Celia Pearce responds

Celia Pearce responds

2004-01-10

Celia Pearce hits SAVE and preserves most of Jesper Juul’s essay. But then “non-computer contexts” hit the screen.

Jesper Juul’s paper is excellent - it goes into real depth in looking at the conventions of time in game play. It also points out that there is a certain “game literacy” that emerges wherein players can accept various anomalies such as “cut scenes” or “load time” that interrupt the event time in a game. Believability is always an issue in any entertainment form, but we are willing to suspend our disbelief and accept such anomalies because we have learned how to “read” these forms and accept these conventions even though they “make no sense,” as Juul points out.

One thing that struck me about this was the correlation with other media. In early films, for example, the changing of reels was equivalent to “load time.” Although television commercials are not story-related, as are cut scenes, they interrupt narrative pacing in a similar way. It is quite remarkable how well humans can adapt to these types of interventions, once they understand the grammar of the medium.

Juul’s time-mapping scheme holds up well and is particularly useful because not only does it have a strong theoretical case, it is a good example of what I call “practical theory.” This is a paper that can actually be used by game designers and students to better understand and analyze their own practice. It’s a great example of why this sort of theoretical research is useful: it is not a spurious intellectual construction but a pragmatic way to look at the conventions of game design.

I also find it useful to think of time in terms of scale. In architecture there are certain conventions of scale modeling based on the level of detail you want to represent. In 3D computer graphics, the “levels of detail” technique is used to articulate various distances. I think we can look at time in terms of “scale models” and “levels of detail” as well.

Juul’s comparisons to time in other media are excellent because they demonstrate why many accepted narrative conventions do or don’t work in games. Backstory - that is, reference to events that occurred before game time - is a useful convention. But flashbacks and flash-forwards - and I would add foreshadowing - are not, because they do not anticipate player action.

There are also a few areas that I felt could be explored further:

First, Juul talks about player manipulation of time (speeding up, slowing down, saving) to adjust for skill level. However, player-manipulated time schemes can also be used as a game strategy. For example, in The Sims, I frequently load the characters up with “dead” actions, such as chores, then run the game on double-speed until they’re done. This is a time-efficiency strategy so that I can focus on more interesting game events, such as socializing.

Second, Juul’s in-depth discussion of “saving” is incredibly useful, but I was surprised that he made no mention of conventions of reincarnation and the role of death in game time. In many first-person shooter games, it is possible to die and rise again; whereas games like EverQuest employ the convention of “perma-death.” I think these approaches to and metaphors of death and reincarnation are very important, especially in terms of fictive time schemes, and should be addressed further.

Finally, I must part paths with Juul on the subject of time in non-computer contexts. Board game time is very distinct from computer game time because computers are, or can be, a time-based medium. In most (though not all) computer games, the pacing is dictated by the computer. However, board games do not have such time constraints. A chess game can take an hour or it can take a month. Monopoly is notoriously hard to predict in terms of pacing. Like reading, time is user-discretionary. I disagree that games that have a fixed pace are inherently more compelling. In fact, what is compelling about chess and Monopoly is precisely the fact that the game is paced by the players themselves. These conventions are adopted in computer versions of these games, and I think you would be hard-pressed to make an argument that a fixed-pace version of either chess or Monopoly would be more compelling than their current forms.

Finally, I was struck by the complementarity between Juul’s essay and my own. His “play time” maps nicely to my description of “experiential narrative,” and “event time” then becomes the “fictive time” of what I call the meta-story or story overlay. I can easily see using these two theories in conjunction with each other, particular in a teaching context.

Mizuko Ito responds

Jesper Juul responds