Stop the Clock! Time in Games and Gamification

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Author: Jordi Moretón Galí

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Stop the clock! Time in games

This is the first in a series of posts “Arcade Room” in which, inspired by classic video games, we will review gamification mechanics and other fundamental game elements, in this case the time.

A few days ago we discussed at the office about the legendary arcade game Alien Syndrome . I do not remember how old I was at the time, but occasionally I played it in a bar. I barely remember the graphics or animations, or levels … but that game has a phrase I’ve always had in my memory and has overtaken all other aspects: “The time bomb is set!”

That sentence opened each level, signaling that the timer of a bomb was activated and you had to complete the level before the time ran out, otherwise the site would explode and the character would die. Moreover, as time was running out, other phrases as “Hurry up!, And Caution!” kept giving me the willies. As if that weren’t enough, in the final seconds, an alarm began to ring and a voice began to count down to the end ”Kaboum!”

Tempus Fugit!

Time is a necessary element of life: we work, enjoy, eat, we go on vacation, etc. under controlled clocks and calendars. It is a mechanic with which we live and that is deeply rooted in our culture. It is the dictatorship of the clock, and eventually a scarce resource.

In game design, it’s one of many ways for developers to increase the difficulty, add a sense of urgency or pressure to the player by a “scarcity” mechanic. Also it results in an added element to the scoring system and evaluation of success or failure, as well as a symbolic element of inevitability (the infallible power of Fate!). Time is, after all, one of the rivals, one of the antagonists, even if we don’t call it “Final Boss”.

In addition of time as an explicit element of the game, we have the pace as an implicit element. The pace is the timeline used by game designers to develop the progress of the experience, the phases and objectives. The pace is another dimension of time, key in game design to create a balanced experience of learning and progress of the player: from onboarding into the game, learning the basic mechanics, mastery and finally to the endgame. Progress must follow a temporal pattern designed to drive immersion (among others).

Pace in Sid Meier’s Pirates as shown by Kurt Squire in MOOC Video Games and Learning. Source:
Pace in Sid Meier’s Pirates as shown by Kurt Squire in MOOC Video Games and Learning. Source:

We can find many different ways of using time in a game, I can think of a few of them:

  • Countdown: the time bomb is set!
  • Stopwatch: who makes a lap to the circuit in less time?
  • Pause: You’ve planted watermelons in your virtual garden, come back in five hours and you can pick them up!
  • Time frame: between 20-22hrs, happy hour 2×1!

Using a car racing game as an example, we have that practice and qualifying sessions are limited to 60 minutes (and the fastest wins), then we have to manage the effort and strain during the race and make strategic pauses into boxes to change tires and fill the tank, finally the winner is the one who does all laps in the least possible time, the fastest, of course.

Pace and time elements
Pace and time elements. Source: Flavio Escribano (

Time, as an element, can be used arbitrarily to generate pressure to the player. That is, one can design a game that incorporates a countdown without any conceptual link to the action in itself, so time remains -extrinsically- motivating for the player to “fight” against it. This is dangerous because it can lead to frustration, both because decontextualization and also because a possible lack of skills to overcome adversity (certainly, old arcade machines had a high difficulty … of course the business model was to insert coin!). As always, a good idea to try to appeal to intrinsic motivations, which is why this type of elements preferably are closely linked to the rest of storytelling, as well to game mechanics and dynamics, like the bomb timer in Alien Syndrome, a resource widely used in other media such as film and television.

Bomb with timer
Bomb with timer. Source:

On the other hand, if the storyline of our game is based, for example, in the emergency of something catastrophic happening within 24 hours unless we prevent it, we must include items such as a visual countdown, otherwise will be difficult to motivate such urgency to the player, who will feel safe with a countdown that is not, it is artificial and does not affect the outcome of the game.

Flow theory (check Csíkszentmihályi talk at TED) already postulated that the player likes safety and, paradoxically, cannot live without uncertainty, otherwise he gets bored. So we have to balance the elements of game design to make the player experience difficulties without getting frustrated.

Flow. Source: Chen, J., 2007. Flow in games (and everything else). Communications of the ACM, 50(4), pp.31–34.

Interestingly, Flow research surfaced that one of the big components is a loose of track of time … of course we talk about real time, our real agenda and our responsibilities. The notion of in-game time is maximum, be it a real-time watch or a time pace that has no correspondence with reality. Flow is a state in which the intrinsic motivations lead the player to a state of maximum immersion, in which he focuses his whole being to the experience that the game provides. Time, either in the form of explicit elements in the player interface (timer) or either embedded in the design of pace and progress of levels or stages of the game, is one of the keys to mastering if we want to create memorable and effective playful experiences.