Have You Played… Cleaning A Mouse Ball?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember a time when your mouse didn’t have a red laser firing out of its belly like some kind of awesome robot. In those times, you’d almost certainly have been playing with just the two buttons as well, with none of these clickable mouse wheels or banks of controls underneath your every digit.

You’ll remember a time when mice had balls and we were expected to clean their guts from time to time.

There was no job grimmer in all of PC gaming.

A mouse, in ages gone by, was a clumsy mechanical device. It still fit into the shell of your hand, though there was a tendency toward the sharply angular in design because people were idiots back then, but instead of sending movement-tracking data to your PC using the power of its mind (I don’t understand how mice work), it used a set of rollers and a ball. Essentially, as you moved the mouse along its pad, a ball that protruded from the bottom of the mouse rolled against that pad and as it turned, it set plastic widgets inside the mouse rotating – as they span, they told the cursor on-screen to move.

You might be able to see where a problem might arise. If anything were to prevent the movement of any of those elements, the cursor wouldn’t move. And for some reason, mouse balls seemed to attract dust, gunge and whatever else nineties kids had lying around their houses. So every now and then you’d have to remove the ball and give it, and the surrounding areas, a wash.

Imagine having to clean the inside of your mouse on a regular basis? All of that along with editing autoexec.bat and config.sys files to make sure games actually ran makes me thankful to live in modern times, even if my SSD isn’t quite as fast as I want it to be.

One time, my pet dog stole my mouse ball. I’d left it on the side while I was poking around trying to shift some crap that had coagulated in the ball-nest. The dog carried it off and lost it somewhere in the garden. I couldn’t play any games for about a week, when I found it half-buried next to a pond.

Look at this, from an article about cleaning mouse balls.

If you find that the mouse still sticks/jumps, the problem may be that the rubber ball has become too smooth due to age. You can rough up the ball for better traction by using a kitchen scouring pad.

Imagine a StarCraft 2 pro asking for a timeout during a match and getting out a Spontex scourer to go to work on his mouse ball.

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64 Comments

  1. hardflipman says:

    i regularly play cleaning my trackball ball after the kids have been on the computer…

  2. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    There was always something satisfying about getting all that gunk off the wheels and the ball itself. That said I defo wouldn’t go back.

    • Stugle says:

      You’d open the belly of the mouse, lift out the track ball, and then (if you were lucky) you could just peel off all the caked on gunk in a long strand of blackened crap. And then your previously stuttering mouse cursor would once more glide with buttery smooth movement across your 320 x 200 resolution Command & Conquer screen.

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        particlese says:

        Getting that whole strip off in one go was the best! I almost (almost) enjoyed practicing that on the mice at work while I waited for their glorified power supplies to finish doing science. Now I only get to scrape the feet of the ones which don’t have cloth mouse pads. :(

        • Spongbo says:

          But that’s – well, not as satisfying, but certainly scratches a similar itch.

          But man! When you’d left the mouse that long that you got a significant single trail from the biggest wheel in one beautiful crufty curvy strand… magic.

          They just don’t make ’em like they used to. (Which is why when you find one somewhere you’re visiting, it’s a public service to the owner to clean it. See also: dirty bathrooms).

      • unacom says:

        Ooooh Yes! I also played that at my girlfriends house. Once. Pulled that strand off in one go and got straightened out for breaking that little “rubber-band” inside the rodent.

    • Premium User Badge

      WombatDeath says:

      I used a toothpick to gently prise away the gunk from the rollers. It was incredibly satisfying; a bit like peeling a scab. I used to be genuinely pleased when it was time to clean my mouse. It’s possible that I am slightly odd.

  3. Retzinsky says:

    Oh to hell with you for reminding me that this was ever a thing.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      It’s easy to forget just how awful mice used to be. Well I guess some particularly unusable laptop trackpads still exist, but otherwise it’s all so much smoother and more precise now.

      People playing Quake or whatever now have quite a different experience, even with perfect emulation.

