Game Time: Understanding Temporality in Video Games

Game Time: Understanding Temporality in Video Games

by Christopher Hanson


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Preserving, pausing, slowing, rewinding, replaying, reactivating, reanimating Has the ability to manipulate video game timelines altered our cultural conceptions of time?

Video game scholar Christopher Hanson argues that the mechanics of time in digital games have presented a new model for understanding time in contemporary culture, a concept he calls "game time." Multivalent in nature, game time is characterized by apparent malleability, navigability, and possibility while simultaneously being highly restrictive and requiring replay and repetition. When compared to analog tabletop games, sports, film, television, and other forms of media, Hanson demonstrates that the temporal structures of digital games provide unique opportunities to engage players with liveness, causality, potentiality, and lived experience that create new ways of experiencing time

Featuring comparative analysis of key video games titles—including Braid, Quantum Break, Battle of the Bulge, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Passage, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Lifeline, and A Dark Room.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253032867
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2018
Series: Digital Game Studies
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Christopher Hanson is Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University with a background in video game and software development.

Read an Excerpt



IN THE SUMMER MONTHS OF 2014, SEVERAL HUNDRED THOUSAND SOCCER fans traveled from all over the globe and converged on the cities of Brazil for the World Cup. The enormous expenditure required to build or substantially renovate massive stadiums in twelve Brazilian cities as venues for the tournament was, understandably, met with significant derision and protest by many Brazilian citizens, given the ongoing global recession and its attendant significant economic disparities. All told, around 3.5 million fans attended the games. But this number was dwarfed by the number of fans who watched the games live on television, a number which was believed to exceed several billion ( 2014). The audience for each game thus extended from the roughly fifty thousand fans at the stadium to the many millions watching live around the world. The mind-boggling numbers of the broadcast audiences of the World Cup are echoed by other similar events, such as the Olympics and the Super Bowl. But which of the various constituencies truly experienced the game? As with any other sporting event, the privileged — and often wealthy — few who were able to attend the game would likely argue that, by being physically present, they saw, heard, and felt the game in ways that television, radio, or video streaming audiences did not; while fans at home may have watched the game live, these unlucky masses experienced a somehow less substantial iteration of live than those in physical attendance at the game. The privileging of a more expensive and substantially less attainable experience as being more authentic is a familiar cultural and ideological stance, perhaps most famously critiqued by Walter Benjamin (1969).

As I explore in this chapter and the next, scholars in both media and performance studies have scrutinized the meaning and valuation of liveness, but the concept has been underexamined in game studies. Most importantly for the consideration of game temporality, prevalent theorizations of liveness do not account for the ways players activate game temporality, the player's temporal engagement in a game, and the unique temporalities that games create and engender. We may describe a game as in play or being played, but we lack the terminology to describe the way in which players vivify games simply by playing them. If we describe the physically-present spectators' and television viewers' experience of a given World Cup match as live, how then might we describe the experience of the on-field referees of a game? More importantly, how might we understand the experiences of the players? When exactly does a game's temporality activate and when precisely does a game become live, like other television broadcasts or theatrical performances? And how does the participation of players build from and transcend existing conceptions of liveness in media and performance studies? Existing models of liveness help explicate the viewer's experience, but they fail to address the experience of participants or, in the case of games, players. Game liveness moves from a passive, second-order viewer experience to an operational, participatory, and primary player mode, as the player activates and simultaneously complicates the game's temporality.

When a game, such as a soccer match, is being played, it is live in the sense that it is active and in play. But it is also alive: it is animated and charged by the flesh-andblood presence of one or more players. I use the term alive both metaphorically, to describe the animated state of games that I distinguish from liveness, and to refer to the presence of one or more players who are biologically alive. This presence is constituted by the players' actions and intentionality, such as their play strategies. Indeed, Gordon Calleja (2011, 8) foregrounds the role of human subjectivity in gameplay when he asserts that games require players in an altogether fundamental capacity: "Most importantly, a game becomes a game when it is played; until then it is only a set of rules and game props awaiting human engagement." Of course, some video games feature artificial intelligence players, but these entities are almost always designed to emulate the behaviors of a human player. Almost all games require at least one player, and the player's role is essential to bringing a game to life. Both analog games (e.g., board games) and video games are enlivened when we play them, and, when enlivened, they transcend liveness. Rather than merely being live, they become alive.

