Player’s Experience: In-Game Time and Real-World Time

In-game screenshot of banner that reads: "Almost three hours had passed, but there was still no sign of Goku..."

What in-game and in-person elements determine how much time we’re willing to spend on a particular objective, narrative, or sequence in a game? Similarly, how does a player’s relationship to the time passing within a game and the time passing in the world around them affect their experience playing a game? As an avid open-world RPG player, I have often considered how these competing timelines might affect the player’s experience. How does an hour of gameplay translate into games’ internal timelines and how might this translation speak to players’ feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, or fulfillment? 

When I tuned in to the Lunch Zone’s most recent stream of Disco Elysium, I admit, I had never heard of the game or seen gameplay of it. While I was admittedly launched midway into a narrative, the game’s extensive dialogue and decision-making system can clearly make for a long-term endeavor. During the stream, Nathan read the dialogue aloud and made important conversational decisions with Kelly and Laya. Nathan mentioned that the constraints of the play session—playing for an hour on stream as opposed to playing alone or at home, for exampleaffects the experience of in-game time, to which Kelly and Laya pointed out that by reading the dialogue aloud and making decisions as a group, naturally the progression of the game would be slower. This got me thinking about the ways that we as players change our practices in response to situational changes—playing with friends, playing on stream, grinding a particular game to achieve a specific goal as opposed to playing through a narrative for the first time. Specifically, it got me thinking about the way that we see and value the time that we spend playing a game based on these situational variables. Given that Disco Elysium is comprised of a series of decisions, roll checks, and slow physical movement through a complicated narrative space, it would make sense to take the time and consider the various dialogue options and its implications, even if that requires the player to extend their gameplay time. 

This tension between time spent in the game and the passing of actual time can lead to complications in player satisfaction, as Destiny 2 is currently experiencing. In a recent article for Forbes, Paul Tassi discusses Destiny 2’s massive puzzle, the Corridors of Time, highlighting Bungie’s recent announcement that the puzzle would disappear two weeks after its introduction. This means that players only have a two-week window of real-world time to put in the real-world hours required to complete the puzzle. These limitations reduce the likelihood for players to have the opportunity to complete the puzzle and earn the rewards. As a PhD student, I have to accept that there’s no way I’m going to get these rewards. Given recent reports that these rewards are underwhelming considering the amount of time required to complete the Corridors of Time, I was curious about how a player’s expectations (I hope to complete X goal) for a timed play session would affect the player’s experience of in-game and real-world time. 

So, I decided to put it to the test. As I mentioned, I love massive, open-world RPG games. Since I am slowly making my way through the new Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, I chose to give myself a set period of uninterrupted game time. As a player, I am meticulous and admittedly, downright annoying in my need to complete my narratives laterally and search every nook and cranny of an open-world space before I feel accomplished. I complete sub-plots as they appear and refuse to leave areas until I’m satisfied that I have looted every crate, gathered sufficient materials, and engaged with every NPC capable of holding a conversation. Therefore, I thought that Kakarot might serve as a useful first test to see how my experience of uninterrupted play through a narrative saga might affect my experience of real-time. In the two and a half hours that I played the game, I carefully combed dialogues, new areas, and completed a major narrative arc that took place over the course of an in-game year and a half. The extension of in-game time, interspersed through a long series of main and subquests, paralleled the slow ticking of my timer, long forgotten as I worked my way through the narrative. I was surprised when my alarm went off, convinced I had played long past my little experiment’s constraints. This balance of slow play and narrative time skips ultimately simulated an extension of my experience of playing the game, especially because of the longer lulls of searching areas or grinding to raise different characters’ levels. 

With games like Disco Elysium, Destiny 2, and Dragon Ball ZKakarot and Disco Elysium, players’ patience pays off. Perhaps more importantly, these examples suggest that as we mod how we play a game—in groups, with audience input, on stream, alone, while watching someone else’s stream, playing without interruptions—our experience of the game itself and the world around us can shift dramatically. Games like these and others, such as The Division 2 continue to incorporate mechanics that force or encourage a player to alternate their gameplay pace, shifting players’ experiences and expectations for the next time they sit down to play. 

Janelle Malagon

I am a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the English department’s Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies plan. My research in games studies explores the development and professionalization of game live streaming and esports.

6 Comments

  1. Great ideas here about time and games, they interact in many different ways. To throw another one on the pile, since it is speedrunning month on The Arena: one can measure a speedrun either in “real time” or in “game time.” Real time denotes just starting a stopwatch when the game starts and stopping that watch when the game is over. “Game time” follows some kind of in game timer to determine the speed of the activity. There are quite a few important wrinkles this introduces:

    “Real time” runs typically time everything the player does, like menu interactions or quit outs but some game timers don’t. For instance, in the WR Celeste run there is a moment where it is faster, in game time, to quit out of a part and reload the game to skip a cutscene, but this is slower in real time by quite a bit. Since the only number that matters though is the one that the game shows on the final screen, strategies develop around getting that number lower.