  4. Kefren says:

    On the plus side, they were repairable, and you could keep parts from one mouse as repair bits for another. Heck, I used to do that with joysticks too: I remember my collections of broken QuickShots, Konix joysticks and so on. Sometimes it was just a broken microswitch and I could swap one in from another joystick, giving it another few years of life for the sake of three minutes with a screwdriver.

    Nowadays Apple and Samsung won’t even let you change the battery in your phone.

    (They claim for design reasons, but it’s probably to kill the second-hand market. Who’ll buy a used phone when batteries degrade over time and you can’t get a new one without sending the phone off for “maintenance”?)

    Hardware which opens easily gets a vote from me.

  5. Sian says:

    Frankly, I prefered cleaning the ball to dusting the interior of my PC which I still have to do. Also, it was less finnicky than prying cat hair out of the tiny, tiny compartment the laser resides in nowadays. Yes, my old mice used to stutter from time to time, but only rarely and cleaning wasn’t all that bad and didn’t happen that often. Now my cursor just jumps away willy-nilly on an almost daily basis because of almost invisible single hairs.

    But other than maintenance, modern mice are clearly superior.

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      distantlurker says:

      Case cleaning as a smoker is the grim, sisyphean task that reminds us of our mortality far more pointedly than any number of Govt. health warnings.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      Does blowing into the hole not cause the cat hair to instantly vanish? It always does on mine.

  6. theapeofnaples says:

    As satisfying as squeezing a spot, tbf

  7. Rao Dao Zao says:

    To be honest, the same accumulation of gunge still applies — it just happens around the ‘feet’ of my modern mouse instead of the rollers. Every so often I have to jab my fingernails under the edges so it’ll glide freely again.

    Tee hee, balls.

  8. lancelot says:

    Mice also required pads (different for mechanical and laser mice). And even laser mice were not very good, the cursor was still getting stuck or jumpy.

    I’m sure it’s been done to death before, but how about a list of things you don’t miss about old PCs:

    micromanaging the HDD space; excruciatingly slow backups

    adjusting CRT screens to remove distortions

    games advising you to “save often”; managing savegames

    dual boot for DOS games and Windows 95 games

    setting up and managing DOS high memory, extended memory, expanded memory (all very different, of course). The order in which the drivers were loaded mattered. And still Quest for Glory 4 ran out of memory and crashed

    DOS game setups that required you to specify the IRQ level and the DMA channel for your sound card

    and of course, troubleshooting IRQ conflicts! (Between different pieces of hardware, if that makes it any clearer.)

    True story that I remembered just now: I couldn’t play King’s Quest VII because the sound was so choppy it was unintelligible. I was really upset about that. I fixed it after a whole week of poking around by raising some ECC memory timing setting in BIOS. That’s all you need to know about old PC gaming.

    • Bing_oh says:

      That’s all nearly as bad as having to set dip switches and jumpers when installing any piece of hardware.

    • mashkeyboardgetusername says:

      Although one thing I do miss is watching the squares change colour and line up neatly while defragmenting. Oddly relaxing.

    • Replikant says:

      The nice thing about the mice of yore was: You could actually use different drivers. This was essential in getting the required amount of low memory for that effing new game that just wouldn’t start with both sound and midi.

    • Dare_Wreck says:

      adjusting CRT screens to remove distortions

      I used to have to do everything you mentioned except for this. Is this something you would do on a regular basis?? Other than maybe adjusting a new CRT for calibration purposes, what types of distortion are you talking about fixing? I honestly am not sure what you meant by this and don’t recall any of my friends needing to do this either.

      • lancelot says:

        I meant removing geometrical distortions, so in theory it had to only be done once. The problem was that there wasn’t a setting that would fit different display modes equally well.

        So you would fine-tune your default resolution to occupy all available screen space without showing barrel/pincushion distortions, and then a game running in a different resolution would show very annoying curved edges, or a bit of the bottom line of text was off-screen in a text mode. But if you started to adjust those, it screwed up your default mode.

        So, in short, one of those things it was better just to stop caring about lest it drive you crazy.

        • Son_of_Georg says:

          And they had that “degauss” button or menu option. I honestly don’t know what that did, but I can still remember the sound it made. It was something I hit whenever the monitor wasn’t working right, just in case.

