ADHD and the Shmup

To shmup, as they say, is a beautiful thing.

Nobody says that.

To shmup, however, is a busy thing.

You’ve got your shots, explosions, medals, powerups, beams, enemy shots, missiles. You got your Hüsker Düs, your Hüsker Don’ts, to say nothing of environmental animations or other game effects. Even an older or more rudimentary shooting game is going to have a lot of shit happening on screen at once and it can be overwhelming. “Making it look easy” means learning to focus on those parts of the screen that need immediate attention; the casual onlooker might only see a field of bullets and marvel at your ability to navigate it while you see openings and exercise the trained reflexes to exploit them.

But what happens when that level of focus is naturally hard to achieve and harder to maintain for more than a few moments? This is what I have been thinking about lately.

Razion EX

For many years, at random times, I would wonder if I had ADHD. The year 2020 (and its present ugly sequel) being a great time of introspection, I felt it reasonable to to finally get things checked out. Turns out I do, in fact, have an attention deficit. ADHD is more than its name implies. There are a myriad of cognitive developmental delays that affect us and they’re mostly centered on the brain’s executive functioning, or lack thereof.

In practice this means that sometimes (because, for me, its sometimes; those deeper into the ADHD spectrum experience this at literally all times) the things of life fly past me at an intensely rapid rate. It becomes a challenge to keep certain things in my proverbial field of vision and catch them before the hurdle past, especially fine and boring details. More interesting things stick in the mind, and the attention, for longer than they should and so more things fly by and go undone or unnoticed. That part of the brain (the executive) who’s meant to be up there barking orders is off playing golf somewhere.

And so, in some sense, shmups become a visual metaphor for the ADHD mind.

Barrage Fantasia

It happens literally every time I play a shooting game, and I’ve been playing them for decades. I get shot down not because I can’t dodge a particular shot or because a particular pattern is too tricky to navigate (though that does happen, too), but because I’m fixated on a particular thing. You see, to prevail in a shmup you must keep almost the whole field of play in mind, the whole “board”. A full visual hold on the screen must be maintained, typically using peripheral vision. You have to see the big picture. And yet, invariably, my mind will stick to something.

It may be a particular shot that’s grabbed my attention. I stare at it, as if in slow motion, as it bounds towards my ship. By the time I come-to I’ve been clipped by another, easily dodged shot. Or perhaps the pattern is exceptionally impressive or something interesting is happening in the background or a new sprite I hadn’t seen before arrives on screen. Worst of all are the busy games. Now this is saying a lot, because all games in this genre are busy to a degree, but there are those with exceptional visual clutter that are genuinely hard to “read.” At the top of this list for me is Crimzon Clover: not only does this game have the typically dense visuals of a modern shmup, it has the raw audacity to flash big numbers literally every time you kill an enemy.

All of the above spell death for me.

And while the consequences aren’t as extreme for real living, it can feel that way at times. That one thing I was supposed to remember to do has flown by at incredible velocity, even though I wrote it down and set an alarm on my phone, because the shinies of life have grabbed my attention. That one thing at work I was supposed to say is buried under countless other modes of input or plain dissociation as my mind waits out the flood atop some happenstance mental island. The list continues!

I am currently treating my ADHD and hoping for some noticeable change. If not, it’s okay; I’ve gone almost 40 years without knowing any better and have learned a great number of skills that have already helped curb some of my more annoying symptoms. It would be nice, though, to be able to shmup without distraction.

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