Serotonin: Maximizing an unstable attention span

March 13, 2015


Sometimes I have the focus of a refined musician, always knowing what notes to listen to, eliminating any perception of outside noise or the audience’s reaction. Anything that could diminish my performance isn’t relevant and I don’t pay any attention to it. It’s not there. This existence of Henry is limited, appearing only at the most opportune times. Like when I’m playing five-dollar blackjack in Vegas, or treading the boards as an actor on stage. Or, of course, when I’m really into a game.

Otherwise, I battle against ceaseless distractions, most of the time losing. Writing this Serotonin, for example, has already led me to start up some music, a podcast and two YouTube videos. I’m not even finished with the second paragraph. What is wrong with me?

Do I have ADD? Am I bored constantly? Do I crave stimulation, no matter the source? Is it my fear that I won’t be able to start a given task, let alone complete it? Do I try to trick my brain by forcing it to pay attention to something else, with some feeble hope I’ll somehow subconsciously get the work done? Am I doomed to endure this lack of focus forever?

You see where my train of thought can lead me. One moment I’m standing on the platform, the next I’m serving tea in the passenger car. How did I get here? Simple. Among other things, I’m easily entertained, have a thirst for knowledge (mainly the mundane) and am constantly fascinated by how much I can see and even further amazed at how easy it is to see it.


Why not embrace that? Why should I pretend I don’t want to do two, five or ten things at once? Like sleeping with the lamp on while a YouTube video plays on my phone, as I listen to the raindrops outside remind me why indoors is better than outdoors. Or reading a novel, while pacing across my basement suite, half-heartedly cleaning it. Wait, what happened on the last page? Or, you guessed it, playing video games while I… play video games?

Eh, not quite. But too often I play a game requiring all my mental energy. I have to physically prep myself before loading a match of Dota 2, and if that sounds ridiculous (it is), then you haven’t played Dota 2. Sometimes I want to play games, but don’t really feel like exerting a ton of effort. I want to play passively. I want to be able to make a move, lean back in my chair, take a cup of tea and not suffer any consequences. I want a game I can pay half attention to, so my other half can enjoy a podcast, movie, show or book.

Hello, Civilization. More specifically, Civilization: Beyond Earth. I’ve been told by Civ junkies that it’s not a good entry; Civilization V is far superior. Thankfully, I was only paying half-attention to their lamentations, since I totally dig Beyond Earth. But really, I’ll like any game in the series. It’s totally addicting, lends itself better to replays than anything else out there and I never feel stressed while deciding if I should build the Great Wall or order another worker minion to clear some trees.

It doesn’t require fast reflexes. You can move units one at a time. You don’t even need to pause; just wait for the game to select a new unit, and take your time. Want to check out your cities? Go ahead. Look at the technology tree? Be my guest. This is a host who tells you to entertain yourself, because they just need to step out for a few minutes. And it’s an incredible house.


An entire match can take hours, and it’s not the most stimulating experience, so I cater to my multitasking self and queue up about 40 video podcasts on my other screen (having two screens is essential for an erratic entertainment junkie). I don’t have to concentrate on the video much, as I’m watching somebody speak into a microphone. It’s more a radio channel, a background custom soundtrack to Beyond Earth. If I miss something the hosts say, no big deal. I’m not really that engaged. I’ll hear the odd joke and laugh, but when I need to carefully maneuver my worker around the alien threat, I can focus on that instead. Nothing lost, but so much gained. Two birds with one stone. Fantastic.

It’s a manic way of playing, I’ll admit, but I’ve fully embraced my personality in this regard. It’s who I am. It’s not that I’m upset with the offering the game gives me, I just need more to satisfy my cravings.

I should have heeded my wise friend David Rathbun’s advice: Don’t go for 100% in Final Fantasy XIII. Don’t do it.

I did it.

I should have listened.


I’ll defend the game until the day I die, but I can’t tell you anything about the end-game grind other than it sucks. It flat out sucks. Searching for significant sources of money is more difficult than any boss fight. Upgrading weapons is cumbersome at best, and you don’t want to know what it is at worst. There’s really no reason to do it, either. You’re already strong enough to beat the game, you don’t visit any new areas while going for the trophies. So why did I do it?

Well, I didn’t have anything else to play at the time, and I didn’t have any platinum trophies. My TV had a picture-in-picture mode, meaning I could play Final Fantasy XIII on one part of the screen and finally watch my ECW DVD on the other. Magic.

My grinding route was set; it required the exact same strategy over and over. So I attacked the giant turtle/brontosaur things on Gran Pulse while hearing Tazz talk about the time he walked up to the hospital front desk with a broken neck. I defeated all the Cie’th Stone missions while hearing Paul Heyman passionately convince me ECW was all about counter-culture, filled with guys who could wrestle and bleed like nobody else. It was a brutal, visceral visual experience, and I loved every minute of it. Having a controller in my hand and shifting my glance over to the right once in a while hardly deterred me.


The end result? I got to watch a DVD and hear that satisfying ‘ding’ of getting the last few trophies of an experience I still consider vastly satisfying. Nothing lost. Time gleefully spent, enjoying two media at once.

What is there to gain from doing this? Easy. I save time. I don’t have to worry about being bored by any one thing. I can listen to and watch my favorite YouTube personalities while conquering aliens and researching technologies to ensure the survival of my civilization. I can stagger impossible demons with fire, lightning, poison and swords while I watch the Dudleyz perform a 3D through a flaming table.  I now clearly associate the games I play with another, just as awesome, experience. I can’t say I recommend it, but I know it’s for me.