          I know new monitors have various adjustments that you can make, but I don’t think I’ve ever touched the menu on my current LCD panels.

    • fray_bentos says:

      Oh, I had forgotten about IRQ conflicts and jumpers…

    • Phasma Felis says:

      As a sometime retrogamer, one thing I do miss about old PCs is that CRTs had no concept of “native resolution” or “upscaling artifacts.” Analog displays would just roll with any damnfool resolution you fed them, up to their maximum.

  9. takfar says:

    Wait, you couldn’t play games for a week due to the lack of a mouse?

    Pffft.

    Back in the day, the keyboard was all we’d need to play anything we wanted. I remember the first time I actively used a mouse in game was to sporadically aim at bullet-activated switches on Duke3d, tho I would just as well use page-up page-down to aim up and down.

    First games to really use a mouse with were LucasArts adventures, and then Quake. Anything before that: doom, wolf3d, stunts, Prince of Persia… Keyboard was plenty enough.

    • jezcentral says:

      I have completed Doom with just a keyboard. Good knows how. In those days, the controls were so bizarre that you had to press Ctrl and the left button to strafe left. Just pressing the left button meant you turned. That’s some hideous interaction design right there.

      God, I miss being young.

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        particlese says:

        What! I always thought it was just period and comma for strafing…not that it was any more doable, but it could be done simultaneously for constant-radius circle strafing. In theory. If I had even known what circle strafing was.

        I recently tried playing Doom without a mouse, and it was way tougher and a bit scarier than I expected. It’s no wonder I always played with cheats…

    • Replikant says:

      I remember being the first to switch to keyboard and mouse control and pwning (it wasn’t called pwning back then) all my friends during our Jedi Knight LAN parties.

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    Ben King says:

    Crap, theapeofnaples already beat me to the zit-popping comparison.

    • jezcentral says:

      For me, it was more like nose-picking a crispy bogey. But it’s the same initial resistance followed by it giving way, that made it so satisfying.

  11. Saarlaender39 says:

    “Have You Played… Cleaning A Mouse Ball?”

    Sure, sure…But thanks to the invention of optical mouses – the last play was years ago.

  12. Malcolm says:

    I was remarkably excited when I got a special mouse cleaning device on the front of a magazine (remember them?) it was like a golf ball on a short stick that you could twiddle around ineffectually in an effort to clear the gunk off the rollers. I also had one of those “3M Precision Mousing Surfaces” which, to be fair, was a brilliant mouse mat.

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      Cvnk says:

      A partially straightened paperclip always did the trick. Feeling that sharp little probe digging into that gunk and lifting it off was so satisfying. Bonus points if you removed all the gunk in a single piece.

  13. Morph says:

    Brings back memories of a cover gift on an issue of PC Gamer – a mouse cleaner. It was a plastic black stick with a knobbly ball on the end.
    Yeah… it looked kind of rude.

    • phlebas says:

      Yes! I may even still have mine – I was saving it as a star entry for a ‘what is this object for?’ quiz. Probably too late now.

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      Harlander says:

      Hehe, you beat me to mentioning the “tiny golf ball on a stick” mouse-cleaning tool.

      I’m not sure it actually was all that effective, though. Think you still had to go in and scrape the rollers by hand.

  14. kud13 says:

    Not as bad as getting all the crap from under the keyboard keys- I still play that game from time to time.

    I still have a few of the old mice lying around somewhere. Just in case.

  15. Ejia says:

    I actually remember being more interested in cleaning the gunk off the rollers.

    Also, I remember having played “you’ve forgotten to load mscdex and mouse.com again”.

  16. elderman says:

    I play this game every week. My controller of choice is a wireless trackball mouse from Logitech. I have to say as microgames go, mouse cleaning one is of my favourites. Gameplay is short, but endlessly varied in the little nuances that each playthrough brings. Also, it has a more satisfying reward mechanic than most other computer games.

