Multitaskers and Focusers

I’ve written a few times about the idea that a lot of debates about game design actually come down to poorly-understood differences in how our brains are actually wired. I think I’ve found another example.

Games often ask the player to context-switch - to go from one type of task to another with different relevant considerations. But there’s a difference between context-switching because you finished a task and doing so because you were interrupted.

Suppose you’re playing a dungeon crawler or looter shooter or something where you fight your way through a dungeon and return to town to sort/sell/upgrade the loot you earn. These are different experiences - combat and exploration, followed by upkeep and optimization. They require you to focus on different things. Which parts of the dungeon you’ve explored and how much ammo and health you have left matter a lot in the dungeon, but back in town you’re concerned more with stats and currency.

If you finish the dungeon and then go back to town to sell, you can safely stop thinking about the dungeon’s concerns. They need no longer take up any mental resources. But if you are partway through the dungeon and then need to return to town because your inventory is full, you aren’t done worrying about which parts of the dungeon you’ve explored and how many enemies remain. You can’t forget about those things even as you must start focusing on equipment and currency instead for a while. They’re just temporarily on hold, like a mental equivalent of leaving a bunch of browser tabs open as you switch to something else as opposed to finishing a project and closing them all.

For some players (whom I shall tentatively call “multitaskers”) this is fine. For others (tentatively “focusers”) this can be deeply unpleasant. A focuser doesn’t like holding context in background memory. It’s difficult and distracting.

This is why when Torchlight adds the ability for you to send your pet back to town to sell things without having to leave the dungeon yourself like you have to in Diablo, some players love that this keeps you in the action while others lament that this disrupts pacing and removes breaks. If leaving the action means you’re preoccupied with an unfinished task the whole time, it’s not much of a break at all!

I am a focuser, and much like the fact that I am a completionist this has a significant effect on how I feel about certain game design choices. In fact, I think they’re connected - there’s a lot of overlap here with my claim that completionists feel anxiety about tracking long-term objectives. Both a focuser and a completionist as I’ve described them want things like a quest log or map icons to keep track of those objectives so that the player doesn’t have to keep them in background memory - if that task can be offloaded because it’s written down somewhere and automatically updated, then the player doesn’t have to spend continual mental resources on it. They can close the mental browser tabs.

As implied above, I think this is also a big part of why I dislike inventory limits that interrupt you with sudden mandatory inventory management, which has turned me off several games over the years.

And it’s likely also connected to my general dislike of punishment, particularly of the “you died on the boss so replay the level” variety. I want to immediately retry whatever it was I failed on, because holding the details of that challenge in my head while I fight my way back through other challenges is frustrating and unpleasant. The need to do so has also turned me off of a number of games over the years.