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Analysis: Fun is Had When Your Time Flies
Analysis: Fun is Had When Your Time Flies
February 11, 2010 | By Jamie Madigan

February 11, 2010 | By Jamie Madigan
More: Console/PC

[Psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan examines how developers can use time psychology to make games more fun, manipulating player perception of time through the magic of metacognition. ]

While I generally enjoyed Red Faction: Guerrilla, last year's third-person action game from Volition and THQ, there was one type of mission on which I was lukewarm: The delivery missions where you were tasked with hopping in a vehicle and blundering over the Martian landscape to reach an arbitrary checkpoint before an equally arbitrary timer ran out. Meh. Kind of boring.

And it wasn't the first time. As a gameplay mechanic or goal, lots of games require you to complete challenges within a certain amount of time. Guitar Hero 5 and The Beatles: Rock Band have rewards for playing set lists within 1 hour and 1 day, respectively.

And sometimes games inverse the formula and challenge you to keep the clock running by staying alive, such as in Left 4 Dead's survival mode. But it's generally the same goal: keep an eye on the timer and play the game, whether the specific task is mundane (driving across featureless plains or repetitive race tracks) or thrilling (fending off hoards of zombies).

Quick Clocks and Annoying Sounds: They Go Together Well

Turns out that recent research by Aaron Sackett at the University of Chicago and his colleagues suggests a way that game designers could manipulate your perceptions of time to make these parts of the game more fun. In one study, the researchers had subjects listen to an annoying sound while they watched a timer tick the seconds off.

For half the people, the timer was sped up by 20%; for others it was slowed down by 20%. Afterwords, subjects were asked the (frankly absurd) question of how enjoyable that all was. The result? Those whose clocks were sped up by 20% actually said the annoying sound was more enjoyable. Well, less terrible. Close enough.

But the phenomenon held true when people were doing something enjoyable to begin with. In a follow-up study, Sackett et al. had subjects listen to popular songs where the digital music player showed elapsed time for the track. In one group, the timer was sped up by 20% and in another it was slowed by the same amount. Again, people found this already pleasurable event even more enjoyable when they thought that time was passing more quickly and found it less enjoyable when time seemed to pass more slowly.

This Reminds Me of a Story About The Morbidly Obese and Crackers

In fact, research on the effects of external cues (like clocks) on internal states (like having so much fun you make a mess all over yourself) is pretty well established. In the late 1960s psychologist Stanley Schachter and his colleagues locked a bunch of subjects in room full of crackers. Well, something along those lines.

Also in the room was a clock, which the experimenters rigged to run either fast or slow. They found that people --especially obese people-- tended to eat more crackers when time was sped up, especially when the clocks (incorrectly) said it was near dinner time. This happened even when dinner time was actually a long time away.

But enough about saltines and fat people. Let's go back to Sackett and his study of how the same idea affects perceptions of fun. He and his researchers ran several more experiments, but the common theory explaining all their results was that when people experience unexpected distortions of time (i.e., time seemed to pass faster or slower than expected) they seek an explanation by turning to what psychologists call "metacognition," or "thinking about thinking."

Specifically, Sackett hypothesizes that when faced with apparent time distortions people turned to the axiom that "time flies when you're having fun" and concluded that because time flew (or dragged) they had fun (or didn't). So much so that it affected how much fun they reported having and how likely they were to switch to other activities. He even did some additional studies where he manipulated the salience of this explanation in subjects' minds and thus increased its effect. Perceptions of time were affecting how much they enjoyed the game, not the other way around!

So How Do You Use This For Fun and Profit?

This has several interesting implications for game design. One devious thought (I have those occasionally) that comes to mind deals with timed game demos. You could tell players that your demo will allow players to enjoy the game for 20 minutes before ending, then cut them off after 15 minutes. According to the above theory, people should think that those 5 minutes went missing on account of all the fun they were having. Hey, they liked your demo more! Free yachts for all the psychologists on staff!

But I can hear you the popping sound of your collective manacles now as you contemplate this base act of fibbing. You sound just like the Human Subjects Review Board when they told me I couldn't have a "clubbed into unconsciousness" condition in the experimental design for my dissertation research. Fine, fine, other applications could rely less on such crass deception. Or clubbing.

l4d_survival.jpg Take the driving missions in Red Faction: Guerrilla that I mentioned earlier. Speeding up the clock (after making adjustments to hold difficulty constant) should make that mundane task seem more enjoyable. Same for survival mode in Left 4 Dead or any other game that features a "fend off attackers for X minutes" mission. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you had the game say something like "Hold the enemies off for five minutes," then NOT show a timer and then declare the challenge complete after just three minutes. If the research described above is to be believed, you should have more fun as long as you're not aware of the time compression.

Sure, hardcore gamers armed with stopwatches and preconceived outbursts will probably eventually figure it out, but I'll bet a lot of them don't and never hear about it from others. Or you could sidestep the issue altogether by replacing your timer with an on-screen circle that disappears in tiny wedges reminiscent of the points on a clock face, but at a pace that you control.

Heck, you can even add a little sweeping second hand if your User Interface Design person doesn't have plans for the evening. If a little change in how the concept of time is presented makes for a noticeable change in how much players enjoy those bits of the game, it's worth it.

