Sept. 25, 2018Print | PDF
As a researcher my focus is on the intersection of media and learning. I’m interested in how we acquire new knowledge and, more specifically, how we might utilize games and game design to promote novel forms of learning. In “Illusions of space and time: An ethical approach to temporality in games” I focus on one particular concept in time, and what games can teach us about it. Historically, we typically view each moment in time as succeeding and, in a sense, surpassing the one that came before it. This gives the illusion of progress to the passage of time. We associate the past with ignorance and the future with insight. However, this illusion of progress can obscure patterns and cycles that are played and replayed throughout history such that conflicts and violence take on an almost predetermined quality—if time is inherently progressive, and if violent conflicts have brought us to the present moment in time, then perhaps violence is justified and conflict is necessary. This is often how games that play with time view the concept – as a means of replaying the past, oftentimes revelling in our most violent, combative moments.
But games are capable of exploring other, non-linear forms of temporality – what the French philosopher Michel Serres calls topological time. Topology involves the study of forms in relation to bending or folding. Two dots on a flat sheet of paper may be far apart but in folding that paper they become adjacent to one another. For Serres, topological time is a heuristic, a way of folding the past into the present in order to imagine novel futures. Scholars have noted that topological time seems to be at odds with popular media; from print to film, media often impose linearity on their content. However, while this happens in games it is not so much a formal constraint but one imposed by the designer. Games such as Her Story, Life is Strange, and Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, allow gamers to play with time in creative and emancipatory ways, freeing players from the illusion of time as linear progress and providing novel ways of thinking about where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going.
As someone who professionally studies and creates games, I’m interested in what makes gameplay distinct from other forms of media-based learning. One of the most significant challenges to answering this question, and one that took me by surprise, is that many designers working today conceive of games as a variation of traditional (linear) media. While researching this paper I saw notions of the author or director permeating developer discussions with players cast as readers or actors. These cultural metaphors have produced numerous wonderful and creative games but they may be constraining how we think of the medium and what role it can play in enriching our understanding of the world.
My research on temporality in games is part of a larger initiative to understand games as tools for helping us make sense of each other and the world around us. In this effort games bring together two related areas. The first is feminist epistemology which describes how certain forms of knowledge are situated within lived experiences; sharing that knowledge requires a degree of familiarity with that experience if it is to be accurately translated. The second area is cognitive science and the enactive theory of cognition which describes how our senses, bodies, and minds create or enact the world around us. Since our senses, bodies, and minds vary from person to person, we exist in and have knowledge of similar but distinct places or situations in the world. Games reside at the intersection of these two areas, providing us with unique tools for sharing these places and the knowledges situated within them.
Through the article I hope readers reflect on their own understanding of time and history. The linear notion of time can leave us complacent, thinking that progress—social, cultural, technological—is simply a by-product of the passage of time. Instead it is often difficult, challenging, and complex work that involves envisioning alternatives—different choices made, distinct paths taken and novel, more equitable futures imagined.
Ideally this paper will not only spark the interest of game scholars but designers as well. Videogames that play with time have existed for decades now but far too often they are designed so that players might recreate moments of violence and conflict. Games that allow us to play with the past not so that we might reproduce it, but so we might see past it towards a world in which the conditions for violence and conflict are themselves eliminated are both intellectually intriguing and sorely needed.
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