All entries for Saturday 03 April 2010

April 03, 2010

On the side–benefits of World of Warcraft and the travesty of 'background' TV

I spent four hours on World of Warcraft today. Note that I specifically don’t say “playing” World of Warcraft. See, what I actually spent that time in-game doing was killing a few hundred ogres and looting beads of their dead corpses. Except in game terms these ogres were very much beneath my attention. Way back when the first expansion pack had just come out, they were a challenge. An interesting fight. Now, 15 levels and some years later they’re a joke. They die in two hits, and even if I just stand there and ignore them they’ll take about half an hour to kill me. All I’d do was run up to one, hit the 3 key on the keyboard twice, then right click them to loot the beads. Then move on to the next. By the time I’d killed the last one, the first one had been replaced. I then repeated this for around four hours.

Contrary to what some may claim, this mindless ‘grinding’ is not all World of Warcraft is. Generally, fighting in the game involves picking the right moves at the right time – it’s an interesting balance of planning, adaptation and reaction. Played properly, it’s a very interesting and compelling game. Thing is, there was no reason for me to be killing these weakling ogres at all. In story-terms, handing the beads over to a certain organisation would make them like me more, and so I’d then get to buy one of their elephants to ride about on, and could add “the Diplomat” to the end of my name when it appears for others to see on screen. But the elephants are just like any other horse/tiger/ram that you can ride about on. And the title merely tells everyone else how much spare time you have. All this time spent didn’t actually advance my character or make her anymore powerful or skilled.

But you see, if you asked me what I did in those four hours, I wouldn’t have said “played World of Warcraft”. What I actually did in that time was catch up on a few podcasts and listen to some albums I have to review. Understand: I’m easily distracted. Typically my only podcast and music listening time is the half hour to-and-from work every day. Don’t get me wrong, I have music on a lot, I’m just not always really listening to it. It’s pleasant background noise, not the focus of my attention. And while that works with an album you know well, it doesn’t if you’re trying to pick up on specifics so you can write about it.

I can’t just sit down and listen. If I sit at the computer I to listen I’ll end up feeling compelled to check my e-mail and Facebook and Twitter. And once something catches my eye that’ll have my attention and I won’t be able to tell you a thing about what I’m meant to be listening to. Likewise if I sit on the sofa I’ll just get restless and my mind will wonder. If I lie down, I’ll probably fall asleep. I very much struggle to just sit and listen.

To digress a little, I’m aware that’s not entirely normal. Or at least, I seem to be lacking the ability to properly listen and do something else at the same time. I think for this reason I’ve never understood people who want to put the TV on ‘in the background’. Either there’s something worth watching on, in which case you sit down and watch it, or there isn’t, in which case the TV can stay off. For the same reason I get remarkably wound up by people that insist on talking over TV shows. Just, no. We’re watching it, and unless your comment on it is utterly hilarious or hugely incisive then wait until the adverts or the end. Watch now, discuss later. The fact that TV has reduced itself to making shows designed to be watched ‘in the background’ is a fucking travesty. People like me think the X-Factor is shit because when we ‘give it a go’ we actually watch it. The millions of fans that love it some much all get a bunch of friends around, order in food and enjoy each others company while keeping it on ‘in the background,’ only stopping to pay attention at the ‘important’ bits and just talking over the boring stuff. They might be talking about the programme, but they’re still not paying attention to most of it. Under those circumstances, I can see it might be fun, but it’s not the TV show that’s doing the heavy lifting here.

As an adjunct to this, I imagine that people actually watching a show properly are a lot more likely to be attentive during the advert breaks. We basically need to replace TV ratings boxes with mind-scanners that also measure a person’s attention level. Suddenly those 800,000 people entirely engrossed in something like The Wire become a lot more attractive to advertisers than the 8 million half paying attention to X-Factor. The BBC also need to start taking this in to account and not use ratings as the sole arbiter of what is deemed ‘popular’. Again, just because more people have been sat in a room while Any Dream Will Do was on than have been during The Thick Of It, I’d argue that we should be counting the latter group as 2-3 times more important as they’re actually engaged with the show.

But to bring things back around to my point, while I’ll sit and watch a TV show as otherwise I just can’t enjoy it, I fail when attempting to do that with music. The lack of a visual component just throws me – I’ll happily sit focused on a concert DVD without issue. What doing something mindless on World of Warcraft does, is occupy my mind just enough that I can focus on the music or podcast. My hands, eyes and brain have something to do, but it’s not something distracting enough that it pulls any attention away from my primary activity: listening. And of course, at the end of it all there’s a small sense of achievement that I’ve done something, even if it’s utterly pointless.

It’s an odd reflection on my generation that multi-tasking is so hard-wired in to our brains that many of us now require some sort of outlet for excess brain-power if we want to accomplish simpler tasks.

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