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Friday, December 1, 2023

Confession: I press Ctrl with my palm. Should I go to jail?

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Like most people, I go into the weekend with a hopeful mindset—particularly that no earth-shattering revelations about my PC gaming habits will come to light during the hours that I’m just trying to relax. Then, one fateful Sunday morning, a long-overdue bell tolled. I was knee-deep in a match of Apex Legends, sliding and diving across the map, while my roommate sat nearby. “Oh my god,” they said, barely squeaking the words out between cackling fits. “Why are you palm-tapping the Ctrl key?”

Yes, folks, I press Ctrl with the palm of my hand.

Still briefly unaware that this was an unforgivable sin, I decided to let Twitter decide in a poll. I was confident that many others also use the palm-tap, despite my roommate’s heckling suggesting otherwise. It couldn’t just be me, right?

Oh. Well then.

If merely alluding to the palm-tap is enough to make you wince, then apologies in advance for any pain the Frankenstein-like details are sure to cause. My hand rests on the keyboard in a fairly standard WASD configuration (unlike senior editor Wes Fenlon’s shameful WASD crimes): thumb on the spacebar, index finger on the D key, middle finger on the W and S keys, and ring finger on the A key.

That’s normal enough, but then it all goes to hell. In most of the FPS games I play, Shift and Ctrl are crucial keys used to crouch, sprint, or walk. Shift is the only key I press with my pinky, so for Ctrl, my palm lunges forward to nudge it—the top-right palm meat below the fingers, specifically. Sometimes when I do this, my pinky inadvertently extends upward like ye olde aristocrats joyously sipping from a teacup.

It’s ridiculous, I know. I mean, now I know. Imagine you’ve gone 15 years without realizing everyone else simply adjusts their pinky south to reach Ctrl. I’m still reeling from the revelation. It’s right up there with finding out that that little arrow on your car’s gas gauge points toward which side of your car the fuel cap is on.

How did my smooth brain even come up with the palm-tap? And when? Did I even come up with it, or pick up the habit from someone? I had a sneaking suspicion answers lay hidden somewhere among the bulky CRT monitors and MacGyvered-together home networks of early 2000s LAN parties.

Tap n’ slap


That circled region is the portion of my palm I’ve always used to press Ctrl, dating all the way back to 2005 (at least).

A childhood friend I hadn’t spoken to in years actually remembered my palm-tapping from our Counter-Strike 1.6 days. “You came to one of our local Counter-Strike tournaments insisting this exercise was best for sneaking around in-game,” he said in a snarky tone. “Walking and crouching actions remove footstep sounds in Counter-Strike, which you mapped to Shift and Ctrl, respectively. Guess the idea was always to have part of your hand on keyboard shortcuts bound to noise mitigation? Whatever the reasoning may have been, it looked stupid and uncomfortable.” 

Stupid? Yes. Uncomfortable? Perish the thought! Contorting my imprecise hand flesh into an awkward inverse arc to push Ctrl could never lead to discomfort. It’s not like I’ve spent years waking up wondering if someone took a fire poker to my hand while I was asleep. No way, never! I foolishly never brought this hand pain up with my doctor, assuming it was nothing more than some nasty carpal tunnel. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for a professional opinion, so we reached out to Dr. Caitlin McGee, a physical therapist with a background in neuroscience and exercise/sport science. Her advice? Things aren’t looking so great for the palm-tap.

“Extending like that puts your lumbricals, or intrinsic hand muscles, in a stretched position, and they’re not able to effectively perform finger flexion or stabilization as a result. If [you] weren’t having pain, I’d consider the possibility that someone could become adapted to pushing the Ctrl button that way. However, [you’re] having pain.” Maybe it’s time to retire this particular habit.

Clearly I’ve been using the palm-tap since regularly playing Counter-Strike, but the seed was likely sown into little Kyle’s subconscious long before any LAN party. That same friend reckons the Counter-Strike 1.6 IRC servers we frequented were rife with goofy “tips and tricks” (I remember one rando insisting left-handed mousing yielded more headshots), and that mock advice may have caused the Campbell palm-tap to blossom into a lifelong bad habit. It just took my roomie’s belly laughs nearly two decades later to realize that uncomfortable palm gymnastics are not an ideal way to play.

After absorbing the history that likely lead to my aberrant crouching, time came to give my palm a break by pressing Ctrl with my pinky like an actual human.

Pinky problems

I pressed Ctrl with my pinky. It felt deeply wrong.

It was like I’d strolled onto a beach wearing socks and sandals. My first problems came in a match of Dead By Daylight. I was running from the killer and was totally incapable of juking around them as my left hand refused to cooperate.

I took a hard turn past a dusty old cabin and into some waist-high bushes, breaking line of sight with my assailant for a brief moment. When the time came to crouch into a bush, everything slowed to a snail’s pace. My body insisted my pinky stay on the safe, rectangular surface of Shift, yet there I was firing off every brain synapse like mad trying to move it half an inch down to Ctrl.

It was a borderline impossible task that I could only overcome through meditative focus. My pinky quivered as I stayed lowered in the dense shrubbery, and when the killer came back into view, my fight-or-flight (or in this case, palm-or-qualm) reflexes kicked in. The Campbell palm-tap could not contain itself, thrusting forward to evict my pinky from its rightful home. Which, unfortunately, caused me to mistakenly pop out of the bushes—I was spotted. The killer was happy to reward my bumbling by stabbing me in the gut.

That cycle repeated for several matches. Sometimes I managed to push Ctrl with my pinky just fine, while other attempts ended in comical failure. Friends suggest I keep using my palm as I’ve done for years and insist that rewiring years of muscle memory isn’t worth the hassle.

But the status quo is uncomfortable. I could double down and pontificate about how the palm-tap is brilliant, actually, but that would be dishonest. The road to palm-tapping is paved in needless hand cramps. After spending some time with the pinky method, as hard as it is to adjust, my hand does feel a lot less fatigued. It turns out that little contortion of mine was putting loads of pressure on any fingers planted in the WASD position. Who woulda thought, eh? If only someone had told me that back in 2005.

That’s the beauty of PC gaming, though. Weird, wonderful, and even painful control schemes thrive in an environment where we can tailor every input to our preferences. That exactitude adds a layer of self-expression you don’t really get on other platforms. I might not stick with my quirk, but at least this little adventure has made the keyboard fresh and exciting again. I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with the Ctrl key, one pinky-tap at a time.

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