Last week, we decided to have a think about games and time. This is one of a collection of posts that came from that thinking – Holly’s confession about just how much she lies.
Time in a game can be a lot of things.
It can be a score – how long did you survive? Or: how long did it take you to succeed?
If can be a straightforward measure of how much potential play is left: an hourglass running through, some number in a corner on a screen, bigger numbers on an LED display over the stadium.
It can be a proxy for chances to succeed – in a game of Goalball I saw during the Paralympics, the Canadian team took the lead and then time became something they needed to use up, a set of chances to succeed for their opponents that they wanted to minimise; they rolled the ball as slowly as they could on their turn, minimising the number of turns their opponents would get.
Time can be all sorts of different resources, for that matter – chess clocks, say, and their heavy thunkswitch from “my time running down” to “your time running down”; or time as a thing you can gather, winning the right to an extra ten seconds of play.
And it can be a lie. For me, it’s often a lie.
I run a lot of real-world games in public space, and a thing about the real world is – people don’t have a great sense of time when they can’t see a counter running down, and especially not if they’re playing. And another thing about real-world games is: people are different, and it’s really hard to tell in advance how long a particular group of players will find something fun for, how long it will take them to accomplish an aim, how long it’ll take someone to develop an insurmountable lead. You can write a game design document that says “this stage lasts five minutes, this stage lasts ten, send in another performer at twelve” or whatever – but that won’t be right for everyone.
Sometimes it’s only an implicit lie. I’ll explain the rules of a game, and I want everyone to scatter and separate through the playing space because it makes for a better game – but there’s no real in-game reason for them to do that, so instead I say “right, you’ve got ten seconds if you want to get out of here before the game starts”, and count down backwards, and honk a horn at the end. And mostly people scatter under the stress of the countdown. They don’t have to, they haven’t been told they need to, some of them won’t, it doesn’t help the people who do scatter except in the sense that it makes the game a little bit better for everyone. And yet, the urgency is enough. They run.
That’s a sign of a flaw in the game design, of course. It would have been much better to have a real reason for people to separate, instead of dumb tricks. But sometimes the lies aren’t there because the game needs to be better – they’re the tool to actually make it better.
There’s a pretty silly game called Semaphoria that I’ve run maybe twenty or thirty times, and it’s a good example of this. Two teams of 6-10 players have ten minutes to make up a language using flags, and then they have to use that language to communicate tasks to each other – hop on one leg, or hide, or form a circle, or sing “Take On Me”, whatever.
“You’ve got ten minutes to make a plan”, I’ll say to start off, and glance at a mobile phone to give at least the illusion of timekeeping. And then, a little while later, I’ll yell “five minutes left!”. I don’t mean five minutes left. I mean “you should be about halfway through by now, and if you’re not, you’d better hurry up”. I mean “you might have five minutes left, you might have seven, I dunno, but get a move on anyway”.
And I’ll say “two minutes left” later, which almost always means “two and a half, three” – however long people can sustain the urgency of last-minute flurrying, and still not quite be finished when I give the ten-second countdown.
Then there’s the next stage of the game, where people try to communicate instructions with their made-up flag languages – and sometimes they fail; sometimes the instruction’s too hard, the languages too weak or complicated. And that gets boring. So again, it’s a matter of deciding how quickly time should run – saying “okay, it’s taking you a while” – “you’ve got thirty seconds or we’ll move on”. There’s an implicit promise in the phrasings that I’m measuring the duration of each turn, but of course, I’m not – I’m just calibrating by enjoyment, by whether it’s boring yet.
It’s about treating time as a lever you can twist to make other settings (tension, urgency, fun) shift in the way you want them to. It only works in bigger games (ten players, a hundred, a thousand), and in contexts where people are responding to circumstances rather than planning and strategising – circumstances where time isn’t something that they themselves are keeping an intentional hold on. It only works if there’s a reasonably centralised playing area, and you know where all the players are. And it only works when you give people longer than you promised, or if you imply that there’s a predefined time limit but don’t actually state it. But under those circumstances – to make sure that people get the most from the game, it really helps to be able to control time.
This happens over and over in movies, the bomb countdown that takes three minutes to reach from 0:17 to 0:01. And of course writers manipulate urgency in poetry and fiction – sentence length, line breaks, word choice all acting to slow things down or speed them up.
But still. In games it feels like it might be sloppy, or cheating, perhaps because time is so often a standin for currency or opportunity or success. I’ve talked to a lot of people about running live games, and what I think makes them more or less fun, and this sort of lie about time – one of the most fundamental parts of how I try to make things fun – is something I’ve never mentioned to any of them, rarely even thought about consciously. Is it a fair thing to do, a reasonable lever to use?
I’m still not sure, but I think it probably is, sometimes. You can’t do it when time is fulfilling one of those other functions, of course. If it’s a currency that people have been collecting, you can’t just change its value. If it’s what they’re competing for, then you can’t change things just so they make a better narrative. But if it’s just duration, just there because nothing exists independently of time, then – well, you might as well do something with it.
Picture by BrotherMagneto.