Games For A 10% Attention Span

July 23rd, 2008 — 3:23pm

This short essay was first posted to my original blog on July 23, 2008.

It’s a truism to say we live in a noisy media environment.

In a world where most media requires our undivided attention for a fixed amount of time, and where the quantity and access to media are at an all time high, we are forced to make some difficult choices about which content we have time to consume. 120 minutes for the latest summer blockbuster? 15 minutes for a chapter in that book? 30 minutes for a quest in World of Warcraft? Choosing between them is hard enough, but it’s compounded by the friends, family, work and other things calling for our attention, potentially interrupting us at any moment.

In this brutal competitive landscape, the response of content creators hasn’t been to adapt. It’s been to scream louder, to flash brighter, to do anything possible to grab our attention and then hold it. Bigger explosions. Brighter colors. Higher recording levels. And we’re penalized if we stray: I need to see every episode of Lost, in order, to know what’s going on.

Rather than fight some attention grabbing arms race with every other piece of content in the universe, I think there may be an opporunity to design products, and games in particular, that adapt and live in this crowded environment. There’s room, and possibly a need, for a more flexible media product that doesn’t ask people to commit, and makes it easier for them to experience it on their own terms.

So what are the characteristics of a flexible media product? It should be:

  • Interruptible
    • The rest of the world will intrude at some point, at any point. The consumer knows this in advance and will shy away from products that require a large time commitment they may not be able to give (at least, not if there’s a competing option). Or they’ll choose the product anyway but experience less of it (e.g. watching a movie while taking care of a child).
    • No death penalty (re-entry is painless). The consumer needs to retain minimal historical knowledge to jump back in and re-immerse in the experience.
  • Commitment Friendly
    • The consumer doesn’t have to lock up the next 30 minutes of their life or have to remember 50 different rules/characters/plotlines.
    • No strings attached, be they financial (e.g. required fees to play) or technical (complicated install and/or subscription process; interferes or modifies other apps unintentionally; etc)
  • Attention Span Agnostic
    • Content can be experienced and enjoyed with a reduced or fluctuating degree of focus and attention to it. People consume media from multiple channels at once: playing solitaire while talking on the phone; watching a football game while making a sandwich and listening to music.
  • Always Resident
    • While a consumer’s focus has to be interruptible, the media itself can continue to exist and function until the consumer returns to it. That is, you don’t actually have to hit the pause or save button, you just go do something else and come back to it.
    • Exist in the consumer’s world, not the author’s. I don’t log into a game and play it via some specialized client. The access point is my own blog, facebook page, a Firefox extension, etc.
    • Logging in does not mean logging out of the rest of the world. Consumers are ok leaving it up 24/7 because there’s minimal to no cost in attention or resources or screen real estate to do so.
    • Access is easy and fast, if not invisible.

To be clear: there is tremendous value in complete immersion. It’s not that people won’t make that commitment or won’t devote 100% of their attention to a game/movie/book for hours on end. They will. But they only have so much room in their lives for those kinds of experiences, and a product that dials the immersion level up and down as needed could find broad acceptance.

I think there’s a lot more to be said on this subject, some of which I may touch on in future posts (and may have already been covered by others), including:

  • Part of the attraction of games like Solitaire is that they fit this model. What else does? Some of those asynchrnous games on social networking sites? PMOG, Web Wars? What about examples from other media? Sporting events can be tuned in and out fairly easily. Music runs in the background almost everywhere we go. Others?
  • If it’s ok to come and go from content at any time, that’s one less barrier for that content’s acceptance. Does that limit the range of content that can be built? Are we talking lightweight facebook apps and simple puzzle games or is there room for something with some depth?
  • Who decides how content should be experienced? I’m not just talking about where (home/work/car/etc), on what (tv/pc/handheld/phone) or for how long (minutes/hours/days), but the experience itself. Buying gold in MMOs changes that experience and is an example of the consumer attempting to play the game the way they want to. How far down the path from authorial intent to consumer control should we go? Related to this, why does a modern consumer expect to have that kind of control in the first place, and why should they be granted it?
  • There’s a tremendous amount written about the subject of attention — almost 70 years of research on the subject — that I haven’t touched on. When you start poking around the web you naturally run into Linda Stone (“continuous partial attention”) and Herbert Simon (who pretty much nailed it on the head a few decades ago when he said “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”). Most of these folks were concerned with how we manage our attention and general purpose solutions: a work philosophy, a piece of intelligent software and so forth. If we imagine a world with many flexible media products, do they help or exacerbate the attention problem Stone, Simon, et al identified? Are we simply crowding another channel, overflowing the number of things that can sit at the periphery of our awareness?
  • Does immersion trump ease of interruption? Or does flexibility translate to a higher likelihood someone will try, and stick with, your content because you’re not asking them choose?
  • To what extent are flexible media products part of the overall trend of blurring product boundaries with their environment?
  • There was a great post recently about whether we use “on” or “in” to describe where we are. That is, we’re on facebook, on the NYT web site, on IM, on the web. But we’re in WoW, Second Life and other online worlds. How does the way we conceptualize a product as something we’re on vs. in affect our immersion and attention? And where do games like Scrabulous, Bejeweled, or The Sims fit into this paradigm?
  • The need to grab attention has led to a focus on spectacle or outrageousness at the expense of substance. That’s nothing new, but is the crowded, access-to-everything media world encouraging it? If so, what does this say about people who enjoy niche, smaller products of lower production values that better serve their particular interest (and likewise about the benefits of spectacle)?

4 comments »

4 Responses to “Games For A 10% Attention Span”

  1. Casual Vs. Hardcore Play: Wrong Question — Point Line Square

    […] make something casual is to make it accessible.  There’s not much more to it than that.  Attention friendly, light on commitment, easy to understand, and so forth.  These are product characteristics not audience […]

  2. 90 Seconds vs. 90 Minutes — Point Line Square

    […] play lengths have changed a lot over the past two decades.  There may even be a case against thinking in discreet segments at all.  Nevertheless, it’s worth applying the general concept to the wide range of gaming […]

  3. Standard Play Lengths — Point Line Square

    […] do think standard play lengths are a potential problem for all media forms going forward.  The interesting question to ask though, is whether consumers are helped or hurt by […]

  4. Games Have An Attention Problem — Point Line Square

    […] been several years since I first talked about games and attention.  At the time, I noted that games compete for our attention with other games, other media, and […]


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