People like to divide people into two groups: those who can multitask, and those who cannot. Nearly everyone includes themselves in the former group, and then they put everyone else in the latter. Most people are lying. But there's another group: those who needto multitask. I'd put myself in that group - the sort who can't concentrate on one thing unless he or she is doing at least one other thing at the same time. You may call it ADHD. I call it efficient. I wrote about it last year, and it turns out it's more common than I'd ever realised. So below are my suggestions for the best ways to play while you're doing something else.
I had previously thought I was an extreme, until mentioning such matters on RPS and elsewhere, and finding out I was in good company. As I said before, being someone who finds it very difficult to get to sleep without both listening to a podcast and playing a game on my phone, I find that keeping my mind satisfactorily busy can take a lot of input. Not necessarily smart input, I stress - I'm not proclaiming mad genius, but rather just mad.
Here's a confession: In the past I've reviewed two games at the same time. A big PC RPG with long load times on my monitor, a DS game that offered short spurts of play on the desk in front of me. When I played my favourite game, The Longest Journey, for the first time, I created huge piles of nonsense doodles. In times I've replayed it since, I tend to have a puzzle game going at the same time, since its extensive conversations are essentially radio. And as I've mentioned before, when I played Diablo III I found it the perfect time to catch up on TV shows. There are some games I've played for leisure that are inextricably linked to a certain TV series that I consumed simultaneously, like when a book gets attached to a particular album. I'm not sure how I'd cope if I didn't have two monitors. But this, I proclaim, is a thing to embrace. Let's embrace it.
Action RPGs, Meet TV
I really believe these are the very best games for multitasking. Much mocked for just being click, click, click, anyone who's actually enjoyed them knows this to be both true and untrue in equal measure. But no matter how much passion you pour in, in the end you really are just left and right clicking in enormously satisfyingly repetitive tasks. Unless you're playing to a competitive, nightmarish level, or co-opping with chatty chums, I find it hard to imagine your mind doesn't at least wander as you play. And with most games in the genre either not having a story, or not having a story worth listening to, they make the perfect partner to a double-activity.
At this point, your options are pretty enormous. Load up iPlayer, or Netflix, or Hulu on that second screen, and go crazy. Take this as your chance to finally watch It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. You've always been meaning to, and it's definitely worth it. Did you ever get that far into Krater? And maybe you're about 14 episodes behind on South Park? I'd suggest you base your selection on shows that don't require your transfixed attention, nor those that are heavy on the aesthetics. You've two screens next to each other, you can likely watch both at the same time without too much effort, but you're not going to want to miss anything essential on either. That's why the ARPG is the perfect accompaniment to the breezy comedy, or even better, those procedural crime dramas you're not quite ready to admit to others that you secretly love. You want to know what Red John's been up to on The Mentalist, but you know the programme really doesn't merit your undivided attention. And Titan Quest's only a tenner.
First Monitor, Meet Second Monitor
If you've got a two monitor setup, then you have the most options. And if you don't, have you considered it? I realise a second monitor seems rather a luxury, but you can pick up a brand new 19" flatscreen monitor for as little as £65 now. And I'd argue that second one doesn't need to be swishy, or worrying about white balance or whatever it is we're supposed to remember. It's just going to be used for email, IM and TV shows out of the corner of your eye. In fact, you need spend no money at all.
Second hand, especially an old CRT, well you could probably pick one up from the street outside your house. There are a bunch on eBay at 1p if you'll collect them, and I just checked Freecycle in my area and found a few. I'd argue it's pretty easily free - or perhaps for the cost of a cable.
This does mean it's pretty essential that whatever you're playing be able to run in a window. If you're having to task switch back and forth, it's going to crash something eventually, and with the inevitability that the game will do something you didn't ask to your display settings, there's also a good chance that a streamed file, or even an AVI on your machine, will just freeze up in the face of CONFLICT. This is why any developer who doesn't have their game running in a window hates you, hates games, and hates The Mentalist.
