We framed the discussion with an image showing a set of topics that emerge as discourse on games begins to consider time as a design focus and the diverse temporalities of gameplay as a topic of critical interest. You can view it here (click to enlarge):
If we were conducting our meeting in the ’90s or early ’00s we probably would have started with and remained within a discussion of narrative in games, but today we are less obsessed with what something is as an object (is this or that game a new form of narrative?) and much more concerned with the experiences a game can afford.
This led us directly into a discussion of Jesper Juul’s “casual revolution” as a response to the shift in game culture to a “time economy” in which time spent in game environments is a primary design concern. We linked many of the design techniques of casual games to the industry desire to extend total gaming time, such as achievement systems and bonus content. We talked about games like Braid, which use time as a content theme as well as a game mechanic principle, and games like Time 4 Cats which are specifically focused on player time as a resource. We also had an extended discussion of Progress Quest as critique of how RPGs have handled time in their stereotypical, more repetitive designs. This example highlighted the wider observation that although many games have found new ways to extend time spent in their environments most have not made that time very meaningful.
Connected to this topic was a running thread about “grinding” and the blurring of the gameplay (as the name we give the time we spent gaming that does not feel onerous) into what I would call “gamelabor.” This provides a new time-based perspective on MMO gaming in which avatars are storage of gamelabor (which is often reducible to time spent grinding) and game designers inevitably depreciate labor value by adjusting their world’s virtual economies, mechanics, leveling trajectories, and so on. The fact that gameworld adjustments contained in expansions and patches of World of Warcraft cause such consternation seems to point to something problematic in the approach to time. If the meaningfulness of time spent gaming in Azeroth emphasized experiences (of events, collaborations, discoveries, e.g.) one would expect less concern for the depreciation of gamelabor.
There was also a thread in the discussion pertaining to the hardcore/casual divide in current game culture and as a trajectory in the evolution of games. There was a loose consensus that there has been a casualization of game design generally which can be seen specifically in how player death (or failure) is handled in games. We discussed the time-reversal mechanic in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time briefly as a starting point for various commentaries on difficulty and how games have become more mindful of how players spend their time learning a game as well as recovering from death or failure. We briefly noted the cultural differences encountered in game design and difficulty, and how games value player time. Foreign imports like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. FPS-Adventure series (Ukrainian) and Gothic RPG series (German) severely punish poor player attention to how the game is made, both in terms of diegetic content and mechanics. These examples underscore the tendencies of American developers to “respect” the quantity of time spent playing (or mere effort) by guiding play away from failure, reminding players of key information they may have forgotten, etc. Conversely, these imports judge the quality of time spent playing, too, and time spent without attention to the gameworld’s design and purposes is time wasted. Put another way, we might say these imports only respect attentive player time.
Finally, we touched on “numbers porn” in game design, considering how games afford an aesthetic experience of game time via numbers. This discussion tied the quantification practices of games to how game designers have understood and represented the pleasure of gameplay as a time investment. As games vie for our sustained attention in the frenetic new media ecology representing the time spent gaming in aesthetically captivating ways becomes a strategic focus. Many games seem to assume in their design that it is not enough to provide an interesting game experience – it must also provide a pleasurable accounting of the player’s time, measuring it and representing it constantly both privately in-game, and, increasingly, publicly online (or parallel console platform networks).
One upshot of a focus on time in games criticism and design, in my view, will be a greater appreciation of how games develop experiences: of ideas, desires, moral problems, our bodies … or of exploitation. The conceptualism of gameplay—its compartmentalization into events, actions, choices and consequences, information and rules, story and mechanics (and on and on)—gave many critical gamers an alibi for avoiding tough questions about how (or whether) particular games use and value our time. When we ignore time, conceptual arguments set in: “this type of gamic action is fun!”; “this game mechanic is stupid!” This contributes to a reductive idea of game design as a calculus of accruing “fun” events, mechanics, and information (feedback); yet it seemed clear from our discussion that the logic of more does little to increase the quality of our gaming experience, and in some cases can undermine itself (as in the emergence of “grinding”). Adding a temporal dimension obviously entails different questions, and suggests we approach games as designed experiences, not just perpetual fun-activity machines.