Why don't we have a little talk about attention span? That seems to be a pretty hot topic these days. We apparently have a lesser attention span than goldfishes now, so that's no good. Have you ever felt like starting a game, then giving up after a few minutes? Have you ever found yourself with so many games to play that you don't know which to start with, ending yourself just browsing the web instead? Have you found your mind drifting away in classes, even if you know the subject matter is something you should enjoy? I know I have. And with the news of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) being on the rise, my growing inability to focus was cause for worry.
Could I be hyperactive too? Is technology ruining my ability to concentrate? But I never have time to ponder too much on these things, since I'm already back to reading my Facebook feed and complaining about the teacher being boring.
Thankfully, a couple recent events in my life have restored my confidence somewhat. So why not let's go over them and see how these relate to gaming, shouldn't we?
Challenge and Time Constraints
It's a known fact, at least among students, that you're most efficient right before a deadline. When the coast is clear, the mind wanders, and the work ahead seems less important. But then when the due date rears its head, and the task now seems nearly impossible, feats of efficiency can be achieved.
Last weekend, as a sort of warm up before returning to university, I had the immense privilege of taking part in a coding competition. We had 8 hours to develop an AI for a turn-based strategy game. It didn't go so well; our x and y coordinates managed to be swapped for an hour or so, and our path-finding algorithm was still totally bugged by the end of the day. But I still managed to hold my attention for the entire ordeal without going on social media, watching Youtube videos or checking Awesome Games Done Quick. Do you know how rare that is? Pretty damn rare. And the competition's format is to thank.
See, the competition is split into 4 blocks of 2 hours each, and after each the AIs are pitted against one-another. This gives great incentive to work, as you want to improve compared to the last round -- challenge. It also provides the much appreciated stress boost, since 2 hours is a relatively short period of time -- the deadline effect. As such, it's much easier to stay focused for the task at hand.
Likewise, a class in which the teacher gives out quizzes every week will most likely result in a more attentive class, without ever changing teaching methods, by fueling the desire to improve of the student and by increasing the proportion of the session in the deadline effect.
So how does that apply to video games? Well, I think the previous stories relate to three opinions of mine about to keep the player's attention in a video game.
a) Challenge (as long as it's fair) can keep the player's attention
I think this one is fairly self-explanatory. Making a game more difficult not only adds time to the game, but it also makes the player more dedicated to "gitting gud" at same game... As long as you don't go over a tipping point which will make them drop the game entirely! This feeling of challenge is probably a big part of why multiplayer games are popular -- going through the ranks, fighting better opponents all the time (unless you're me and you're playing fighting games).
b) The first impression is very important in giving the player a desire to keep playing and improve
Final Fantasy II is far from the best title of its series, but damn was the game starting you out fighting impossible enemies a fine move. Another game that successfully pulls you in by organically showing how powerless you really are is Mega Man X. Your first boss battle cannot be won, and you even end up captured by the villain until Zero frees you. Talk about motivating the player to get better! A strong first impression alone can't keep the player going if the game is too long, however, so make sure the rest of the game is engaging as well.
c) Frequently putting goals and rewarding the completion of said goals will keep the player going
Wait, isn't c) promoting a short attention spam? If the rewards get too far apart, isn't it admitting that players will drop off? Well, it all depends on the execution. Sure, the skinner box strategy might work for mobile games and MMOs, but even then we're often seeing people complain that there's not enough content... And that strategy doesn't really make a lot of sense with the income of smaller single player titles anyway. But, the deadline feeling can be exploited by the story in a more healthy fashion by way of (somewhat strict) time limits (think Majora's Mask) or by a in-universe time indication that keeps the player tense (think Persona 3/4 or The World Ends With You). This way, the race against time will give the player the precious deadline effect... Without necessarily having to shove a steady amount of shiny things in his or her face.
Is Challenge Everything?
So the winter semester just starts, I go to my first classes... And I'm predictably distracted by everything. Am I just not suited to a school environment anymore? It didn't use to be this way, in fact I used to be a pretty good listener back in the day... Is technology really to blame?
And then I go to my first Japanese class. First time I went to that school building, first time taking a non-science class since university started...
And the first time I've had this much fun and felt like I remembered so much.
The class itself isn't really anything hard or challenging yet, we've barely went past the basics of how to use "desu" like the pretty anime girls we all are, the different parts of the human body and hiragana vowels. But it still managed to make me remember content like nothing else in recent memory. How?
For starters, the teacher treats us like kids. One of the first things we did? Singing heads and shoulders in Japanese. Atama, hana, kutchi onaka... Everybody in unison. And that's not insulting at all, we're all having awkward fun together. The teacher also forced all of us to talk to each other (and we were totally allowed to talk in French), so we all got to agree that One Punch Man was the best thing since sliced bread together
even though Steins;Gate is the best. That was nice.
So the class isn't blowing our mind with challenging concepts, there's no intense time limit or anything (the deadlines for homework haven't even been decided yet), and the teacher isn't rewarding anyone in particular since all the activities are done as a group. Why is everything burned in my memory then?
I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps it's the feeling of childlike wonder of that kind of education, reminding me of good old days. That could explain why I get addicted to Mario games. It could also explain why I'm able to focus on an older game of some series (Professor Layton or Kingdom Hearts, for example) much more than recent installments: nostalgia clears your head just enough of distracting thoughts.
Perhaps it's the course's uniqueness compared to everything else. That would make sense, after all I got addicted to Cookie Clicker but couldn't care less about its clones. It could explain the hundred of hours in The Binding of Isaac when I barely got past the opening cutscenes of Star Ocean 4. Maybe crafting a unique game lets it take a special, bigger place to call home inside the player's brain.
So is the cure against low attention span creating challenging games with identifiable deadlines and a strong first impressive? Or is it to create games that appeal to nostalgia while doing just enough to stay unique to the increasingly fast release of new titles? Maybe it's a bit of both?
In any case, this article has gone way too long considering we've got the attention span of goldfishes, so I'm signing off.