The Theory of Controlling Attention

The idea of manipulating the attention of others has been around as long as sleight of hand and other parlor tricks. Part of being a magician is directing the attention of your audience away from what you’re actually doing. Whether it’s with lights, sounds, color, or especially movement, the goal is the same: Make the audience see what you want them to see, as opposed to letting their eyes wander. My thesis project serves as an exploration of this in the more tangible setting of a comic book, with the reader’s attention shifting between the book itself and an augmented reality application. However, most of the research regarding this topic is heavily biased, especially in terms of digital interaction. A great deal of the research revolves around Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), and the research is used to either support or refute pre-existing opinions.

The Five Methods of Holding Attention

1. Light

Light, or the absence of light, is somethign that human beings are acutely aware of, and is the second quickest way to draw attention to something. It is also one of the easiest elements to manipulate in a scene, in regards to transition and change. Whether it's being used to illuminate writing on a wall, or having the lights in a room flicker before going out, it is an effective way to keep attention focused on the mobile device rather than the comic book itself. Lights have been used to direct attention for centuries. For example, theaters often use a spotlight on one section of the stage to distract the audience from a set change going on in another part of the stage. In a more digital setting, games like Bioshock by Irrational Games rely heavily on the duality of darkness and light to direct attention. There might be a power-up beneath a spotlight, but the player focuses so much on that they don't notice the enemies sneaking up on them from the wings.

A screenshot of lighting examples from Bioshock

2. Color

Color must be done with precision, because the average person does not consciously think about color decisions in what they are looking at. This becomes a problem if color is used too subtly, because then the changes will be missed. However, there are some interactive elements that showcase the use of color as attention control very well, like the game Flower by ThatGameCompany. This interactive experience uses very vibrant colors, but it consciously maintains the use of contrasting colors to guide the player through each level. If the field is green, then the flowers are bright yellows and reds. If the grass is dark violet, then the flowers are a pale white. This contrast is important because it shows the interactor where they need to go without overtly telling them or pointing it out.

A screenshot of Flower by ThatGameCompany

3. Sound

The main problem with sound, is that it rarely functions without movement unless there is a speaker or device present that creates the sound, or the sound is non-diegetic and therefore not within the story world. The Bertram Scharf passage in Attention speaks extensively on the topic of sound, and the various ways that humans can react to aural stimuli. Most of this same theory is used in movie and video game soundtracks to create tention or trigger emotional responses. For example, a high-pitched violin tone creates tension and unease, perfect for suspenseful settings. Likewise, sudden sounds like a gunshot or a door slamming can jolt the listener, leaving them alarmed. Sound is used to manipulate emotions rather than attention, but also works well for keeping a viewer interested because if someone is speaking through a radio, they aren't just going to turn it off without listening to what the character has to say.

The Lost Woods from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

This picture is from the Nintendo 64 game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Specifically, this is from a puzzle called the Lost Woods, where the player is put in a maze and has to listen for the loudest sound to indicate the correct tunnel to go through. In this instance, sound is being used to show when the player is correct. However, sound can also be useful in its absence. Having a sound clip that cuts off partway through can be just as suspenseful as having an entire monologue.

4. Movement

Movement is the most common way that game developers attract or distract a player. According to Johnson and Proctor, this stems from primitive man's self defense instinct that any movement could potentially be dangerous, and should be analyzed as soon as possible. In a digital setting, movement is used to set tone, show progress, indicate threats, or any number of other devices. Plus, it's so versatile. Movement can be a door closing, a pendulum swinging, or even a planet slowly spinning. In the context of my project, the looped motion keeps the viewer interested enough to last a few loops, and then they can choose to continue on their own time.

Dead Space Two's most infamous jump-scare

5. Interaction

Interaction serves as a way to draw attention, while making the reader feel involved. There is no true agency in this setting, given that the book is pre-printed, but the illusion of false agency can be created by using the page, rather than a specific panel, as a boundary. Since this is an augmented graphic novel, as opposed to a fully digital game, my interactive elements will have to be relatively limited, with the goal completion time under two minutes. Examples of this may be scrolling through text on a computer screen, or entering a key code that the protagonist discovered a few pages ago. Just enough to bring attention to the device, and make the player feel like they've accomplished something. This holds the greatest amount of attention, so this method must be used sparingly as opposed to light or movement, which can be done quickly and retain the same level of efficacy.

A screenshot of lighting examples from Bioshock