  17. Neonin says:

    And don’t forget, if you were working in a school you either had to have a large stock of replacement balls or, as our IT teacher did, superglue the bottom shut so students couldn’t nick them or throw them at each other… Almost as fun as taking the terminator off a random PC on a bus network and watching the poor sod trying to figure out which one.

    Not that I would ever condone such behaviour *cough*

  18. Will Tomas says:

    This game had nothing on degaussing CRT monitors.

  19. rodan32 says:

    I used to have the weird Honeywell mouse with two disks rather than a ball. That one seemed to hold up a lot better and get less gunky. Second one on this page: link to oldmouse.com

    But it still needed cleaning. Rubbing alcohol and q-tips.

  20. Umberto Bongo says:

    There was always something fascinatingly gross about doing it.

    I still have that little black plastic thing that came with PC Gamer issue 100. Was actually really useful.

  21. Jediben says:

    SPUN NOT SPAN GOOD GOD.

  22. thekelvingreen says:

    I am pondering this very issue right now as I rehabilitate my Amiga 1200. Its own mouse has long since died and the spare, wedge-shaped A500 mouse is not long for this world. Is it worth cleaning, I wonder, if it will only last a few months, or shall I attempt to work out how to get a USB laser mouse working on the A1200?

  23. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    What most of you reminiscing about this are forgotting is the third wheel. Ohhhhh not the nice easy X and Y-axis ones that you clean first.

    NOOOOO…. I’m talking about the really springy third one that pushes the ball against the other roller wheels. You’d keep bouncing it in and out as you attempted to de-grime it. You could never quite be sure it was clean.

  24. zeos386sx says:

    Cleaning the ball in the mouse always left me torn. Is my desk filthy because look at all the gunk in my mouse; or is my desk super clean because look at all this gunk in my mouse?

  25. melnificent says:

    I’ve not played this since I stopped doing IT repair for a living. The best part was spending 20 minutes doing it and the customer thinking you had done some form of magic to the mouse internals.

  26. Spacewalk says:

    With the male of the species now extinct how do they reproduce?

    • unacom says:

      Them males ain´t dead, yet. The office I work in retired one (the last) about five weeks ago. We set it free in the archive, where it joined a gang of about five geriatric mice roaming the shelves and old three-ring-binders with ancient project documentation. I believe the pack is led by an old greyback with only two buttons.

  27. Barberetti says:

    I had a Logitech 3 button ball mouse back in the Quake days. Best mouse I’ve ever had. The weight of it was perfect. If I could get one now I would.

    I didn’t play for days after it finally conked out.

    • Silverchain says:

      We had so many different shapes and sizes over the years at work I sat down one day with a screwdriver and started tracing their different forms and evolution.

      The resulting scholarly treatise was “the Origin of Meeces…”

  28. Someoldguy says:

    Laser mice definitely have advantages but I’ve never had one as comfortable as my trusty corded Intellimouse Explorer.

  29. TheSplund says:

    I did coincidentally get out my old Microsoft Intellimouse in the last month or two. I have my first one from 1995, and another I hung onto, and they both still work and are surprisingly satisfying to use even though I now use a combination of a RAT7 and a ‘base model’ Logitech. The old MS mice are actually quite comfortable and I have been considering a LED/Laser mod on one

  30. chromedbustop says:

    The best mouse I ever had was a cheap, $10 ball mouse. Cleaning the ball and rollers only took a few minutes (like… two) and only had to be done about once a month really. That thing lasted me over a decade and I only replaced it because I felt I needed something newer and better. You know, with more buttons and glowing lights and all that crap.

    I’ve been through three [overpriced] multi-button gaming mice since then and none of them has lasted a even a year before the buttons started acting up. Say what you will about the supposed and over-dramatized misery of older tech, but at least it was built to last.

  31. sg1969 says:

    I find something oddly relaxing and satisfying cleaning a mouse.
    Also, as cool as a laser shooting mouse is, I also find something elegant in the old mechanical design, how everything fits together and works together, in order to move a digital pointer on a screen….

  32. Det. Bullock says:

    How could I not notice this?
    I remember my old three button mouse and the first time I had to clean it, had to scrape the grim from the cilinders with my fingernail.

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