- [Feast your eyes on this! Regular GSW columnist Mister Raroo continues his specially funded examination of non-games with a look at Flash Focus for the Nintendo DS. As it turns out, Mister Raroo's prescription called for eye strain, dizziness, and an eventual secession from the exhausting demands that Nintendo places upon its loyal fans.]

Of Side Eyes and Chalazions

When my niece Autumn was in fifth grade, I was introduced to the term “side eye.” A boy in her class had a lazy eye, and in the type of merciless mockery typical of elementary school children, the other kids started calling it his side eye. However, despite the heartlessness of such a mean term, it became a part of our family’s vernacular and we’ve been referring to lazy eyes as side eyes ever since.

Missus Raroo’s family is not at all unfamiliar with the curse of the side eye. Though somehow she was lucky enough to have missed the side eye gene, both her brother Thomas and his son Mario have extremely noticeable side eyes, enough so that they’ve both had to attend training sessions with a specialized doctor in order to help improve their eye control. The trainings have been very beneficial and allowed for improved vision, but they’re also costly and intense.

Recently, I came to the realization that I, too, have a bit of a side eye. It’s nowhere near as noticeable as that of Thomas, Mario, or the poor boy in Autumn’s class, but it’s still evident enough that I’ve been worried about it. I’d always thought my eyes looked a little funny when I saw photos of myself, but since nobody ever specifically mentioned that I had a side eye, I never gave it much thought. However, recently I was trying out some of Mario’s eye exercises (he gets “eye homework” from the sessions!) and couldn’t do them.

The exercises involve staring at the space between two images on a sheet of paper that, as your eyes focus, come together to make a single picture. For example, there will be two halves of a cute rabbit that come together to form a whole bunny. As you focus, it looks like the two halves are moving across the page towards each other. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like the Magic Eye images that were popular in the 1990s in which a 3D illustration would be revealed after staring at what appeared to be a jumbled pattern of colors.

- Try as I might, I could not make the damn bunny halves come together. They’d start moving toward one another and I’d begin to get happy, but this bliss was soon dashed as the two halves would scamper away from each other towards their respective sides of the paper. My initial reaction was frustration, but soon that gave way to worry. Oh no! Why can’t my eyes do these simple exercises!? My side eye is worse than I thought!

My left eye also developed a chalazion this past year. For anyone unfamiliar with chalazions, they’re lumps that develop on your eyelids that are sort of like styes except they don’t hurt and are troublesome to get rid of. I looked into getting my chalazion surgically removed, but after watching a video of the process online, I’ve opted to wait it out and let my body reabsorb it, even though that can take months or years. The chalazion has gone down significantly since it first appeared, so much so that people no longer seem to notice it (and they sure liked to comment on it when I first had it, which was embarrassing!), but I still know it’s there and having an unwanted bump on my eyelid is not something I’m a fan of.

Thankfully, the chalazion doesn’t seem to be affecting my vision, but I can’t help but think that I must look like a freaky-eyed weirdo to people. Missus Raroo assures me that my chalazion and side eye really don’t seem that bad, especially since they’re hidden behind my glasses, but when it’s the end of the day and my eyes feel tired, I can’t help but imagine that they’re veering all over the place out of tandem with one another.

The Side Eye Advantage

A few years back, Missus Raroo, Autumn, Mario, and I used to play a lot of split-screen Mario Kart: Double Dash!! together, and somehow Mario was able to not only drive perfectly through tough courses like Rainbow Road, but he was also able to watch and comment on what we were doing all the while. I swear, the kid was like The Wizard or something. Judging by Mario’s prowess with Double Dash!!, I came up with the theory that side eyes can actually improve a gamer’s abilities.

- That’s right, I somehow was convinced that Mario’s side eye was perhaps giving him the edge. Even though it was hampering his ability to sit down and enjoy reading a book, having his eyes run all akimbo like a chameleon gave him an unrivaled ability to watch different areas of the screen at the same time. Of course, Mario also put in hours upon hours of play time with Mario Kart, but I can’t help but think his side eye gave him a special advantage none of us possessed.

And, when I came to the realization that I also had a bit of a side eye, my gaming tastes starting making more sense to me. I absolutely adore “shmups” (sorry to the people that hate that word!), and sometimes I wonder if my unfocused eyes have given me the ability to see more of the enemy projectiles than I’d otherwise have been able to. Whenever I play a shooter in which the screen is blanketed with bullets and I’m able to miraculously dodge them all, Missus Raroo always asks how the heck I can even tell what I’m doing. I don’t ever focus my eyes on any one thing, but instead just let my eyes glaze over the entire playing field, which allows me to almost see everything on the screen at once. Thank you, side eye!

In actuality, it’s probably more likely that side eyes hamper—not enhance—one’s ability to excel in video games. For example, my eyes get exceptionally tired and I end up not being able to find my way around whenever I play games that require running through and exploring 3D environments. Perhaps my eyes just can’t properly focus so as to handle processing the perspective and viewpoints presented in such games. Or maybe growing up playing 2D games has had such a strong influence on my gaming cognition that 3D games give me trouble even a decade after they’ve become commonplace. Whatever the case, my eyes always tend to get tremendously tired and sometimes even water and burn after playing games with 3D movement for too long.

On a quick little detour, whenever my eyes are exhausted but I still feel like playing video games, I’m glad that titles such as the amazing Soundvoyager on the Gameboy Advance exist. In Soundvoyager, the entire game can—and should—be played with sound only. The use of stereo sound is required to correctly play the game, as most of the gameplay consists of pushing left or right on the d-pad to move towards sounds. I like to lie in bed with headphones on and the lights off, enjoying Soundvoyager as I straddle the line between being awake and falling asleep.

