In October I wrote a post about my entertainment stockpile for winter. In it I wrote that the new XCOM game was going to be a regular in my gaming rotation and that I had already put 18 hours in it during one weekend. That was over a month ago. Today my XCOM clock card still reads 18 hours. What happened?

Before diving into the particulars of my case I submit that every dweller in the digital realm has an individual appetite for information and entertainment. Some have higher thresholds for adequate amounts of content, others can/will settle for less. I also submit that the digitally able folk have quite different appetites in comparison to others. The data flow of today is so intense that there must be a couple of screws up in your head loose to deal with all of it. Let alone crave for more.

I’m always on the lookout for new stuff to occupy myself with. Articles, books, TV-series, games, gadgets, music, presentations, websites, videos, research papers. Everything that’s remotely interesting will get a second look from me. However, 90 percent of the time that second look will be very brief and also the very last. My constant appetite for learning new stuff and trying new things is putting serious strain on my attention span. I firmly believe that I’m not alone with this predicament. No real geek can possibly be satisfied on how much content can be stuffed inside 24 hours.

Time and it’s management is really the issue here. I’m not willing to force through low quality content just to be done with it. I value my time too much, and there’s always something new waiting around the corner. So if someone has concocted a reliable method of allocating your time in things that really deserve it, please do share. My time management tool is a guillotine. Every piece of content or entertainment has a time frame in which it has to make itself interesting, otherwise it has to say hello to my sharp friend. Even after passing the initial test, there are still pitfalls to avoid on the way to long-lasting merriment.

Online articles (if I’ve bothered to move past the headline) are constantly beheaded by my guillotine. Getting the ingress done right is difficult enough, but to write a whole article without patronizing, pointless endorsing, factual mistakes, self promotion etc. seems to be really hard. Not to mention the other 27 article tabs in my browser just waiting to be clicked. One fumble and you’re out.

Things are especially rough if there’s a lot of potential quality on my to-check list. It might all come down to the littlest things. For example Justin Cronin used one super lame sentence in the book The Passage – and swoosh said the guillotine. It takes one cumbersome mission in Fallout: New Vegas. One flash ad that loads too long. Even good content might get guillotined because of a misleading tweet that took me somewhere I didn’t know I was going. And yes, it is taxing to know that I’m missing out on stuff because I have this monster of a system. But even more frustrating is that when I do have time to spare I seem to find myself at /r/funny time and time again. Fast food is all too appealing for digital appetite as well.

P.S. So, what happened with XCOM? I failed, got my team slaughtered, went out and got NBA 2k13 and never looked back. Boomshakalaka!

What could be a more memorable brand interaction than having your life saved? What could be more engaging? Axe stuck its neck out for me six years ago and I will not forget it. But no brand has come to my rescue since. I’m sure that lifesaving market would be a huge market. People are really touchy about their digital counterparts, so why don’t brands swoop in rescuing us every chance they get?

To make sense in all of this let me share my story.

It was a dark night in Las Vegas. Me and my brother were carefully covering the strip from opposite sides of the street. When the inevitable conflict began I found myself suppressed on the wrong side of the battlefield. I needed to get to my brother who was also seriously outgunned against the bad guys. I took a deep breath and then I dashed. That’s when all hell broke loose.

With my guns blazing I made steady progress for 10 meters or so, then I got blindsided by an enemy who flashbanged me off my feet. Certain that I would meet a miserable death, I stumbled around to find some sort of cover. The soundtrack for my struggle was an endless barrage of gunfire and my brother yelling “Are you down?”. I finally found something solid and crouched behind it to regain my poise and reload my weapons.

When the smoke began to clear and my brain stopped doing cartwheels, I hastily scanned my surroundings. The enemy was taking cover about a block away from us and they still fired at me with all they had. The only thing that was keeping me alive was Axe’s ad pillar. Every bullet fired at me tore glass debris out of the ad so I had to act quick. One by one I managed to take down the opposition while praying that the Axe ad would hold. When the last of the bad guys fell I nodded towards the now badly damaged brand ad; Axe saved my digital ass and I wasn’t going to forget it.

The thing that’s noteworthy in this whole ordeal is that usually brands are very reluctant to give themselves up for this kind of treatment. I can imagine the brand department going haywire if they saw their precious logo being shattered by gunfire. But when a brand saves lives it’s supposed to get a bit messy. It’s called immersion. You can’t place yourselves on a pedestal and ask for engagement, you have to be down in the dirt with your audience. You have to follow the same rules as the rest of the virtual world where you’re in.

I guess I was lucky the game engine of Rainbow Six: Las Vegas didn’t feature complete destruction of larger environmental elements. Had that Axe ad gone down so would’ve I.

Violence in video games has been a regular public discussion topic since the 1980’s. The conversation usually heats up for example during the aftermaths of real life tragedies, when the public is looking for a scapegoat, and then quiets down when all the cards from protect our children to the 1st amendment has been played.
No matter how much we talk the talk however, it seems only some are willing to walk the walk. A parent buying an R-rated game to a preteen is not a rare sight, developers are making more and more brutal games, and the players demand all the more realism and/or mayhem from their games. And at the same time we are moving steadily towards photorealism. What happens when we reach the point where virtual characters are nearly indistinguishable from their real life counterparts, what will it mean to virtual violence?
Although there’s no evidence that gamers have any difficulties whatsoever in distinguishing game and reality, I have to ponder the risks of becoming numb to high definition virtual violence. Is there a limit to how much graphical violence can a person consume with out it messing with our psyche? And with near photorealism in games, I’m afraid that there is no escaping the other side of the coin, more photorealistic violence. Then, if we add immersion to the mix we have a real dilemma, how to maintain suspension of disbelief if a game’s feel of authenticity doesn’t live up to its graphical setting? I don’t know any gamer who favors the German or Australian versions of games where zombies bleed green blood or the Allies stopped a robot invasion in WWII. We are suckers for violence and will most likely not support any actions to tone down violence in games. But should we? Or should somebody?
What if the gaming industry would start regulating itself, could it be that in addition of size/creativity/quality we’ll see a new developer attribute in the future – decency? Then we would have the virtuous devs and the uncompromising, gritty devs. I’m sure that the Call of Duty generation wouldn’t exhilarate on the possibility to see less violence in their games, and would throw their (or their parents’) money at the latter.
The governments could also step in by tightening age restrictions, introducing special taxes for violent entertainment, or by outright banning some aspects of virtual violence. The problem is that these would be extremely hard to put into effect. Age restrictions are easy to go around (and it’s not only the minors we should be worried about), and any kind of content censorship would probably face the 1st amendment card.
Why is there a need for violence in video games anyway? The short answer is challenge and immersion. Violent struggles are the simplest way of challenging players in game genres other than puzzle and sports. Violence or the threat of it is also an immersive element especially in action games. The recent rise of indie games however has shown us a variety of different approaches to gaming, and some of them are really uplifting. So maybe there is hope for gaming as an art form rather than endless gore fest for the adrenaline junkies.
My theory is that because of the inevitable improvement of graphics and physics engines, yes, we will see more brutal virtual violence, but on the other hand I think we’ll also see a strong counter reaction in the form of pacifistic games.
For every adrenaline packed Call of Duty, we will have one hope-ridden To The Moon.
For every gritty Dead Space, we will have one thought-provoking Dear Esther.
For every bloody-hell-it’s-hilariously-violent Dead Island, we will have one beautiful Flower.
And that folks is awesome.