Daily Archives: February 6, 2007

The Typist’s Bane

Or how WASD undid 25 years of practice.

I have been using a QWERTY keyboard for a long time.  When I was 10 years old I received an Olivetti portable typewriter for my birthday. It replaced the ancient Underwood model I had borrowed from my grandparents.  The Olivetti was small but sturdy, had its own case, and would have been the perfect color for a San Jose Sharks fan, if the Sharks had been in San Jose 20 years earlier.  It even had a 1 key, an unheard of luxury in the age of the old Underwood, where the lower case L served as the digit 1 at need, and you made an exclamation point by typing a single quote, backspacing, and then typing a period.

Even at that age it was clear that, with my illegible handwriting, I was either going to have to learn to type or become a doctor.

So I banged away at the little Olivetti over the next 10 years until I finally had a computer configuration that would allow me to write and print out documents which my college professors would accept.

In 7th grade I took typing, pounding away the drills (FFFF JJJJ ffff jjjj) on the heavy Olympia models favored by our local school system.  I became a reasonable touch typist.

I took typing again in high school.  Drivers Education, which used to be an actual high school course in my youth (and the sort of seedy class where you might meet future MMO players), but it was only one semester long, so you had to pair it up with another semester course.  I do not recall today what my other options were, but I do know that typing was the hands down winner.  So I spent another semester on the very same model Olympia typewriters banging out the behavior of foxes relative to dogs in repose.  This semester, in addition to revealing Greg B’s dark secret, made the placement of my fingers on the right keys second nature.  Type I could.

Eventually I picked up an Apple ][+ and later a //e, both of which had fine, solid keyboards on which I could type.

Of course, if I had a computer, I had to have games for that computer.

One of the games I got was Broderbund’s classic Lode Runner, a game both wonderful and evil.  A game which ate up many an hour of my youth.

While there is much I could write about Lode Runner, one particular aspect concerns this story.  Lode Runner was the first game I ran into that used WASD keys for controls.  It might very well have been the first computer game ever to use that control layout.  Up until that point, all the games I played that had keyboard controls used WASZ.  W for up or forward, A for left, S for right, and Z for down.

WASZ makes sense when you look at it on the keyboard.  It forms a nice little diamond.  Unfortunately, it is a very awkward to use those four keys as controls.  I could never smoothly play a game that required me to use WASZ.  Those keys require you to pick the three fingers you are most dexterous with up off the keys and rearrange them in different situations.

WASD on the other hand, could be used without lifting your hand from the keyboard.  You kept your index finger on the D, your ring finger on the A, and moved your middle finger between the S and the W.  This may sound like a “duh” moment, but go ahead and remap WoW or EQ2 to use WASZ for motion, play that way for a couple days, then imagine somebody just showed you WASD for the first time.  Tell me that wasn’t a revelation.

Now, the problem here is the location of your fingers.  If somebody had chosen ESDF as the control keys on Lode Runner, the world of touch typing might be a different place.  But to use WASD, you have to move your fingers over one key from where you would normally place them to type.

Not a big deal in 1983.  I played a lot of Lode Runner, but not THAT much Lode Runner.  And I played a lot of other games that required typing, like those Infocom text games (I got the babel fish!), which kept my skills sharp.  And I was in college at the time too, so I was typing a lot of papers.

Years went on, WASD remained low on the horizon. I played online games, which required a lot of typing, MUDs, which required a lot of typing, and ended up in the real world of a career, which required a lot of typing.

Then WASD began to emerge.  I played a first person shooter on the Mac called Marathon that used those keys.  Later I played Delta Force on the PC.  Still, I played enough games that did not rely on WASD that I was okay.

Then came EverQuest.

Just kidding!  EverQuest does not use WASD.  I had to consult my original manual to be sure.  Remember (if you played it) that “A” used to be auto-attack, so you would click on an NPC, forget to hit enter to get the text entry field, then start typing until you hit an “A,” attacked the NPC, and got slain very quickly?  Ah yes, good times.

But I digress.

Then came Battlefield 1942, Battlefield Vietnam, EverQuest II, and World of Warcraft.

These games I played to death.  These games all use WASD as their standard controls.

I noticed one day last year I was having a lot of trouble typing. 

I had just changed keyboards at home.  This may have moved the problem along, since I went from a well sculpted keyboard to a Saitek Gamers Keyboard that not only laid very flat on the desk, but which had keys with no sculpting to them at all.  So I blamed the keyboard. 

But I was having the problem at work as well, where I have a keyboard that is much more in line with the Olympia keyboards I learned on; rows of keys stacked up like seats in a stadium, each key with a shallow valley in it to guide your fingers to the optimum location.

Swapping keyboards at home did not help the situation.  While the Logitech G15 was a huge improvement over the Saitek, my finger placement problem remained.

I had to face the facts.

Enough gaming had finally broken my natural tendency to place the fingers of my right hand on the ASDF keys.  Instead, my pinky went to the CAPS LOCK key and the remaining fingers settled on ASD.  I would type through a page and end up with text that looked like this:


(At noon I need to go pick up my daughter.)

The menace was revealed.  Gaming has screwed up my ability to touch type reliably. 

Now I wonder what the generation who grew up with WASD, who were pressing those keys from the time they could reach a keyboard, will end up.  Does gaming spell the end of touch typing?