What interests me here is the unique time and space games bring into being when they are played. This separate time and space has been described by numerous theorists in game studies, perhaps most familiarly by Huizinga's (1950, 13) concept of the "magic circle," mentioned in the introduction: the distinct and sometimes abstracted space in which play takes place "outside 'ordinary life'" and is "within its own proper boundaries of time and space." This spatial and temporal separation is found in other theorizations of play and games. Caillois (2001, 6) similarly argues that play takes place "isolated" from everyday life and within "precise limits of time and space." Furthermore, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (2004, 94) identify "the way that [games] create their own time and space separate from everyday life." To be certain, games create a distinct and bounded spatiotemporal construct for their players.

When a person agrees to play a game, they effectively consent to subjecting themself to the limitations of the game. Most familiar are the rule limitations: the player ostensibly agrees to constrict behavior to that which the game's rules allow. So chess players agree to move only their own pieces on the chessboard, and only in the particular ways each piece is allowed to move by the rules. But the players also implicitly assent to the game's spatial constraints (e.g., the game board or playing field) and its temporal structures (e.g., a game may have a time limit, as in many sports, including basketball). More specifically, I will illustrate how games are enlivened through play, becoming active systems that ultimately effect and affect their own temporality while they are being played. I will explore how the state of enlivenment adds nuance to the understanding of a game in a state of play. My conception of the enlivening of games is informed by theories of liveness in television and performance studies, which have explored liveness as an ontological property of broadcast media and theater (Heath and Skirrow 1977; Phelan 1993; Zettl 1978). These theories often describe the primary characteristics of liveness as copresence and immediacy, both of which strongly link the viewer or theater-goer to live events.

Unlike these forms, games present a heightened sense of liveness due to their reliance on active player participation. Games are activated by the presence of players and are further enlivened by increased levels of player engagement and participation. Games are vitalized through our presence in them, the insertion of our subjectivity into the domain of the game. To return to the World Cup, a soccer match simply does not exist without its players; the match's very vitality is reliant on the players who play it. The corporeal and intentional presence of these players gives the match its life. While the game may be broadcast live and experienced by its viewers, physically present and televisual, as live, this spectator experience of liveness is less immediate than the players' experience. So while a spectator may watch a World Cup game live, the players in that same game experience it as something more than live. In this chapter, I argue for describing this as the game being alive for its players; the game's vitality is drawn from that of its players.

Is It Live?

Liveness is a slippery concept, one which seems to become increasingly complex the more it is considered. Andrew Crisell (2012, 3) comments that "the phenomena of liveness is unexpectedly complicated." The term has been somewhat contested in both performance and television studies. Its particular meaning shifts across disciplines and the context of its usage (Auslander 1999; Crisell 2012; Marriott 2007). A face-to-face conversation is live in a way a video call using Skype is not, but this does not mean the latter is not live. Similarly, attending a soccer match and watching it from the sidelines is live in a way that is different from experiencing it live on broadcast media, such as watching it on television or listening to it on the radio. In these examples, I draw a comparison between events at which one is present and those which are mediated, or experienced via a medium (e.g., a computing device in the case of a video chat or a television or radio for a soccer match). The process of mediation is bound up in liveness, and, as Philip Auslander (1999, 53) suggests, the two are mutually dependent in that liveness implies a possibility of a mediation and is therefore reliant upon mediation, and vice versa. For an event to be considered live, it is experienced either by being physically present in unmediated fashion, or via a medium which allows for live transmission and reception. In addition to the role of mediation or its absence, liveness is characterized primarily by copresence and immediacy. Liveness is fundamentally bound to the present, for live events can only be occurring now, in a shared temporality with their audience. And to be live, events must seem like they are taking place right in front of us, in an unmediated fashion. Live performance and live broadcasting are characterized by ephemerality; Peggy Phelan (1993, 146) refers to this when she argues that "performance's only life is in the present" and that performance "becomes itself through disappearance."

Liveness in games is something that is strongly related to — but also quite distinct from — notions of liveness in performance and television. Historically, in both performance and television, liveness has been a term used to demarcate the experience of a particular event as it happens from events which have previously occurred and have been recorded. In the case of games, liveness is reliant on the ongoing participation of the player(s) of the game; a game is only live when it is actually being played. Player involvement in the game is essential; it is the player's engagement that keeps a game in play. Digital games may stress this mode of liveness in a particular fashion. For instance, real-time games require that a player remain engaged in gameplay, as all game events occur in real time. A player of the first-person shooter (FPS) Halo: Reach (Bungie, 2010) must continuously maneuver through dynamic science fiction battlefields that are concurrent with lived experience — when the player presses the buttons for jump or crouch, the player's avatar performs these actions immediately, simultaneously with the button presses. But a turn-based game such as chess is also live as long as it is in play. Each player may take several minutes, weeks, or years to make a move, but the game remains enlivened as long as its players remain involved in the game, that is, as long as its players continue to play. Liveness in games, then, builds on conceptions of liveness in performance and broadcast media, transcending these models.

