Like many gamers with more money than time, or sense, my PSP has been slowly gathering dust since the pre-Christmas console rush. In a mad flurry to play largely mediocre games in higher resolution or by waving my wrist around, technology that's two years old got left by the wayside.
But with the same spending rush also making a sizeable dent in my wallet, I found myself perfectly placed to renew my PSP acquaintance on a two-day boat journey from China to Japan, chosen instead of the normal, but twice as expensive, four-hour flight.
But a strange thing happened: Every time I settled down in my cabin with the PSP and a long stretch of very free time, I found myself getting bored. And every time, before long, I was deserting the $300 technological wonder for something that is, by comparison, ridiculously simplistic: pencil and paper Sudoku.
I'm not even any good at Sudoku. My knowledge of logic begins and ends with I Am Spock. I came to realize that the reason I chose Sudoku was because of my poor attention span. A single puzzle can be done in mere minutes, with all the psychological gratification that follows. Unlike the games on my PSP, which I know before starting will require hours upon hours of work before I actually have any fun, a Sudoku puzzle can be picked up and put down with ease.
Arriving back in Japan's well-stocked game stores, I finally had a chance to put my PSP to good use with the wonderfully-named Winning Eleven 10: Ubiquitous Variety (known as Pro Evolution Soccer 6 in Europe). The fact that I already own, and have played to death, Winning Eleven 10 on PS2 is irrelevant: Winning Eleven is my comfort game, the game I never get tired of playing.
And I realized the reason it never grows old is that like Sudoku, it can be played, enjoyed and completed in 15 minutes; or, like the best games, enjoyed in a marathon all-night session.
In a high-pressure society based on instant gratification, gaming remains rooted to its past. Whereas two decades ago waiting hours with one ear on the radio just to hear that one song was the norm, now we can download it from iTunes instantly. We used to live our lives by the network schedules, hurrying home for the latest episode; now Bit Torrents and TiVos let us make our own schedules.
My friends who are into gaming are all professionals with demanding jobs, most of them married or in long-term relationships, all of them with greater pressures on their schedules than guiding plumbers around castles. When I ask what they're playing, they usually have a variety of answers: Some of them play games where you can check your brain at the title screen, games like SSX or Need for Speed; some play online games that can be over in minutes; some dabble with the latest hits - but very rarely do they finish them.
Yet, with all of them there is a common trend - none have the time or patience for the hard slog from A to B that so many games still require.
Games simply require too much time and dedication. This is a huge barrier that prevents gaming from becoming a truly mainstream activity. The stereotype of the zombified kid glued to the TV for hours on end is at least partly true, because that's the level of dedication that gaming requires.
Gaming requires dedication because, as the Immersyve report on Gamasutra noted, much of the psychological reward comes from competence: being good at the game. My attempts at Sudoku could not be much worse if I inserted random telephone numbers from my address book, but it provides a psychological challenge that few games can match. While I'm a Winning Eleven master, I'm terrible at playing football in real life - but this doesn't limit my enjoyment of a kickabout, because it's naturally fun. More developers in different genres would do well to understand that while the World Cup is a grand event, sometimes a good-natured kickabout in the back garden can be just as much fun.
Whether it's slugging through mundane early levels just to get to the good parts, the hours of practice needed to gain any winning ratio online or a tedious learning curve of a leveling-up system, gaming demands your undivided attention in a way that, as an adult, is increasingly difficult to answer.
This is at least partly our own fault - gamers nowadays demand that games last 40, 50, 60 hours, even if many of those hours aren't fun at all. When a game comes along and offers a mere 10 hours, like Pikmin or Shadows of the Colossus, it's derided for being too short. Is this right? What's better: 20 minutes of brilliance interspersed here and there between 50 hours of tedium, or 10 hours of non-stop, well-crafted gameplay and then the ending?
Compared to gaming, being a movie buff isn't all that hard. Two hours at the theatre every weekend last year and you'd have seen 52 movies, easily twice as many good movies as are actually released in the same amount of time.
Four hours a week spent gaming last year might have gotten you to the end of Final Fantasy XII and Oblivion, but not a whole lot else.
Which brings me back to Japan again. Standing in the game store with Winning Eleven 10 in my hand, I realized that in mere months, far too many quality titles had appeared on the shelves. I gazed longingly at titles like Seiken Densetsu 4, the latest Mana game, a game I have wanted for almost 10 years, but the logic and finance centers of my mind asserted control, explaining that I would never have the time to play it unless I were to find myself abruptly out of work in the near future.
This is not a complaint of disastrous proportions - much of it reflects the fact that the overall quality of games is much higher than it used to be. There are now more A-titles out there in a year than any person could hope to play to completion.
But it would be nice to have more games that made themselves more accessible. Games that can be enjoyed in brief bursts tend to be in set genres - puzzlers, sports games, racers. Every action and adventure game tries to be Ben-Hur epic. It's not that Ben-Hur wasn't a great movie, but it's hard to spare the time to sit through such epics very often. However, broken down into individual bursts, I probably watch 20 times the length of Ben-Hur in Simpsons and Family Guy episodes every year.
Developers should give more consideration to the pressures that modern gamers find themselves under. Much thought is given to this when porting successful console games like Metal Gear Solid or GTA to the PSP - changing the structure of the game to offer little bursts of fun that are short enough to be played on a journey.
But this isn't a concept that needs to stop at the portable.
Game structure and design needs to change to match changing lifestyles. Intelligent difficulty settings, smarter online matchmaking, games and stories that can be broken down and digested in chunks, console games that can be turned off in an instant without worrying about saves, games you can enjoy and still have a life.
Before the success of Sudoku, few would have guessed it would be the worldwide phenomenon it has become. Likewise, games like Winning Eleven regularly top the charts in Japan and Europe - precisely because it is played by millions who don't otherwise game. The same effect has helped make Guitar Hero a true phenomenon, a game that can be played for five minutes or until your hand becomes stunted and warped.
And while each of these examples has surprising depth, they can all be enjoyed as mere time-fillers, and this is what has made them such successes.
The audience for gaming is changing rapidly, and games are not changing fast enough to reflect this. Even those who have been in it since the beginning need games to match modern lifestyles. To wit: Games, we like you, but we're finding it hard to commit to a relationship right now. We're just too busy. Maybe next weekend?