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Fun vs. Time

In many ways I’m glad I stopped playing computer games. Not because I don’t enjoy them, not because I feel like I’ve outgrown them or anything like that, but because returning to them after so long having not played has been a glorious revelation. Case in point, I picked up Civilization V which has been in my library for maybe a year, it’s taken a couple of attempts to actually run having a few issues with actually appearing on screen, but as soon as they were out of the way I was ready to see what all the fuss was about.

With that, five hours were gone. I sat down around 20:00 and then it was 1:00 in the morning, and I was only messing around in the tutorial level. It’s entirely true to say that time flies when having fun, and I was utterly engrossed in the empire-building, negotiations and barbarian-squashing that hours slipped past me, hunger rose unnoticed, and I emerged to find myself thirsty, tired, and unable to think of anything but crushing that pompous Alexander and riding his horse all around Greece.


But it’s not just complexity that drives fun, as well we know, that’s why Bejewelled can also vanish away chunks of our lives whilst giving us nothing in return. I’ve also been dipping into Arcania: Gothic 4, which is an okay RPG with about six different NPC models being played by a handful of voice actors with an odd mash-up of accents, and gameplay so simple I might as well be matching up coloured gems. And yet forty recorded hours can’t be wrong, despite it all I find myself dragged forward, wanting to know the truth about the Dark King and the strange connection joining the three gods.

Hold these up against clocked time on other games: Bioshock only an hour and a half, I admit I wasn’t enamoured; or Goat Simulator which I actually love, and yet only four hours of flying around with my tongue firmly attached to a rollercoaster. So why, across many plays have I not amassed as many hours as in one sitting of Civilisation?

Just for a change, I did the research! Oh yes, we’re not just smashing our fists into a keyboard over here, sometimes we’re out to educate.

What actually makes time feel as if it flows faster is the enjoyment of a motivation-driven activity. For example, sitting and listening to music to relax causes time to slow down, in the same way as meditation can make time go a little slower, because they’re forms of enjoyment without a dedicated goal, we’re not pursuing anything or working to complete something. Work can be the same when your job is not focussed on a single aim, retail or manufacturing being prime examples, working through a simple process that will begin again next day. Goat Simulator then doesn’t hold our attention, being completely without a single goal, and being more about running around and breaking things.

Devil Goat

When we have a particular goal in mind then the time we spend working towards it simply vanishes. This is why time can seem to elapse faster when a deadline approaches, or when crushing the upstart Greeks beneath the terrible Russian heel. Our perception of time is warped by the pursuit of a target or destination, and that’s why time flies when you’re having fun. It has nothing to do with fun at all, it’s all about what your working towards.

I’m not saying that more games need to be goal-oriented, quite the reverse, life would be dull without the occasional pointless activity. In fact I was shocked to realise I’d spent so little time in Goat Simulator, which presumably means that on some level I have found it to be therapeutic, almost meditative, because I felt that more time had elapsed whilst playing, whereas with Civilization I felt unsatisfied, I wanted to play more, I wanted to accomplish more, and yet I had a far greater need for sleep, and water.

Either way, I’m so glad Civilization is working, and I’m glad to be back into gaming. Apart from anything else I’m finally getting through my bloated Steam library, but this year is going to fly by if I keep having nights like that.


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