In my work on Tales of Vesperia particularly and JRPGs in general, I’ve been poking at a lot of virtual worlds, looking for the places where they start to come apart and the meaning that can be gleaned therefrom. In trying to develop a theoretical framework for this, I spent some time going through the etymology of the word ‘world’, and hopefully what I found is at least worth this post.
‘World’ comes from a Germanic root, a combination of ‘were’, meaning ‘man’ (as in ‘werewolf’) and ‘old’ for (if this isn’t obvious) things relating to age. The OED gives an ‘originally literal’ meaning of ‘age of man’. What interests me about this is the temporal component.
I think it would be fair to say that we generally use ‘world’ as a geographic or ontological descriptor; ‘the world’ is either a place, or a(n in-some-way-maximal) set of objects. That’s not universally true, as we might speak of ‘the Jurassic world’ or ‘the modern world’, or say of some era of history that ‘it was a different world back then’, but I think it fits how the word is used today (I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who disagrees). We tend to use ‘age’ or ‘era’ to speak of periods of time.
And I think this is worth remembering when discussing ‘world’ in videogames, because it’s the temporal dimension of game worlds that tends to be the more complicated. Games compress distance, and even chop it up a bit, but as I’ve argued before, game spaces are generally straightforwardly spatial.
Time in game worlds, though, is rather more complicated. Partly out of technical limitations and partly out of courtesy to players, games have to convey the passage of time in mostly-abstract ways. Even the most literal driving/racing game, with a millisecond-precise lap timer in the top corner of the screen, will run its career mode, car tuning and car select menus in abstract time (thank heavens).
One of the coolest and most effective single experiences I’ve had in a game was Queers in Love at the End of the World by Anna Anthropy (go play it quickly and come back). This seems, on the face of it, to be a game with very literal time – a timer at the top of the screen counting down from 10 in seconds – but it relies on an abstraction to make that time meaningful. Specifically, the duration of your actions is abstracted to the time it takes to read, understand and navigate the hyperlinked options.
Without wanting to dig too deeply, this does complicate things. Time in Queers in Love passes differently depending on your reading speed. I tend to have time for about two choices; I feel like I can usually do more than ten seconds’ worth of actions in the game’s ten literal seconds. A slower reader, someone reading in their second language or with a condition like dyslexia, may find time flowing rather faster for their in-game avatar than I do.
The kind of games I spend most of my time playing – JRPGs and other epic narrative games – have to compress time much more severely. Sequences of events that by rights should take years must be fitted into forty hours or less. There are lots of ways to do this, all of which can be clunky in some contexts and entirely graceful in others.
It’s often in handling time that JRPGs get most abstract, or furthest from literalism. Plot developments that are tied to player progress can seem preposterous coincidences; taking time to complete sidequests after reaching the final save point before the final boss can drain all urgency from the impending apocalypse.
I’m not going to go into these topics in more detail this time, because each is worth at least a post on its own. But I do think it’s important to look at how games represent time, how we should interpret those representations, and how virtual experiences may conflict with our relationships to non-virtual time – and the non-virtual world.
 This is a Thing Philosophers Do, and I don’t necessarily mean to advocate for definitions based on etymology over use, but it’s often helpful when trying to develop a lexicon to get a sense of what other linguistic roots may be relevant.
 It should be noted – though it’s by no means my place to do more than note – that ‘were’ means ‘man’ in the sense of ‘male person’, not as a generic term for human beings. I leave it to more astute feminist scholars to examine the fact that ‘world’ is by root a gendered term.