The commonalities of the predominant and existing characterizations of liveness that I wish to emphasize while considering liveness in games are immediacy and copresence. By game immediacy, I mean the viewer's or player's sense of an unmediated, instant, and direct experience. Television and radio achieve immediacy primarily through self-effacement of their mediums, encouraging the spectator or listener to ignore or forget their presence; they present events directly, as though the radio or television were not an intermediary. Immediacy is also reliant on simultaneity; the broadcaster speaks to the listener or viewer in real time, responding to events as they occur. This mode of address presumes that the viewer is proximate and actively listening (and watching, in the case of television). Immediacy, through direct engagement, presumes and reinforces a certain closeness with the audience, which in turn is positioned to become absorbed in broadcast content. The player experiences immediacy through direct engagement with the game; by playing the game, the participant voluntarily surrenders to the rules and temporal structures of the game. This attentional connection of the player to the game is also what engenders the vitality of the game, as the more engaged the player becomes, the more closely the aliveness of the game is linked to the player.

Copresence suggests that the event or other entity shares the same spatial and temporal framework as the viewer or player. When one goes to the theater, one inhabits the same physical space as the actors; the performers and audience share the venue of the performance. Similarly, witnessing an event requires one to be copresent with the event; one must be there when something happens to witness it. Also necessary to copresence is simultaneity: the audience and actors inhabit this shared space at the same time. The simultaneity of copresence is often emphasized in models of liveness in broadcast media. The broadcast audience of a live event may be dispersed over a large geographical area, but various groups of people are copresent through their shared temporal experience of the event as it happens. In a game, copresence is articulated through a player's sense of other players and a player's place within the game system itself. In a multiplayer game such as hockey, copresence is evident; a player is aware of being present among other players in the hockey rink. But a player of a single-player game is also acutely aware of being present within the game structure. In a sense, the player of a single-player game experiences copresence in relationship to the rules and structure of the game. But, as I will show in the next chapter, in games, more fundamental than copresence is the simple presence of the player(s); this is the presence ensuring that games eclipse basic models of liveness.

Time's function in any game is defined in part by the way in which the game uses temporality as a play mechanic. Some games incorporate a timer to restrict the amount of time each player has to make a move (e.g., using a timer in chess), while others use a clock to determine the game's total length, as in many competitive sports. Other games may privilege accomplishing a task in the shortest amount of time, such as a puzzle game or a 100-m race. Time may be a resource, such as in arcade racing games like Out Run (Sega, 1986), in which the player has a limited amount of playing time and is awarded more time if able to drive fast enough to reach a checkpoint.

While games use time in a multitude of different ways, the temporality in a game is not determined solely by its particular implementation of time, as games may be in play even as they appear suspended temporarily or indefinitely. Although a game may appear to be stopped to an outside observer, it remains animated as far as the players are concerned. In between player turns, the board of a chess game may be static, but for each player the game remains active as each devises and revises strategy, continuously planning future moves and simultaneously predicting one's opponent's moves. But the diegetic time in a game of chess really only moves forward when a player takes a turn, with each move constituting a temporal progression in the game session's sequence of events. Chess tournaments utilize a clock which tracks how much time a player has to make moves, which adds an extra-diegetic (i.e., outside the fictional world of the game) temporal layer to the game session. In more informal settings, chess, like many other games, does not follow time limit rules; players may take as long as they wish to make a move and any time restriction is agreed on by the players. Stephen Sniderman (1999) describes this as part of a game's unwritten rules. Social pressure in the form drumming one's fingers or yawning loudly may serve to encourage an opponent to make a move. But even during these apparent lulls in the clear and unambiguous progression of the game (i.e., when the pieces on the board are not moving), the game may be very much afoot (see fig. 1.1). So, within the imaginations and minds of its players, a game is in play even at times when the game's diegetic temporality is halted. Such a game is alive even when it appears still. It is this state of play that I explore in this chapter.


Excerpted from "Game Time"
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Copyright © 2018 Christopher Hanson.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. More than Live: Game "A-liveness" and Immediacy
2. Game Presence and Mediatization
3. Pausing and Resuming
4. Saving and Restoring
5. An Instinct towards Repetition: "Replay Value," Mastery, and Re-Creation
6. Recursive Temporalities
7. Case Studies


1. This book clearly and articulately lays out a new branch of understanding video games and their impact on our concepts of time.
2. The author is an up and coming scholar in the fields of game studies and studies of temporality in media and has background in video game development.
3. This book builds on a current trend of studying temporality in media by being the one of the first full-length studies to theorize about the concept of time in video games.

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