Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 9:20 am

From the Nintendo era onward, the vast majority of video game controllers have named their face buttons after letters in the alphabet — almost always picking from A, B, C, X, Y and Z — with the exception of the Sony Playstation and its progeny.

I never thought to question the Playstation’s combination of square, circle, triangle and X, but the folks at Famitsu magazine did. 1UP relays the magazine’s conversation with Sony designer Teiyu Goto:

We wanted something simple to remember, which is why we went with icons or symbols … I gave each symbol a meaning and a color. The triangle refers to viewpoint; I had it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. Square refers to a piece of paper; I had it represent menus or documents and made it pink. The circle and X represent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision-making and I made them red and blue respectively.

(As Kotaku points out, circle’s representation of “yes” is prevalent in Japanese culture, but not in America. Stateside, X is the common decision-making button, because we tend to think of a controller’s bottom button as the main one.)

Anyway, this got me thinking of whether the particulars of button nomenclature really matter. I guess we won’t know for sure until someone tests memorization time for several controllers among a large pool of newcomers. Personally, I’ve committed all controller layouts to memory, but I can’t say the Xbox 360 took more or less time than the Playstation 3. In the heat of an intense gaming moment, I’m more likely to rely on rote memorization than the implied meaning of symbols. (I will say Playstation’s placement of a triangle button on top is rather intuitive, because it looks like an up arrow. Maybe the best button names resemble their orientation.)

Function aside, Playstation’s buttons have arguably been most useful as marketing. The four symbols, when used together, are instantly associated with the Playstation brand. You can’t say that about A, B and C.


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25 Comments For This Post

  1. David Leppik Says:

    As someone who uses a PS3 primarily as a Blu-Ray (and now Netflix) player, those buttons are among the most confusing parts of the whole system. They're one of many features that seem to say "if you're not a hard core gamer, we don't want you."

  2. puneet brar Says:

    But Just think about those illiterates who can play games by just knowing those symbols and they don't know what is A B C they can not recognize at all

    so i suppose the symbols are cool

  3. wartickler Says:

    Except that the to an illiterate the A, B, and C just look like little line drawings. They are, in effect, symbols. If they were Japanese characters do you think it would take you long to recognize the character for the action?

  4. joypatra Says:

    @puneet, A,B,C are just as much symbols to an illiterate as X,O are. They are simply action buttons whether marked with a C or an X.

  5. NNM Says:

    That article is so narrow minded and pointless… Are you seriously not getting it?
    Letters such as ABC are not international, while the symbols used there are X-language.
    Are you aware that in some cultures, the alphabet that you use has no meaning at all?
    Geometrical shapes such as a circle, a square, a triangle have a meaning for ALL civilizations.
    Even an alien from another galaxy would probably associate a meaning to these basic, universal, geometrical shapes.
    It makes much more sense than letters.

  6. annoyed Says:


  7. Steve Says:

    I don't quite understand why this article exists.
    You want 4 buttons that can indicate different actions for different apps. Obviously the best answer is 4 buttons with different, but simple, markings.

    The interesting article is why on earth people thought using characters from one of the western alphabets was a good idea. There's nothing that favours that particular solution apart from a lack of clear thinking or jingoism.

  8. Also annoyed Says:


  9. Max Says:

    I don’t really get the random 1 word insult posts, but anyway…

    I have a PS3 and honestly I think it comes down to how well the game drills the use of the button into my head.
    I think ‘reload’ or ‘jump’ not triangle or square within a few presses for most games. Similar to how you don’t think ‘push right arm forwards’ to turn left on a bike.

    Yet in rhythm games or any where you need to press certain buttons as told on screen without them having any meaning, I find myself looking at the controller all the time.

    As to if symbols or letters are ‘better'(subjective), personally as an english native consecutive letters makes sense, but not the way Microsoft use them.

    If it was A-D buttons in a row, or in a circle either clockwise or counter clockwise, I need only remember A and the rest come naturally.
    Abstract symbols do not have this benefit (neither does the xbox controller IMO), and I don’t see any negatives to using characters with inherent order over abstract symbols.

    I would (possibly wrongly) beleive that A B C and D are just as easy to differentiate/identify to someone who does not use the latin/roman alphabet as Triange Square Circle and Cross. Hell, cross is an X and it doesn’t throw them.

  10. Steve Says:

    Yeah, that's the really interesting question, Max.
    What combination of symbols and colours etc. would make a set of four visually distinct labels for human beings.

    As you mentioned, labelling buttons 'reload' or 'jump' just won't cut it. Games use the same controller where you don't move around a little guy that reloads and jumps. Rhythm games are a fine example.