    For some games a faster computer suddenly becomes supremely important if a game is recorded in “real time” since a faster computer can load the next challenge quicker. Of particular note would be the Portal series, since most speed runs actually end up chopping the time off of any loading screens, “starting and stopping” the watch so to speak so to not give an advantage to whoever has the best hardware, which of course is important in a game where the difference between first and second place is only 5 seconds.

    The inclusion of a game timer I think greatly impacts the likelihood that a game is speedrun in general though. The original Doom was one of the first speedrun games, in part because every level has a timer that shows how fast the player competed it. These timers go only to the “second” marker, and as a result the entire Doom speedrunning scene can get stuck on a level for years and years (some records took over 20 years to beat) because if the first person to achieve a record got a 37.9 seconds it recorded as 37 seconds and the next player would have to beat it by an entire second in order to take the record. Great discussion, I hope this adds to the discussion <3.

    • I appreciate your distinction between “real time” and “game time” for speedrunning. What you said about Doom is really interesting and brings the hardware and software’s conventions and limitations to the foreground. I think that this suggests a correlation between the kind of recording (“real time” vs “game time”) and the speedrun’s priorities. A Doom run forces players to accomplish huge gains to earn any recognition as you suggested. Similarly, a speedrun of Celeste can depend on players’ in-menu choices. In a way, this makes me think that a speedrun that records “real time” might place more emphasis on a player’s skill as both (1) a game player familiar with mechanics like skipping cutscenes and timing those appropriately and (2) a player of the particular game being run. If this is true, I wonder then what/how speedruns that record “game time” might afford/constrain players.

  2. Great post, Janelle, and really well-timed to coincide with our readings for Stuart’s class this week. In the first chapter of their work “Life After New Media,”, Kember and Zylinska discuss mediation as a dynamic process that “cannot be isolated and hence stabilized in any straight-forward manner because its mode is fundamentally that of time” (3). They use Henri Bergson’s idea of intuitive knowledge, “or contact with duration,” to discuss our tendency to collapse time into space in order to better understand it and master it (26). I think your discussion of game-time and real-time here helps me wrap my head around this and their later claim that “mediation is therefore also a differentiation, a ‘media becoming,’ that is always at the same time a process of ‘becoming other'” (27). Of course, another useful avenue to draw more of this out would be thinking about it in relation to Jesper Juul’s work on Game Time, particularly what he calls “mapping” or the projection of play time (real time) with event time (game time). Erik, I think your response may complicate Juul’s assessment.

    • I’m glad you brought in Kember and Zylinska! I thought the same thing after finishing this week’s readings. I found this forced differentiation between game time/real time to help me better understand their discussion about media’s multiplicity. Moreover, it helped me pay more attention to the different ways that media is both a product of and highly subjected to its time.
      Also, I’m definitely interested to know more about Juul’s work and how that plays into the speedrunning conversation.

  3. Great stuff, here, and I really enjoy learning more about speedrunning and on top of that seeing these concepts applied to it. I also found myself thinking, earlier in Janelle’s post, about the way perceptions of time and space across the game divide map onto de Certeau’s ideas, especially the dérive; that is, in what way might we see the gameplay as a tactical, situated experience that is “of the moment,” vs. out-of-game, strategically (because institutionally) ordered experience (the demands and obligations of rationalized life).

    But, then, it reverses from another angle, because the game space is itself institutional: the “space propre” of the game design company or maker. Part of what makes games so fascinating is this twist and turn that games make possible, and your discussion of time really highlights how difficult it is to pin down game experience as agentful or structured.

    • Thank you! We finished off our speedrunning month with a great conversation about the way that speedrunning differs for viewers, players who don’t speedrun, and participants engaging with a living scoreboard that keeps track of who holds the world record. I think speedrunning, as a practice or mode of gameplay, often challenges the traditional relationship between the player, game, and game designer by altering the objective of playing the game. For example, as we talked about during the last episode of The Arena, rather than playing through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time with the intention of playing through the narrative and saving Hyrule, a speedrunner might use every available method to reach the end credits of the game as quickly as possible. As I learned throughout Speedrunning Month on The Arena, speedrunning objectives can get pretty complex and completely change the relationship between the player and the game. Things like speedrunning demonstrate games’ malleability as objects, both making it difficult to parse the game experience while also enriching the actual experience of studying games.

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