(Thanks to Ed Yong for bringing this research to my attention in his nifty blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science)

[Jamie Madigan, Ph.D. is a psychologist and gamer who explores why players and developers do what they do by studying the overlap between psychology and video games at The Psychology of Games website. He can be reached at]

References: Sackett, A., Meyvis, T., Nelson, L., Converse, B. & Sackett, A., (2010). You're Having Fun When Time Flies: The Hedonic Consequences of Subjective Time Progression. Psychological Science, January; Schachter, S. (1971). Emotion, Obesity, and Crime. New York: Academic Press.

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John Petersen
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I always lose track of time, there is times where I'll lose whole days or weeks. I try to stay away from games with timers. That's why I don't enjoy CounterStrike or QuakeWars:Enemy Territory as much as I could. But I don't mind if a game says I've got 1day and 29 minutes to complete a mission. Because I'm most likely gonna complete the mission in a real 24 hr period.

If I feel pressed for time in a game, I quit playing it. If I know the game is based on timers I won't buy it. I just don't like the feeling it gives me.

And I damned sure wouldn't pull that crap on my audience.

Glenn Storm
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This is where I heard the story (direct link):

Thanks for writing it up here, Jamie.

Patrick Dugan
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This is some MK-Ultra tech right here.

Kevin Robertson
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I think another mitigating factor is immersion. Immersion may not be "fun" or "not fun" but it definitely lends to time passing quickly. The more engaging the gameplay, the more time will speed up. Very interesting read though...thank you.

Bart Stewart
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So how do you persuade gamers that time is passing faster than it actually is without lying to them?

Is there any secondary perception that could be linked with the perception of time, perhaps through training (i.e., conditioning)? That might not provide the full effect of fooling people into thinking that time is flying by, but perhaps it would be easier to implement a secondary perception in a way that doesn't require a direct lie.

I'm also curious about why there were consistently 20% of people who felt a time speed-up and a roughly equal percentage who felt the opposite reaction. Was that something innate that people bring with them? Or was it more a reflection of the testing material provided?

Jamie Madigan
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@Glenn: Ah, cool, I'll have to check that out. I just read the original paper.

@Kevin: yeah, sounds like you're kind of thinking of "psychological flow" which I did a piece on as well on It deals directly with the "lost track of time" concept. In this experiment, though, the researchers were directly manipulating perceptions of time passage, not making them forget about it.

@Bart: That's where my idea of a circle reminiscent of a clock came from. People would see it and see the little wedges disappearing from it at ABOUT once a second, but you could control the actual rate.

I'm not sure I understand the question in the last paragraph of your post. The researchers split subjects up into two groups. For one they sped the timer up by 20%. For the other they slowed it down. The "20%" refers to the timer speed up/down, not the percentage of people who had a reaction.

Mark Wilhelm
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Oops, double post.

Mark Wilhelm
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Manacles != monocles. Manacles = handcuffs (think shackles). Monocle = single corrective lens.

Other than that, I like the idea presented in the article. Devious! :)

Weston Wedding
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I assumed Jamie was suggesting nerd rage great enough for us to burst free from our chains or something. Chains connected to... things.

Jamie Madigan
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Uh... You're both right! Also, spellcheck hates me.

Simon Ludgate
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"Take the driving missions in Red Faction: Guerrilla that I mentioned earlier. Speeding up the clock (after making adjustments to hold difficulty constant) should make that mundane task seem more enjoyable."

I think the opposite is true in cases of racing against time. In these cases, where the fun is doing it in as little time as possible, making it seem like more time elapsed than actually does makes the player seem worse than he or she actually is. If you think "allright! I made it in 3 minutes!" then you look at the clock and see it took you 4 minutes that's a downer.

Richard Putney
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RE : Lying clocks

Sports games already do this all the time to simulate regulation game time by scaling the clock to a reasonable and enjoyable duration for a video game. As far as perceptual deviation I think the visual cue is crucial. People automatically think real time when they see clocks. If you dont tell them which units of measurement your timer is using then you're misleading but not lying, and probably having the desired effect. I'd be curious as to whether any of these studies removed the constant time indication factor from the test

@ Kevin

I agree. I tend to find myself engaging and feeling immersed when I'm connecting with a game (or other activity) and I feel myself pull back when I take exception or displeasure and find myself less immersed, so I wonder if immersion is a product of enjoyment. I'd be interested in more discussion on that.

I agree, however, that time also flies when you're immersed. I'm trying to determine whether thats different than saying "...when you're having fun."

edit : I've thought of an example that reaffirms your position and detracts from mine. I clearly recall feeling fairly immersed in puzzle quest only to realize after playing for two or three hours without noticing the passage of time that while the experience wasnt excruciating, it wasnt all that enjoyable either.

@ Simon

I think its valuable to distinguish between meta cognitive effects of time distortion and perceptions of difficulty and success. None of these cases discuss what happens when you tell someone about real time, just their reactions to distorted time. These are two different principles which may affect someones perspective independently.

Rafael Vazquez
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This has phenomena has to be experimented on with videogames: I'd love to see if it works as well as it sounds