It always amazes me how physically tracking time, making this move from the intangible to the tangible can be so powerful.
Dust mentioned in his piece last week that gamers like to play, noting that large expositions can break the flow of the game and sometimes really detract from the experience. That idea works as a nice catalyst to a thought I have been mulling over; I want to talk about the value of tracking time spent engaging in different activities.
Have you ever heard those statistics like “Humans spend about X% of their life sleeping and Y% working”? It’s an interesting concept, tracking our time. What are we doing and for how long?
This balance of activities can be seen in games as well as life. Just as it is an important thing for us to consider in our daily activities, it can be hugely important for a gamer and a game designer to consider. How much are we actually playing and what else are we doing!?
Different games have varying degrees of available statistics to give us a sense of how we spent our time. Some games have nothing, many have a game clock of some sort, and some even give the player more metrics to consider. Ultimately, I think I often take that game clock for granted. If there was not something telling me the duration of my gaming, I would have a hard time distinguishing a 10 hour adventure from a 20 hour adventure, or a 50 from a 100.
This is a little sad, but true. Since I have the timer crutch I do not even think about it, and as the old mantra points out, “time flies when you are having fun”. Thus it is hard to keep a good perspective on how we spend our time. It’s easy to think it will only take X time to do a couple side quests or Y time to get from point A to point B.
Shin Megami Tensei 4 went so far as to neatly break down different elements of how that time was spent. In my first play through, it tells me that I had 63:03 overall play time. 1:13 of that was spent “idle in the field” and 8:21 in the Cathedral of Shadows.
These times were a little striking to me. I mean, what was I doing for an hour and 13 minutes? Was I daydreaming? Was someone talking to me and I was not paying attention? Or maybe it was something in game that required waiting. I’m not even sure exactly how it is clocking that time. It’s weird to see that number though, telling me that I spent nearly 2% of my time playing this game doing nothing.
It’s weird to see that number though, telling me that I spent nearly 2% of my time playing this game doing nothing.
The same goes for for that 8:21. It’s definitely an intriguing statistic to me. If someone would have asked me how much time I spent creating demons, I definitely would not have thought it around 13%. That being said, I do not necessarily think it is a bad thing. The discovery and creation of new demons is a dominant element in the game and it seems like those numbers should be fairly high.
Ultimately, how we perceive time and how time actually passes are fairly relevant metrics in understanding how we play games. Returning to Dust’s quote, “players like playing”. What this “playing” means can take on different roles in different games.
Ultimately, how we perceive time and how time actually passes are fairly relevant metrics in understanding how we play games.
In a fighting game, for example, it probably means actually battling or spending some time against a practice dummy. The less time the player has to spend navigating menus to get the appropriate settings the better. In an RPG, it may take on some combination of the actual battles, navigating lands and forming strategies. Each of these components may have a time attached to them, and each person may want more or less of different components.
Seeing those statistics in SMT4 triggers another interesting response. I am almost always up for having more in a game. Show more statistics, give more options, include more difficulties. However, seeing those numbers was a little weird for me. Perceived time matters when no numbers are presented, however once you see those numbers, actual time spent suddenly matters as well.
Perceived time matters when no numbers are presented, however once you see those numbers, actual time spent suddenly matters as well.
For example, what if a game does a great job of making me feel like there was no down time during my playthrough but then tells me that I did nothing for 10% of my play time? It creates this cognitive dissonance for me and makes me call into question all the clever game mechanics that distorted my image of reality.
Time Distortions and Lost Hours
I was thinking about this concept a short while ago when I was writing my article on going in blind. I mentioned that the haphazard learner would generally progress through a game quicker (which seems to generally hold true if you compare mine and my brothers game clocks). While I think this generally holds true, this feeling is likely supplemented by a variety of techniques the game uses to distort how I feel about the time spent, including the game clock.
For as much as the game clock tries it’s best, it often cannot tell the whole story. Where can we find this deceit though?
Most evidently, it won’t tell you time lost from loading a previous save. The 2 hours my Fire Emblem: Awakening was reporting after the first three levels on lunatic+ was a lie. I neglected those two bus rides back and forth between New York and Boston full of quick fails and devastating near successes. Nor will the clock capture the constant loading, searching for the Fiends in SMT4.
In other games, time may be distorted in alternate ways. I was watching a Metroid Prime speedrun the other day. They use the ingame clock as their timer for the game, which does not count time in which the player is not in control. This means a 30 minute session could take 40 minutes, and that there are neat methods to shave off seconds here and there.
