Monday 27 July 2015


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’[1], 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’[2]. 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.


  1. It looks to me like this article is on the crux of engaging in different (cultural?) senses of subjective or psychological time and how they might affect players' experiences. An interesting topic, I would like to have heard more about that. But, then subjectivity gets tied down to a supposedly objective reading speed test, and the cosmos is constructed for us as man against the world for no reason I can easily discern though feminists are invited to say something about it (because we already have, and extensively - why not quote some work already done in these areas?).

    If we must keep the philosophizing framework in this article, I'd suggest we deconstruct the binaries and hierarchies it invokes: a supposedly internal, existential (Cartesian?) self vs. an externalized world, an outdated, pop-science view of space and time, "man" and everyone else, philosophers with the right to think deep thoughts and non-philosophers who cannot or just do not, and so on.

    RE: [1] "This is a Thing Philosophers Do"

    OK, but we non-philosophers can and should probably still argue that historical ideas of "man", "age", and "world" not be described as reducible to this or any other merely etymological reading (e.g., translating "were" as man is just a starting point for further inquiry as the author duly notes). Likewise, the ideas brought together here should be recognized as more relevant to the author's contemporary scene than an historical legitimization of or support for embracing the proposed schematic (i.e., separating hu-/man from world and setting them up as diametrically opposed forces with hierarchical implications, theorizing time and space as separable elements reinforces what sounds to me like a Cartesian mind-soul/body split or consciousness-as-awareness-of-time opposite of matter-space.)

    Just my 2 cents: The intro and outro produce what registers to me as a rather conservative, authoritarian and ahistorical set of markers that re-establish socio-cultural boundaries on what can and cannot be known and how the "world"-view should be framed and understood. But, then, this seems to have very little to do with the actual content which is a fairly straightforward analysis of speed and linear narrative as one often finds in old timey, anti-feminist first year film or lit crit departments; that is, they prefer to talk about aesthetics without talking about culture because their goal is to separate feminist, political, psychological, and cultural critique from "art". It's a bad move IME but carry on. I am interested in these subjects.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I clearly need to have another look at how I constructed this article, because you've gotten out of it something I didn't mean to put in at all. I certainly didn't intend to endorse purely etymological approaches to meaning, or the binarism that tends to go with them.

      I could have worded the bits on phenomenological time better - the focus on second-language and readers with dyslexia was not meant to endorse the idea that 'reading speed' is a specific cognitive faculty that is objectively measurable (I could equally have talked about the difference between skim-reading and reading carefully, for example).

      More broadly, you suggest I was arguing for a schematic that sets up an opposition or hierarchy between human/subject and world, which wasn't my intent (as a post-Kantian idealist, I want nothing to do with Cartesian metaphysics). Are you referring to a distinction between human-as-embodied-in-'our'-world and human-as-extended-into-virtual-worlds? I suppose something like this is present in my interest in the relationship between representations of virtual time and the experience of real time, at least insofar as one is malleable relative to the other.


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