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My gaming memories go way back to the Atari 2600 with its single-button gamepad, and with computer gaming I started with the PC XT.

Back in the day, movement would be controlled by the arrows and actions with the spacebar (and secondary actions with Ctrl, Alt, Shift, etc). That was the standard for a long time; I remember playing games on my Pentium with these key bindings.

Nowadays, WASD is almost universal, and even flash games on popular gaming sites accept these keys as movement input.

What was responsible for this change? Can it be traced back to a popular game, important event, or trend that introduced and shifted the tendency from the former to the latter? Or was it just a natural process? If so, why did everyone choose the same keys?

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    I would guess it was the growing popularity of the mouse. – TZHX Sep 30 '13 at 14:32
  • I recall the first time I had even heard of WASD for a control scheme was back when I was playing Unreal Tournament '98. A friend recommended I switch to it after he'd heard I was playing it with arrow keys still. While that is unlikely the origin of it, it's at least that old. – Aeo Sep 30 '13 at 14:45
  • In past I've also seen QAOP scheme, which might give slightly more precision, at the expense of using two hands instead of one. – o0'. Jun 14 '14 at 20:10
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    VT Reopen based on consensus here: meta.gaming.stackexchange.com/questions/9818/… – Robotnik Mar 5 '15 at 2:35
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    On the Apple ][, which originally didn't come with arrow keys (or lowercase, for that matter) it was common for games to use I,J,K,M for movement. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Mar 21 '17 at 15:43
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Wikipedia's article on arrow keys covers some of the history of WASD:

The scheme wasn't popularized until competitive play in Quake and subsequently QuakeWorld made clear its advantages over the older arrow key configurations.

Competitive Quake play only popularised the layout though, as it wasn't the first time they were used:

In the same year that Castle Wolfenstein was released, 1981, the game Wizardry used the AWD keys for movement in a 3D dungeon. Both the programmers of Castle Wolfenstein and Wizardry were users of the earlier PLATO system where the game Moria used the AWD keys.

So they were popularised by Quake and the FPSs that followed and made it default, but they'd been around as a control scheme for a while already.

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    This kinda sorta meks me wonder why the arrow key element/control element/Numpad never got moved to the left side of the main element. – No. 7892142 Aug 12 '14 at 13:05
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    @No.7892142 I assume because keyboards came before mice. The keyboards had been standardized for years, so it would make more sense to keep the standard than adjust the control scheme. Gaming was only a small market on PC in the early days, and gaming keyboards didn't come until later, so by the time someone could come out with a 'gaming' keyboard that had the arrows on the left WASD was already the standard. – SGR Mar 21 '17 at 15:18
  • Can confirm that Quake was when I switched, being the first game I played with free mouse look, allowing view rotation and strafing at the same time. Obviously It also allowed you to bind nearby keys for rapid weapon switching etc. – GazTheDestroyer Sep 29 '17 at 16:01
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    A good external link discussing the Quake/competitive gaming links to WASD by PC Gamer. – Erik Mar 1 '18 at 21:41
  • I remember the default binds for Quake was actually arrow keys. – Nelson Apr 17 at 12:18
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WASD keys are the left most keys which form an arrow shape, allowing the left hand to control movement (and still allow the thumb to reach the spacebar). The right hand is free to use the mouse. This setup is for right handed users who use the mouse with their dominant hand.

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    Alternatively, for keyboard games who want to stick to the left hand for directional input instead of the right hand (such as by being accustomed to console controllers). It all ultimately adds up to "Use the left hand for movement", no matter how you shake it. – Grace Note Sep 30 '13 at 14:52
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One of the reasons is the more frequent use of the mouse in games, and since most people are right-handed, it makes sense to control movement with the left one. And since putting the left hand on the arrow keys would put it in an awkward position, why not keeping it on the left side?

Another possible reason might be the need for more keys to use around the one hand on the keyboard.

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