To me, the concept of this time distortion is very interesting. We all rely so heavily on clocks for this that and the other thing, and in these gaming worlds, we are often attaching ourselves to a number that does not tell the whole story, and accept it as fact.
We all rely so heavily on clocks for this that and the other thing, and in these gaming worlds, we are often attaching ourselves to a number that does not tell the whole story, and accept it as fact.
Time in… THE REAL WORLD
Our time means a whole heck of a lot to us. Time is money. Time is our lifeline. So understanding how we spend time is pretty important. I would be very interested to see on a large scale how much time people THINK they spend doing specific activities and how much time they ACTUALLY spend doing these activities. Would whatever variance arises be a big issue?
Though we may all track time to some extent, I’m curious how well we do this. I’m sure some people have a very good sense of time. On the opposite side though, if precise numbers were presented to people every day with how they spent their time, I bet some people would be quite surprised.
Most people track their daily activities and the time involved with them to some degree or another. This may range from giving yourself an hour to get through an activity or running on a treadmill for 45 minutes. If you are working in the consulting business this could mean rigorously tracking daily activities for billing purposes. So at the end of the day, most people could give a vague recollection of the time spent.
It always amazes me how physically tracking time, making this move from the intangible to the tangible can be so powerful. If we have that number right in front of us saying that we exercised X amount, slept Y amount, and surfed the internet Z amount, I think that would be a very meaningful thing. I wonder how much it would change behavior. At the very least it would bring some clarity to our own vision of our daily lives.
Some of the strongest inventions in recent history have been simple mechanisms to make this intangible perception of time tangible. For example, fitness accessories tell us how long we have spent exercising. The other day I saw this showerhead on Vsauce2 which begins to change colors as you take a longer shower. Statistics seem to show how this decreases shower times. This is a perfect example of seeing results from the tracking of time.
Ultimately, I think making time a tangible figure is a great tool to try to implement wherever we can. This is especially true if we have a specific goal for new activities we are trying to incorporate into our lives. Giving that allotted time some kind of tangible representation goes a long way in helping us see progress or deficiencies.
Giving that allotted time some kind of tangible representation goes a long way in helping us see progress or deficiencies.
One more quick point before I wrap this up. To harken back to the lost time and time distortion segment above, I don’t think our wall clock is lying to us the way a game clock may (unless the battery is dying). For the most part, I’m guessing they are fairly sound. However, there is definitely a mental distortion of various activities that constantly provide the “lost time” feeling; the feeling that the activities I have performed seem like they should have taken only a couple hours and now my day is gone!
When I was young and mom used to drive me to school, we always talked about the time vortex. We would want to be leaving by a certain time, and somehow it always felt like there was a time warp between us mobilizing and us being in the car heading to school!
It’s transitions like these that often lend themselves to lost time. Ending one activity and opening another and the limbo in between often takes longer than I like to mentally budget for.
For example, for the longest time I knew my walk to work was 19 minutes at a fast pace, 23 at a more leisurely pace. However, for whatever reason I never tracked the time it took me from the moment I stood up to head out. That transition period of getting up, locking the door, waiting for the elevator and getting outside was always a weird blur to me. I figured it had to be less than 4 minutes so I could always make it up by walking fast if necessary. But now I’m trying to be much more conscientious of these in between times.
Ultimately, if I set a timer, then sit down to work, and stop the timer when I get up from ‘work’ a couple hours later, I doubt I was definitely working for that 2 hour segment. It’s interesting to consider if any downtime is just necessary collateral and if all downtime is equal? The brain and our perception of consciousness actively ‘lie’ or ‘trick us’ all the time, and we don’t yet have the clock which can disentangle an hour into what we were actually doing for that hour.
The brain and our perception of consciousness actively ‘lie’ or ‘trick us’ all the time, and we don’t yet have the clock which can disentangle an hour into what we were actually doing for that hour.
All I can suggest is trying to be slightly more purposeful about how we track and conceptualize time. I believe this is the first step to understanding how often we misappropriate this time mentally.
Time To Wrap This Up 😉
So that’s all for me on this one. Let me know what you guys think in the comments below. How do you feel about time tracking in games? Do you wish there were more metrics or are you usually fine with the general game clock? Do you have some system to track your time more than just mental notes here and there? If you do, what is it? If not, do you think it could be beneficial to do some more purposeful time tracking?
Until next time, Game on and Learn on!