The Truth Behind Those Wild TikTok Videos Meant To Hack Your Attention

The Truth Behind Those Wild TikTok Videos Meant To Hack Your Attention

If you spend any time on TikTok, you may have noticed that a certain kind of video collage is popping up all over your For You page. Maybe it has a clip of the adult cartoon Family Guy in there, or socialist Twitch streamer Hasan “Hasanabi” Piker talking about Black Lives Matter. But no matter the footage, it’s likely one of the other panels will be playing gameplay of mobile endless runner game Subway Surfers. And if you’re confused about what the hell is going on, well, great! Because I was, too.

A probable splintering from the #corecore trend meant to comment on society’s oversaturation of stimulation, these collages feature anywhere from two to four videos playing concurrently, with none of them having any connection to the other.

In one example posted on January 17 by British power metal band Dragonforce there are videos of Family Guy and a live show of the band. The left side? It’s entirely dominated by Subway Surfers, the Temple Run-esque endless runner co-developed by Kiloo and Sybo Games that’s been out for over a decade. That video garnered almost 15,000 likes and nearly 200,000 views. And it’s just one of the many videos now circulating that inexplicably features Subway Surfers.

An oddly satisfying combination

So, why is Subway Surfers appearing all over TikTok?

Dr. Natalie Coyle, a psychologist with a Ph.D in mental health research and the author of several articles covering the psychology of video games, believes the concept of “visual tactility” comes into play here. By posting “entrancing” or “relaxing” content alongside each other — like perfectly scooped foam or endless running montages — creators can hold the user’s attention for longer time periods.

“In the videos of Hasanabi’s that I’ve seen that adopts this collage format, there tends to be two types of videos split with the main one: Subway Surfers, and then content that’s considered ‘oddly satisfying’ such as cutting foam in perfect symmetry,” Dr. Coyle said. “This is sometimes called ‘visual tactility’ in research, but it’s still an emerging field of study.”

Coyle suggests that each part of these collages can foster different effects in a viewer. While she notes that it’s not yet known if merely watching game footage can induce the fabled activity “flow state,” she thinks that if any one type of game video could do so, it’s footage of an endless runner like Subway Surfers, which proceed down a set path with few other distractions to consider.

“If focusing on a video game and achieving its optimal route isn’t your thing, oddly satisfying content/visual tactility content [that is playing alongside it] can increase your receptiveness to the main information of the video,” she said. “So in a nutshell, while footage of games like Subway Surfers has the potential to increase auditory attention, the ‘oddly satisfying’ video has the potential to relax viewers, improve their listening, and increase their chances of remembering the content spoken about in the main video.”

Subway Surfers is gaining players, partly thanks to TikTok

Developer Sybo Games seems ready to capitalise on the chaotic trend, posting similar TikToks on Subway Surfers’ official account. Company CEO Mathias Gredal Nørvig told Kotaku that thanks to this “user-generated content era,” the game is seeing “a new wave of eyes” in addition to Subway Surfers’ millions of existing active players.

Hasanabi’s editor Ostonox told Kotaku that he calls the TikTok trend “retention bait,” with one panel in the video collages being the “main content with audio” while the rest of the clips are just there as a means of capturing the viewer’s attention. Initially a satirization of the #corecore videos he’s seen across the app, Ostonox said whenever he’s used the format on Hasanabi’s account, the videos do extremely well in the first 30 minutes, partly because they lead to people watching longer and listening to the entire video’s message.

“Pairing up three different videos split-screened in the same TikTok works really well on a shorts-based platform because TikTok incentivizes users to swipe away from a video the second they get bored,” Ostonox said. “So, when your attention starts drifting on one of these ‘retention bait’ videos, your eyes can just flick to another panel with someone cutting colourful kinetic sand or some mobile game footage where a character collects coins. This strategy is used by a lot of accounts on TikTok that seem to just post TV show clips like Family Guy, but since I posted about it, I’ve had other creators comment on how successful it’s been for them, too. In fact, many of our commenters said the format helped them absorb information better, which reminds me of the fidget-toy trend from years ago that claimed students were able to learn better if they could do something with their hands while listening.”

It’s unclear if the video collages, specifically the ones featuring Subway Surfers, actually have any influence on a viewer’s attention span. One thing is clear, though: While these videos may look unhinged, they are extremely popular, with creators from Hasanabi to Philip DeFranco using them on their own TikTok accounts. So, be prepared, y’all, there might be a lot more Subway Surfers in your TikTok future.

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