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Theme 3: Chronology in video games

The semiotics of Video Games

Text by Mathias Jansson

How old is Super Mario and how long is a life in video games? Mario Gerosa and Jennifer Grace-Dawson’s paper, Chronology and Historicization in Virtual Worlds and Video Games, begins with what seems to be an obvious statement: “Time in virtual worlds is not the same as in real life: in virtual worlds there is a different experience of time.”  If we read a book, see a movie, or play a video game, we can experience years of history in the realm of a couple of hours. The real time is in the narrative structure crunched into a room-time that is moving a lot faster than our own time, jumping from event to event and skipping the transport holes, i.e. the boring parts.

In 2012, the game design group Molleindustria developed the game Run Jesus Run: aka the 10 second gospel.  In ten seconds, you have to crawl out of the cradle, run to save the world and be crucified.  Most scholars would say that Jesus was around 30 years old when he was crucified. So how can 30 years of a lifetime be compressed into 10 seconds and still be meaningful for the player? The answer is that we have heard the story of Jesus so many times that we can easily identify the most important events in the short game, and fill in the gaps of the history. Another important characteristic of the game is the repetition of time – in one minute, we can play the game six times. We can learn something new each time and in the end make it to the crucifixion before time is up. In real life, you would only have one try to succeed.

Run Jesus Run: aka the 10 second gospel, Molleindustria, 2010

In Jason Rohres’ game Passage (2007) you also play a linear game of life. In takes five minutes to play the game (i.e. live a life) – moving your character from the left corner, symbolising the beginning of life, to the right corner of the screen, the dawn of man, death. Rohrer calls his game a “memento mori”, i.e. “think that you soon will die”. You only need five minutes to play the game and reflect over the shortness of life, but nothing special happens, so the minutes seem very long to the player. Still, if you play the game one hundred times and live one hundred times as the game character, you would only have spent one normal working day of your real life.

Passage, Jason Rohres, 2007

Video games do not just provide hours of entertainment. Like any forms of art, they can also change lives. Does it matter if a videogame takes 10 seconds or 10 days to affect our lives?

Next theme: Narratology vs. Ludology in video games

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