    What's needed is a thought about what is a good group of "4 visual button distinguishers" for human beings.

    Tha's why I posted that didn't understand why the article exists. That buttons can have letters or symbols on them seems a trivial fact. What would be the best symbol to pick seems to be the fascinating question.


  11. Rod Says:

    Because the symbols are *universal*.

  12. Philip Seyfi Says:

    They aren't… Ex. a circle is "yes" for a Japanese… yet Westerners use checks, and sometimes even crosses.

  13. Flavio Says:

    It is demonstrated by lot of UX studies that people better recognize and remember the graphical position of an element rather than it’s icon, in fact i recently read an article on how Office Team improved the experience of its users adding text label to the “intuitive” icon system.

    Sure thing that the same (and maybe more!) is valid for physical movements; personally i can’t stand the PS controller, i am not an avid console gamer and don’t own a PS but always found it anti-ergonomical and could never catch up on the controls when playing with friends’ PS. With the Xbox that i own since 1 year i am much more accustomed also if playing very little, in fact i was “feeling” the controller since the first time i picked up one in a mall.

  14. jamEs Says:

    This is a load of BS. They pretty much stole the exact layout of the Super Nintendo controller. Sony and Nintendo had been working together on the Super Nintendo CD peripheral, but that never came into being. Sony instead took that project and turned it into the PS1. They basically took the SNES controller, added handles, split the d-pad and renamed the buttons. There was some innovation on their part in the design, but 3/4 of the design was Nintendo's doing.

  15. Fletch Says:

    Stole? the only similarity is the way those four buttons are laid out. Nothing else is even remotely close. That would mean 80 to 90 percent of the controller is all sony's doing. BTW Nintendo does NOT design consoles. They get companies to do that for them. Sony came up with all the designs otherwise Nintendo would have sued them by now, wouldn't they? No because sony had the right to make the playstation by themselves since It was REALLY their design and idea. They design the prototype and nintendo wasn't happy, that's what happened

  16. Phil Says:

    I think the fact that the alphabet is ordered left to right helps for memorization. It feels intuitive to me that B is left of A, and Y is left of X.

    As a non regular playstation player I usually have to take a quick glance at the controller when first playing a game to remind me which side square is on and which side circle is on (triangle and x somehow seem intuitive to me although I'm not sure why).

  17. rsalazar Says:

    I think they should add a scroller like the mouse. that will make menu navigation easy.

  18. Karim Hosein Says:

    If you are making games for the English only m,arket, then ABCD makes sense but…
    make more sense than

    Frankly, what makes more sense is some symbolism that identifies what the button does. That is to say, a key labelled "A" does not intuitively says, "Menu" nor "View/Direction" than perhaps a Square or Triangle but if I said to you, "Square represents a square piece of paper such as a menu or document and Triangle represents a head or a direction," then the symbols suddenly makes more sense than "A" or "B"

    Now I do not own a PS but I am now assuming that the big mistake was either that Sony did not explain the meanings of the buttons clearly in their documentation or the gamers grabbed the PS, inserted a game and started to play because manuals are for the n00b and are un-cool.

    Perhaps a combination of both.

    I really cannot see MS replacing the icons in Excel with buttons Labelled, "A, B, C, D," so the icons for all languages plus a manual in each language to explain the buttons makes more sense, especially from a country that does not use the English alphabet. Even more so from a country that spends more on individual entertainment –that is, not cinema, theatre, concerts or mass entertainment but one game one person– than any other country.

    It makes even more sense when you consider that Excel can change its icons and its icon position within the context of what you are doing (or from one program to another, Excel-Word-PPT) whereas the controllers are fixed regardless of the game or language you are playing in.

    The first time I saw the PS controller, It made sense to me. My concern was just remembering where each symbol was. That also became fairly orderly. Three-sided polygon – four-sided polygon – infinitely-sided polygon (for a "yes" answer) – no polygon (for a "No" answer, also, bottom button, easiest to reach, for "Default" action.

  19. jae Says:

    Well what about Nintendo’s funky controllers

  20. killer Says:

    i use mentally in head – ABXYZ select start, i dont go by naming or symbolising – its all about how hands adjust to controller

  21. Jay Says:

    The wii controller is what gets me… I get confused with that crap. hehe

  22. Gordy Harris Says:

    can't find L3 contoll buton on controller on Tiger Woods 12 game say change golfers by pressing L3 button. Can not locate this button on controller.

  23. Jsparco Says:

    I love the fact that the controllers are symbols and not numbers. Symbols are more easy to recognize and not get confused. orlando audio visual

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