Do We Jet Ski or Scuba Dive? A Gamer's Dilemma

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 9:00 am
When I play Modern Combat: Fallen Nation, can I multitask?
A few years ago, I found myself neck-deep in a pool of self-loathing when I read Nicholas Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," and I drowned when I came across this passage: "My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

My writing and gaming habits are similar. It's true that I rely too much on the Internet; in fact, thanks to distractions such as news tickers, interactive ads ("Click here for your free iPhone!") and Google chat, I admit that errors have made their way into my work. Distraction - that's the keyword here. [Update: In fact, I looked at this again and noticed a few typos. Damn!]

From a gamer's point of view, I've looked at Carr's article once again and thought about how it relates to our discussions on video game narratives. I think I'm turning into a Jet Skiing gamer, skimming over long-form narratives and touching lots of different areas in the sea of the video games.
Perhaps I'm a Jet Skier because I play many quick-and-dirty video games on the iPad. My focus is shifting away from long-form narrative video games; I have urges to pick up my Android phone or iPad and sift through emails while a cutscene on, say, Batman: Arkham City, rolls on. I have similar urges when I'm playing an iOS video game and my iPad dings with a Facebook update. (One solution was turning on the device's "Airport Mode.")

When I was a music reporter for a Cincinnati weekly, I was the guy on the Jet Ski, sifting through hundreds of Web articles and blog posts via Google Reader, an application that allows you to collect an endless amount of RSS feeds. The Reader is the ultimate wave rider, especially if you're a reporter aiming to break news or repurpose it before your competitors do. The Reader was my goldmine of music news, and I tried to exhibit that with my blog, an expansion of my weekly music column of the same name. The teaser of the blog ("visit Rich's blog for more music news") in my column was a great example of "old media" playing "by the new-media rules." Often I repurposed blog posts for the column and my editors didn't mind.

Carr is right that "traditional media have to adapt to the audience's new expectations." I experienced this adaptation at a Cincinnati weekly in a positive light because I enjoy blogging; I witnessed this adaptation at a suburban press, however, in a negative one. For nearly six months in the east side bureau, I covered city council meetings, police departments, fire departments, festivals and more. When a controversial issue - such as a drug bust or high-stakes vote - came up in a certain community, my editor expected me to explore it thoroughly, demanding multiple sources and an engaging narrative that amounted to 800 words or more. His expectations changed when the newspapers' managing editor shared grim news: "No more jumps." In other words, a story was trimmed if it didn't start and end on the same page.

We weren't happy about the new rule.

I suspect some gamers aren't happy about the advent of video game publishers focusing more on multiplayer experiences than a rich narrative. Following an idea similar to "No more jumps," some multiplayer gamers host shorter matches, allowing users to engage in several matches - maybe dozens? - in one hour. It's Jet Skiing online, right?

One example is Call of Duty: Black Ops' "Gun Game" mode, a fast way to build up currency for perks and contracts:

If I think again about media's relations to multiplayer gaming, especially Call of Duty: Black Ops' "Gun Game," I can turn to Metromix websites. They make one of Carr's comments in the "Stupid?" article shine: "The faster we surf across the Web-the more links we click and pages we view-the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements." Metromix Cincinnati favors photo galleries of attractive men and women and downplays long-form features; the site would rather see a five-question-and-answer article than a traditional profile. It seems that the editors of Metromix champion another one of Carr's comments: "The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It's in their economic interest to drive us to distraction."

And that begs one final quesiton: Did you finish this article?

And maybe another: Do you finish video games with long narratives?

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.

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