A lot of video game players — practically all of them at one time or another — complain of the phenomenon of “losing time” while gaming. This should come as little surprise, however, as video games have become far more immersive, social, and intricate (both in plot and detailed graphics).
So what’s to account for this losing track of time while gaming or playing video games?
Psychologists to the rescue! New research (Lukavska, 2011) suggests it may be related to a theory called “time perspective.”
Time perspective is a psychological phenomenon first proposed by Philip Zimbardo in 2008. The present research explains it this way:
The initial idea of time perspective assumed the existence of three temporal frames in the human mind—past, present, and future. Within this theory, a mind can shift attention between these frames, that is, a mind can focus on past experiences (past frame), present stimuli (present frame), or anticipated future events (future frame).
Zimbardo’s empirical verification of the idea brought two main findings. First, people do not use each temporal frame with equal frequency; they usually prefer one frame, which they use more often than others, and this preference is relatively stable in time.
Second, it is useful to divide both past and present frames into two independent factors (past positive and past negative; present hedonistic and present fatalistic) because they represent different mental characteristics with different correlates. Thus, five time perspective factors emerged as five personality factors.
So it would be interesting to see what kind of time perspective video game players experience. Are the most devoted gamers — like gamblers and substance abusers — focused on the hedonistic present?
Specifically, the researchers hypothesized that they “will find a significant positive relationship between present (hedonistic and fatalistic) factors scores and the amount of time spent playing MMORPGs [Ed. – video games like World of Warcraft] and a significant negative relationship with future factor scores.”
They measured time perspective and amount of time playing video games through self-report measures administered to 154 Czech respondents (141 men and 13 women). Respondents were recruited in Czech Internet forums that focused on discussion about these kinds of online video games.
From this sample, the researcher found the mean hours per week played was 28 hours, with a standard deviation of about 19 hours. The mean hours played per session of gaming was 4 hours, with a standard deviation of 2.45 hours.
After analyzing the data, the researcher found that time perspective was indeed connected and related to how frequently someone plays video games. Specifically, that “larger amounts of playing time correlates with lower level of future time perspective and higher levels of present time perspective — especially present fatalistic.”
This unbalance of present factors toward present fatalistic is worth of noting, because it constitutes a difference from reported studies on time perspective and drug abuse and gambling, where present hedonistic factor was demonstrated as the key variable.
Present fatalistic is connected with dissatisfaction, aggression, and depression. We could hypothesize that people who spend significant time playing develop the present fatalistic orientation.
However, it is more likely that people who already are present fatalistic play more, because playing helps to decrease their negative feelings. This would support Yee’s suggestion that extensive playing is an indicator of mood management.
The researcher also found that “regardless of motivation for playing, it seems that future orientation prevents extensive playing, probably via time managing skills [sic].”
This study is interesting because it suggests that in a small sample of Czech video game players, gaming is not like gambling or substance abuse. People don’t game to get a temporary “high” from it. Instead, they appear to be gaming to help decrease their already-existing negative feelings.
This fits in nicely with the view that gaming is an “escape” people use as a coping mechanism to deal with the sometimes negative reality of their lives. Just like losing oneself in a good book, or curling up in front of the TV, gaming may help a person take their mind off of life’s troubles and give a person a feeling not only of accomplishment, but also of social acceptance.
This is a small study done on a Czech sample, which means its findings may not generalize to Americans. Until it’s replicated on a larger and more internationally diverse sample, we have to take the study’s findings with some caution.
Lukavska, K.. (2011). Time Perspective as a Predictor of Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game Playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. doi:10.1089/cyber.2011.0171.