Dabe Alan

Our console can now do everything, so let’s help them do the one thing we want

Our console can now do everything, so let’s help them do the one thing we want

“Dad, can you hook the PlayStation 4 up to the Xbox One so you can Skype while you play Killzone?” my son asked, and I had to stop and think about it.

My son gets most of his gaming news and information from the schoolyard, his time playing video games is rather limited at home and we don’t often talk about the games that we’re not playing. So my first thought was that it was fascinating that the kids at school think about how to Skype while playing games.

But this is what I worry about when I see the Xbox One ads that show people watching television, and Skype windows popping up, or multi-colored achievements, or invitations to play other games, or messages, or watching a football game, or all the other crazy things you can do on the Xbox One. The damned thing has three operating systems, for the love of Gygax, allowing you to switch between all these crazy features and options on the fly, and we’re told it should all happen nearly instantly, and seamlessly.

If we’re doing one thing, there will always be the option to switch to another thing. You can do so with the controller, with your voice, or by waving your hands around. I’m afraid to sneeze, only to find myself somehow watching The Avengers. The PlayStation 4 will also be able to do many things, but Microsoft has rammed home the fact that their system is a multi-tasking beast. The original reveal event focused on nearly everything except games, while E3 finally got around to explaining what we’d play on the thing.

Why I’m nervous

We’re already deluged with multitasking devices, from our constantly chirping smartphones to the fact many of us keep a laptop around while we watch television. People argue that movie theaters need WiFi, because God forbid we sit together and watch a movie. The fact our gaming consoles are also filled to the brim of things that don’t have anything to do with games shouldn’t be a surprise, and I’m excited about a few of the features.

But I also abhor the fact that it’s becoming harder and harder to sit down and just focus on a game. In a world where distractions are nearly impossible to avoid, video games are an art form that rewards your complete attention on one task, and the act of shutting out everything else in favor of your favorite game feels like a reward at the end of a long day. I talked to a friend who refused to buy eBooks because physical novels don’t beep when he gets an e-mail. He has a point.

This is going to make me sound like an old man shaking his cane at the clouds, and my kids already take multitasking for granted, but it's still something worth thinking about. The trick is to be mindful of how you use these tool. You can go to the Brazillian steak house and focus on the lamb without even touching the plantains; just because something is offered doesn’t mean you have to dive in. The existence of smart phones doesn’t mean we have to spend our lives glued to their tiny glowing screens.

These are options, and we’re allowed to say no.

Still, so many games are pushing the second screen experience, meaning you have to have your tablet or phone around while you play, and you may miss out on content unless you’re willing to juggle your attention between your television and that other device. I want to make sure I take advantage of the social features of both systems to be more in tune with what my friends are playing, so we can share gaming time and point each other towards the best games. It’s going to be hard to figure out ways to benefit from these features without allowing them to overwhelm us.

So here’s my advice when you pick up your shiny new Xbox One or PlayStation 4: Shut off everything. Every little thing. Max out every privacy setting. Think about whether you really want that Kinect or PlayStation Camera set up. After a bit of gaming turn on one secondary feature, and then see if it’s adding to, or taking away from, what you want the console to do. Be aware of what you’re giving yourself or taking away with each addition. Start from zero and bring things into the mix, instead of starting with everything turned on and then paring things down.

It’s going to be way too easy to be overwhelmed by what these consoles can do, such as the aforementioned situation my son described. Instead, let’s spend time thinking about what we want them to do, and move forward slowly. It’s like my grandpa always used to say about the phone: It’s there for our convenience, not the convenience of everyone else. And he was more than happy to sit down to eat and let it ring, ring, ring.

One day, when watching a movie, he simply pulled the plug altogether. He had the right idea.