My favorite mode in Soundvoyager, Sound Catcher, requires you to “collect” sounds that build up into a larger musical sound collage. The sounds become increasingly louder, as if you’re moving toward them, and you have to center them between the two speakers to add them to the overall sound collage. I always picture a scenario in my mind of me flying through a barren world, building up an environment of color and life with each sound addition I pick up. Hmmmm… maybe I’ve just played too much Rez and it’s influenced my mental visualization!

Obligated to Game

Being nearly paranoid about my side eye, I decided drastic action needed to be taken. However, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to foot the bill for expensive professional eye training such as the kind Thomas and Mario had attended. Instead, I opted for to take the cheapest solution I could find and purchased Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day for the Nintendo DS. I figured at the bargain price of $20, the software was worth a shot.

- The problem with Flash Focus, as with many of Nintendo’s other “training” games, is that not only are you expected to use it daily, but you are made to feel like a heel if you don’t. I’m pretty meticulous about following a number of routines in my daily life, but Nintendo keeps piling it on and I can’t keep up! First it was Animal Crossing, then Brain Training, then Wii Fit. Heck, even Pokémon had berries you had to tend after. If I continued with my Nintendo obligations, I wouldn’t have time to go to work or see my family!

It’s not easy to keep up with the demands Nintendo expects of its players. With every game Nintendo puts out that expects daily involvement from its user, I’m pretty diligent at first and keep up with the regimen. Before long, however, something will happen that’ll cause me to miss a day or two and the software will literally scold me. “Where have you been? It’s important to check in every day. Get with the program, Mister Raroo!”

It only takes a few sessions of belittlement from Nintendo’s software before I get angry and I take my revenge by not bothering to play any longer altogether. Take that, Nintendo! Thus, my Animal Crossing villages are no doubt overrun by weeds, my brain age has probably increased by a decade or two, and I don’t even want to know what will happen if I step on the Wii Fit Balance Board. Whenever I get the urge to play one of these “obligation” games, I always remember how it’ll no doubt result in a tongue-lashing about my break in the routine and I opt to play something else instead.

A Lack of Focus in the Long Haul

In addition to the expected daily involvement from players, Flash Focus takes a similar approach to Nintendo’s other training games in terms of its structure and design, right down to judging your “eye age” based upon your performance. The software contains a number of minigames designed to flex your eye muscles and improve your vision. These activities include trying to memorize numbers that appear on the screen for a split second, swinging a bat to hit pitches, tapping the correct sequence of symbols, and more. As with Brain Age, Flash Focus was supposedly developed under the supervision of a medical expert. All in all, it’s a pretty solid package that really does seem to give your eyeballs a thorough workout.

At first I was pretty gung-ho about my daily Flash Focus sessions. One of the best features of the game is it’ll create a vision workout for you, and I was able to get through the handful of activities as well as a warm down routine during one of my breaks at work. The downside of exercising my eyes at work was that once I was done with the visual calisthenics and off my break, my eyes would feel legitimately weary and all I wanted to do was go back into the break room to lie down and close my eyes for a while! Using Flash Focus while being at work turned out to be a rotten ombination, to be honest, but because I felt the drive to improve my vision, I forged on.

- Unfortunately, after a couple weeks, I noticed little to nothing in terms of my side eye getting better, not to mention my chalazion going away. In fact, I was afraid Flash Focus was causing so much eye strain that things were getting worse! After my visual exercises, I’d feel dizzy and my eyes would hurt. I suppose there’s a chance I was using the software incorrectly, but I don’t think that was the problem. Rather, I’ve come to the conclusion that while Flash Focus is a clever little package, it can’t work wonders. If I really wanted to have my side eye or chalazion treated, I’d have to go to a medical professional, not my Nintendo DS.

Still, Flash Focus is definitely a slick piece of software. The interface is straightforward and clean, and the fact that the game can tailor a visual workout for you is something that is sorely missing in many of Nintendo’s other training games, most notably Wii Fit. The activities in Flash Focus are all reasonably enjoyable and entertaining, which is another big plus. But gosh darn it, Flash Focus strains my eyes to the point that brings back painful memories of the discomfort I felt playing my Virtual Boy. Using Flash Focus was literally paining me too much to continue.

Consequently, Flash Focus is now sitting safely on a shelf next to the likes of Brain Age, Wii Fit, and Animal Crossing, all of which have sadly become neglected. Every now and then I kick around plans to start up a serious and intense daily Nintendo training schedule. I’ll start off with a vigorous workout with Wii Fit, give my mind a jolt with Brain Age, whip my eyes into shape with Flash Focus, and finally wind down by socializing with virtual critters and pulling rogue weeds in Animal Crossing. Knowing myself, this grand plan has little chance of happening, but it’s a nice idea!

Flash Focus is certainly worth a look for anyone interested in Nintendo’s training games, and its fun activities provide a quick and lighthearted experience perfect for people that only have a few minutes to spare. But the notion of the software being legitimate vision training is debatable. For the small percentage of gamers that put in the required time needed to see results with Flash Focus, it’s possible there will be some positive outcomes. For the rest of us, it’s a harmless diversion that is enjoyable but won’t solve our vision problems, including our side eyes.

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. You may reach Mister Raroo at mister.raroo@gmail.com. Please don’t make fun of his side eye or chalazion if you ever meet him in person.]