Are Gamers’ Attention Spans Getting Shorter?

I was reading an excellent article on Lewis Pulsipher’s blog recently about game length, and something he said jumped out at me.  In the third paragraph, basically still as part of his introduction, he said, “in a century of many distractions and opportunities for leisure time, and a sharp decrease in attention spans, games are rapidly getting shorter” (emphasis mine).  Now, I’ve heard this said many times before, and while I’m not wholly doubting the veracity of the statement, I also have another perspective that feels more true to me than this, most obvious, interpretation.

The main “evidence” that people espousing this opinion give is the fact that back in the day, gamers used to play much longer games, and they would play each game much more often than we do now.  Now it’s all about the “Cult of the New”, nothing longer than 60-90 minutes, moving on to the next thing and playing as many different games as humanly possible.

But wait a minute… Couldn’t there be another explanation for all this evidence?

Like, maybe the reason we played games over and over back then is because there weren’t very many freaking “hobby” style games available to us!  When all you’ve got is Risk, Illuminati, and maybe 2 other boardgames in your collection (and the game store for that matter), then you play them over and over and over again, even if you’d kill for some variety.

And why did we play longer games and like them?  Because pretty much all the hobby games around then were really freaking long!  Had we been given the choice between 4+ bloated hours of Talisman and a lean, 30 minutes for China or 60 minutes for Puerto Rico, we might have taken the shorter games back then too!  But it just wasn’t a real option for us because they didn’t freaking exist!

Now, do we have lots of distractions and competing media for our time and attention these days?  Of course we do.  But I still don’t think this necessarily means that our attention spans are notably shorter.

The real change I see in myself and others around me is not in capacity for paying attention, it’s that we just don’t tolerate being bored like we used to.  In ye olden days, if I had to wait in line somewhere I didn’t expect (i.e. and have a book with me), I sat there quietly with my thoughts and liked it, because I didn’t know any freaking better and, really, didn’t have any other choice.  Nowadays, I just plug into a podcast or read BGG on my iPhone or fire up a digital boardgame on my iPad.  

And specifically in regards to boardgames, not tolerating boredom translates to having no real patience for lazy, bloated, outdated, overwrought, and otherwise crappy game design!  Maybe it’s not that we can’t pay attention to longer games (as in, don’t have the capability of holding our attention for on something for a long time), perhaps we just don’t want to put up with games that waste our time anymore!

For me, at least, that was the biggest shift that happened in my gaming preferences as I got into the modern boardgaming hobby.  After seeing what was possible from good, euro-based game design, I was no longer able to put up with unnecessary complication, ridiculous downtime, and horrible imbalance in games just because I liked the theme or whatever else may have attracted me to them before. 

But it’s not that I and others like me (which, I assume, is basically you, the reader) now have some allergic abhorrence for games that take longer than an hour.  If you look at the top 100 games on BoardGameGeek, for instance, the vast majority of the games there are more in the 90-120 minute range, with some (including the #1 game, Twilight Struggle) taking more into the 3+ hour timeframe (the actual average of listed play time for the top 25 games on BGG, which I know because I just calculated it, is 112.96 minutes).

So to me, anyway, hardcore gamers seem to have a strong desire to play and invest themselves in longer games, and contrary to popular believe, we even bring with us more than sufficient attention span to make that possible.  That is, of course, as long as the games we’re interested in (or, more accurately, their designers) do their part to keep us engaged the whole time, make choices interesting and meaningful, and minimize downtime that could try our patience for boredom and have us reaching for our digital devices.    

Based on my own experience and preferences, I’ve definitely seen a pendulum swing first towards the shorter end of the spectrum as I was initially introduced to all those elegant 45-minute euros, but is now swinging back towards the longer and more complex games as newer designers have managed to bring those same eurogame sensibilities to bear in more thematic and/or complicated games and themes.

Of course, this perspective is probably ignoring some factors just as much as the “shorter attention span” one does, and the reality of the situation is, as always, somewhere in the middle.  So really, rather than proclaim myself the one, true visionary for truth in the hobby, all I’m trying to do here is to challenge that prevailing assumption; to give voice to a point of view that often goes unheard.  Hopefully, it’ll help you do the same. 


  1. I don’t seem to have a problem with game length if the experience of the game is consistent throughout, the game is weighty enough to merit its length, and there is no runaway winner.

    I played a 4-player game of Castles of Burgundy last week that lasted far longer than it should have (2½ hours total, mostly due to new players), and I never felt like the time was an issue.

    On the other hand, Power Grid is a fantastic 90-minute game that just so happens to last about 120 minutes most times. That last half hour really seems to drag for me.

    My worst experience was a single 2½-hour snoozefest 7 Wonders session that was brought to a standstill by a player who wanted to analyze every play of a card. The other six players just wanted to die, I think.

    But all that aside, I personally don’t experience an issue unless the game is like that 7 Wonders experience–a 30-minute lightweight game dragged into hours. THEN I start losing focus. (I’m looking at you, Munchkin!)

  2. Chris, you raise an interesting question. It actually makes me want to challenge the original premise: Were in fact games longer “back then,” such that we tolerated longer games then but we don’t now?

    I arbitrarily chose 1972 as a year to go back to, a little over 40 years ago, because that was when I bought my first “non-family” game, Avalon Hill’s Midway. I looked at the top 25 boardgames on bgg published in 1972 or earlier. Now, admittedly, these are games being ranked today that were released over 40 years ago. There might be games popular in the 1960s that have been lost to obscurity today. But let’s see what I turned up.

    The average playing time of the top 25 games released over 40 years ago is 71.4 minutes. Many of them, actually, are card games – bridge, cribbage, poker, etc. Only three exceed 90 minutes – Diplomacy, Mahjong, and Speed Circuit. Most are in the 30- to 60-minute range.

    So one might reasonably hypothesize that when we talk about board games being longer “back then,” we’re thinking about Monopoly, Diplomacy, and Risk, but we’re ignoring the fact that people played a lot of games with a conventional set of playing cards – perhaps a lot more in the 1960s than people do today. So it isn’t that they always played longer board games; perhaps it’s that they spent their leisure time playing other games that weren’t as long.

    It would be interesting to see whether there is scientific research to substantiate Dr. Pulsipher’s assertion that attention spans are shorter. I suspect that it’s true, but it would be good to know that it isn’t just anecdotal.

    But I agree with you that games are simply better designed today. I was very pleased with Hasbro’s redesign of Risk with objectives and other mechanisms to tighten the game. (I wrote about this at length a couple of years ago.) I’m surprised the same thing hasn’t been done authoritatively with Monopoly, which I’m convinced would be a much better game if redesigned from the ground up today. (Sounds like a design challenge, doesn’t it?)

  3. Chris Norwood

    Note that I was specifically talking about “hobby” boardgames, not games in general.  Things like Titan, Talisman, Advanced Civilization, 1830, Outpost, Merchant of Venus, and all sorts of old Avalon Hill and SPI wargames that I can’t mention by name, as well as some of the more “gamery” mainstream games like Risk, Axis & Allies, Fortress America, and that sort of thing.  And for a lot of us, the comparison could also be made against roleplaying games, which we spent hours and hours and hours either playing or preparing to play in one way or another.

    So really, I’m talking about the attention span of hobbyist gamers, not everyone that plays games on a casual level.

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