Sims, Say Hi To Podcasts
Podcasts make an even easier accompaniment to all manner of games. Essential is the lack of a regular scripted narrative in what you're playing, or it all becomes a muddle. But when that narrative is missing, it can leave a big part of your brain without anything to focus on. Sure, you're going to war with China, but what are you learning about stochasticity? I love this opportunity for input (if you make a Short Circuit reference, I will be forced to point out that as a 13 year old I thought the film would have been much better if it had ended at the point where that sanctimonious arseball of a robot was smashed to bits with baseball bats and left to die in an alley), and I love that it's possible while being entertained by a game. And this offers a good opportunity to pooh-pooh at those who claim that you wouldn't focus properly on either and lose out - I bet you have the radio on when you're driving, right? And yet it's only very rarely that the Archers causes you to become so confused by the synchronous activities that you veer off the road and into a wall. (Actually, maybe that's not a great example, since listening to the Archers does make me want to veer off the road and into a wall.)
My top tips for podcasts, you ask? Well, I'd say:
RadioLab - Just the best radio show/podcast there is.
My Brother, My Brother And Me - Awesome "advice" show from three brothers.
Dan Carlin's Hardcore History - Makes six hour monologues on history utter compelling.
The Rock, Paper, Shotcast - When we record any.
Rum Doings - Two of the Earth's handsomest, funniest chaps, having a chat.
I think podcasts make a great option even for those less prone to filling in crosswords while paragliding. Audio has long provided a background to other activities, and while I'd argue that playing IL2-Sturmovik is possibly more involved than washing dishes, it still leaves plenty of room for voices. And best of all, unlike music, podcasts don't tend to clash with the noises the game is making, so long as it's not talking at you.
The other useful thing here is volume tweaking. Game volumes, enormously frustratingly, are exponential, so if you want to be able to hear one thing over another, you'll likely have to take the settings down to a fraction above nothing. A useful trick for getting an extra boost of quiet is to open up the volume mixer in Windows, and tweak the individual game right down in there too. But bear in mind Windows sometimes remembers where you last set it, the next time you can't work out why you can't hear the game.
Then In The Other Direction
The previous ideas rely on the game not offering you all the stimulation you need not to wander off and start setting fires. But what about games that go far further, engage you much more, but just leave that crack open where your mind wants something other to do than think the thoughts. That's where rubbish TV comes in! I'm going to make a proper confession here, and you're going to judge me, and that's just going to have to be the way it is.
For me, one of my absolute favourite games, Burnout Paradise, is forever associated with Dragons' Den.
(For American friends, it's the UK version of Shark Tank. For the rest of the world, it's a gruesome depiction of the idiocy of capitalism, as half-witted serfs are made to beg for money, in exchange for most of their business and their dignity, from bored multi-millionaires.)
You see, Burnout requires lots of concentration if you're going to studiously avoid all the races and just smash every yellow barrier and red sign. And annoyingly, it has that dickpacket DJ Wankomica shouting out inane bilge all the damn time. It means whatever you're also doing as you play, you have to not mind missing bits, or not actually looking at it at the same time. Purely audible content doesn't tend to play well with this, but something as dumb and vile as Dragons' Den is perfect! You can glance over at the 40-something father of three who just quit his job so he could go full time into his business creating a tumble dryer with a built in currency converter while rich barons rub their eyes and tell him they hate him, and then focus back on making that ramp to smash that thing because IT MUST BE SMASHED.
And In The Smaller Gaps
I mentioned how my DS played a part in preventing the crazies. That's still a very viable option, but I'd stick to a regular old DS rather than a 3DS. I think trying to focus on the eye-bending sort-of-3D and then looking up at a 2D monitor, back and forth, would absolutely definitely cause a life-ending aneurysm. But why not go even simpler? If you're me, and thus disgustingly addicted to Killer Sudoku, just have a book of that on your desk in front of you for those frequent frustrating loading screens, or lengthy lumps of dialogue between levels? Because what is the alternative? You'll commit crimes, that's what is.
It's not that unusual, you know. And I argue it's about embracing certain types of games not as failing to consume all our attention, but rather their leaving room for more. Bookworm Adventures is an amazing way to spend an idle couple of hours, but it's not quite enough, and there's always another episode of Deadliest Catch to watch. But be careful not to start resenting games that do require your undivided mind. That's good too, remember. And you're not weird, okay? It's perfectly fine that there's a Killer Sudoku book on my desk, and those three sets of BuckyBalls in various elaborate shapes by my keyboard, and my email visible, and Twitter going, and the eight IM windows open. Maybe I could read some of that book? Maybe I need a third monitor? It's not weird! It's special.