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Waffle: My Distracted Gaming Mind

I'm not someone who can do one thing at a time. If I'm not doing multiple tasks I cannot concentrate, and get quickly distracted from anything I should be attempting. Writing this requires the distractions of a train journey, music, and text message conversations. One game at a time is rarely enough for me. Begin your diagnoses.

So it takes a special game to hold my full attention. And that's neither a criticism nor the fault of the game. It certainly doesn't hinder the entertainment offered, nor my enjoyment. So long as I can be maybe drawing pictures of sheep, playing another game on another device, or even watching a TV programme on another screen, I'm generally happy.

But this isn't exclusive to games. It's true of every aspect of my life. I can't just watch TV – I'd go mad – I'll do a crossword at the same time, or fashion something intricate out of Blu-Tac. Reading a book is by far the most difficult task for me, requiring me to be isolated from all other possible sources of information or entertainment, with the ideal music chosen to distract the right parts of my brain. Just to be able to get to sleep, and this is not an exaggeration, I need to be watching TV and playing games on my phone/DS. My brain – it needs to be busy.

My fiancée is continuously driven to distraction by my own need for distraction. She wants to know I'm listening when she tells me about her day. Of course. But I know I have a far better chance of actually listening if I'm doing a jigsaw puzzle at the same time. Which is no way to treat someone, obviously. But such is my struggle. And hers.

Someone once expressed concern over my reviewing skills based on this information. “But if you need to be doing something else, how can you judge whether the game offers enough for those who aren't?” Good question. It's pretty simple – if I'm doodling pictures of sheep, or solving a sudoku, and the game is still boring me, it's a boring game. I know my own levels. It's fine. You can relax. That, and the fact that I've a proven record of being really good at reviewing games, which I think counts for something.

However, it does affect my views of games in some other ways, that perhaps are completely unfair. Like when there's no option to run it in a fullscreen-sized window, and it won't task-switch, and I desperately want to change the podcast I'm listening to. Or when it's a game with a terrible story, but one that interrupts too often to let me have anything else on with sound. I don't judge games based on that, obviously. I'm not mad. But I do wish they wouldn't.

But something struck me recently: are some games enough for anyone? My perspective on these matters is a tad skewiff, but can the “Run there, do that” mechanic of an MMO really grip anyone to capacity? Sure, I realise this doesn't apply when you're in a guild, chatting with a dozen friends invading a raid. But those early levels? Or perhaps an even better example: Action RPGs.

I love Diablo clones. I mean, love them. From Torchlight to Titan Quest, it's a rare game that can keep me as happy for as long. I've a feeling I might know why.

An FPS, of course, offers me respite from my mad need to be doing two or three other things. Quick reflexes, all action, constant attack – I'm in. I may put my own music on, perhaps, but those few hours of frantic assault are enough to force my attention. Not because they're intellectually superior, of course – just loud. And I really enjoy them. But an ARPG – that's something else entirely, and I think it might be because it lets me pander to my own insanity.

A good ARPG isn't nagging you all the time with cutscenes or new instructions. It offers its calmingly repetitive tasks, its constant sense of progression, and eighty million billion enemies to chop up in peace. Enough peace for me to really embrace another input. Perhaps an episode of RadioLab, where I can give my full attention to the popular science content. Or an episode of a entertainingly low-brow crime procedural that doesn't require me to keep looking to see who's delivering wry asides.

RPGs are an interesting time for me. The wandering, exploring, fighting, inventorying – that's all fine. But as soon as I'm in an extended conversation there's trouble. I'm going to have a lot of difficulty remembering to listen to what they're saying if I'm not giving my idiotic brain something else to play with. It's like distracting an errant child, putting the shaky, rattly toy in his hands so he'll not reach into the fire. If I don't give the bits not used for listening to the excellent chat of the game something to do, they'll start causing trouble, and I'll have lost track completely. Shaky, rattly toy added, and I'm engrossed in the game's narrative.

While there are some who'll think me mad, or perhaps an ADHD-riddled child (heck, writing this out makes me start to worry a lot more about me), I know that in the wide stretch of the internet I will be reaching some like minds. They'll know who they are. They're the ones who've figured out that there's a way to make the ¬ key be a shortcut for Winamp to start and stop an mp3, from inside any other application. They're the ones who, if someone took away their second monitor, would start screaming and running in circles until they were sick and passed out.

And it's okay to be us. Other people will (rightfully) become infuriated by us on occasion, because our habits are infuriating. A great deal of my life currently is spent working out how to appropriately listen to my fiancée in a way that means I look like I'm listening, and actually hear anything.

For good or bad, games don't have such needs, and so I'll likely continue to fail to offer them the eye-contact they might expect. And I'll always have a huge soft spot for an action RPG that knows what to do.

I'm sure I'll always be embarrassed by it. When playing a co-op game of something with the rest of the RPS team, I very self-consciously switch anything else off that might be in the background, and do my very best to stop playing Freecell at the same time. But then I equally struggle not to play a game of Strimko on my iPhone when I'm having a nice evening in with some friends. People think I'm being rude. If only they could understand. Action RPGs understand.

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About the Author
John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org