Gametime: Towards A Theory of Virtual Relativity



I’ve been thinking a lot about archaeological context and video games — any video game. In dirt archaeology within meatspace (aka the real world), you are dealing with artifacts caught in a matrix of earth and debris, buried in such a way as to lock them in time and with other material so that the astute archaeologist can approximate what happened and when to an artifact, an assemblage of artifacts, or even to an entire site. Time is assigned after the fact, and the artifact’s context provides clues as to the time of deposition. Time is an end-result derived at through observation and deduction.

When studying video games as archaeological sites, as artifacts, or as both simultaneously (game-sites?), multiple layers of time reveal themselves at once. First, you have the date in which the game was launched, and this is preceded by alpha and beta versions leading up to the launch of version 1.0 of the game for general play, which is immediately followed by patch releases, bug-fixes, upgrades, future versions, expansion packs, downloadable content, and remasters of the original, plus homages/parodies of the same. The game as site/artifact has its own history of itself, a kind of meta-history, which is no different than real world places such as Rome, Athens, Troy, Boston. Games like cities are founded, grow, sprawl, sometimes die and are forgotten, only to be recovered again via archaeology.


CivCity: Rome

The second layer of time manifests in the actual playing/exploration of a game, measured in real-world hours/minutes/seconds, and also days/weeks/years. For example, World of Warcraft players can type “/played” in the chat panel to display, in real-world terms, how long a particular toon (character) has been active within Azeroth. For the archaeogamer, this kind of time is practically useless unless you want to state for the record that you have, say, 100 hours logged for a particular game to demonstrate that you’ve been in-world long enough to collect an appropriate amount of data. This kind of time has zero bearing on the game itself as either site or artifact. In meatspace, real-time is all you have.

The third layer is something I am calling “gametime”. Gametime measures time within a game itself that is (most of the time) independent of the real world. When I play Skyrim, there are day-night cycles within the game that happen faster than in real-time. Days in Skyrim are much faster than Earth-days; time progresses more quickly. When playing that game (or similar ones with actual days caused by real/imagined rotation around a real/imagined axis), events occur at a given place and time based on my position and action within the game. If I try to reproduce a glitch, for example, and the same real-world date/time, it will likely fail. Instead, I must be in the exact place and time within the game in order to reproduce that glitch, which still might not happen because of mathematical complexity, fodder for a different post.


“Living Takes Time” Skyrim mod from

When a player plays a game, that player is managing multiple time-streams simultaneously that are largely independent of each other. I might give myself two hours of real-time to play, but days might pass within that game as measured in gametime. The two time-streams are relative to each other, tangentially connected. The real-world timeline is intersected by a bending gametimeline at two points: point of starting play, and the point of logging away/out. Those points of intersection could be considered to be singularities, ends-of limit.

When you talk about astrophysics (and I know you all do), you know that a singularity is a black hole, a place in the universe that bends spacetime so that parallel lines actually meet. The intersection of gametime and real-time is the same thing, with the singularity being the entry/exit point of gameplay, either within a console/computer housing several games, or with an on/off switch or reset button.

In many games, time stands still at the point of saving and exiting, and time resumes as soon as a player logs back in. In Half-Life, I can save (or rage-quit) at a particularly difficult section, and the soldiers and aliens all freeze, waiting for me to return so they can kill Gordon Freeman one more time.


I hope he saved earlier! (image: Half-Life 2)

This of course creates a paradox, one of multiple saves. At any point in Half-Life (or Dragon Age or whatever), I can choose to save prior to engaging in risky behavior, or I can save at points of irrevocable choice just to see what happens if I follow arrow-of-time A or arrow-of-time B, not unlike sticking your fingers in the pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure book to see what happens when you take each choice. We split time with multiple save slots, and create more realities within gametime.

Other games such as MMOs are dynamic, meaning that action continues to happen regardless if I am either present or absent. Gametime proceeds, and the player must catch up upon logging in for another session of play.

Back to physics for a moment: in Einstein’s theory of special relativity (see figure below), as we travel in space, we also travel in time within a cone of past events heading towards a cone of future events that touch each other at a single point, which is the present and is also the position of the observer of whatever is happening right now.


In what I am calling the “theory of virtual relativity”, the cone of past events also illustrates time leading up to entering gamespace (or “metaspace” if you will), and the cone of future events corresponds to actions that will happen while in-game. The point at which the two cones touch is the exact point in which the player crosses from meatspace into metaspace, in effect leaving the real for the virtual world to effect actively futures within while at the same time passively engaging with actual real-time.

cone copy

Things get messy, however, when trying to document when things happen in-world that are of archaeogaming significance. Ruins might appear and disappear within a game over time. Sometimes regions change between patches. The archaeogamer needs a way to quantitatively record when things happen within a game, and must derive on a game-by-game basis a unit of measure to record the very important “when” of an artifact, which directly adds to the archaeological context of where, and the meaning of how and why.

In No Man’s Sky, archaeogamers will have to go one level deeper in time (I am calling this the “Inception Model” after the Christopher Nolan film), where there will be procedurally created planets orbiting suns and rotating on axes with different periods of rotation and revolution. Every planet’s relative time will differ from the next, and that will need to be reconciled with actual gametime.


(image: Inception, Warner Brothers)

One other oddity to address: static games such as platformers, your traditional arcade games, and casual games. In some games you race against the clock (which may or may not reflect actual seconds, sometimes effected by processor speed within the hardware). In other games you play until you “die”, and the action can be documented in real-time. In other games (such as Pac-Man), time is unimportant, and could be measured in points rather than minutes/seconds. For casual games such as Solitaire or Patience, time is unimportant and has no meaning (unless as a player you are tracking your time to completing a hand). Imagine a dimension where time does not exist, and you will find many, many casual games; gametime ceases to be relevant to the archaeogamer.


What time is it? Who cares? (image: Microsoft Solitaire for Windows XP)

Maybe the one thing to take away from this post is that gametime is crucial to the archaeological study of video games when one is exploring them from the inside out. It is essential to providing context, an absolute necessity in archaeology. Context without time included short-changes our research and provides only part of the story of what happens in metaspace.

-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming




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