Destructive Tumbleweeds and WereBeavers

Attuning to Time and Space in Don’t Starve Together

dont_starve_cover

Brandon Rogers is finishing his MA in Literature, Medicine, and Culture at UNC Chapel Hill. His current research perverts the history of medicine by engaging with games as spaces of health epistemology, experimentation, and power negotiations. He will join NCSU’s Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media PhD program in the fall.

A WereBeaver gnaws through tree after tree, eating logs as he goes, while a disheveled scientist scampers around him, keeping sight of the unbreakable axe stuck in the ground. Eventually the WereBeaver reverts to his normal lumberjack self, but his sanity meter (now a shriveled brain) pulsates with red circles.

A: What do I do now?
B: I don’t know. Let me see. Hold on.

A screenshot from Don't Starve Together depicting a werebeaver.

Wilson and the WereBeaver

“I Don’t Know”: Becoming Survivalist

Dropped into a wilderness with no instructions, no inventory, and no end goal, Woodie the Lumberjack and Wilson the Scientist wait for my partner (Adam) and I to take control and guide them around Don’t Starve Together’s randomly generated world. These characters have the skills to craft tools from sticks, scavenge food from animals, and properly cook berries and meat over a campfire. In return, we as players must lead them to resources and develop a strategy for keeping the characters alive. The only problem is that we have no idea what we’re doing.

This case study of Don’t Starve Together (DST) is about getting good at a game. First, I suggest that my eyes, ears, and fingers adjust to in-game phenomena as I gain expertise. My eyes dart across the boundaries of various screens, sounds inspire me to run towards or away from unknown objects, and my fingers quicken their pace as they open and close maps and windows. The idea that we learn through games is not a new one, however my second argument posits that expertise also changes lived experiences of time.

In her book In the Meantime, Sarah Sharma (2014) differentiates time from temporality by defining temporality as the lived experience of time—or lived time. Recent research in cultural studies has argued that various factors such as economic class (Sharma 2014) and physical/mental (dis)abilities (Kafer 2013) manipulate temporality. By placing the idea of “expertise” into this conversation, I suggest that temporality is also shaped by how quickly and easily tasks can be completed. Mastering a certain process allows one to complete more objectives with less difficulty. Although this discussion primarily revolves around a gaming context, the argument that mastery compresses temporality could easily be applied to a plethora of other scenarios from baking and building to word processing and welding.

How do I, a self-proclaimed gamer with no experience in survival games, readjust my perception and body to not die in DST? This is not a question of immediately jumping from novice to expert player; instead, I ask how one develops expertise and becomes attuned to the gaming apparatus through prolonged gameplay. In this context, attunement refers to the process by which bodies create or prescribe new associations in perception and reaction in relation to the demands (or compulsions) of a system (Ash, 2013). Using an ecological approach that understands learning and perception as processes of differentiation, Linderoth and Bennerstedt (2007) discuss how players adjust their perceptual apparatuses based on the affordances of game objects. Affordances in games, or the ways we are encouraged to interact with designed objects, mean that players see objects based on what they can do with them. Attuning one’s perception to the rules and roles of (non)interactive objects develops a form of “professional vision” in which these affordances become increasingly peripheral and embodied as skill increases (608).

After playing DST for forty hours, my perception transitioned from one of timidity to one that is categorized via affordances, or the ways I could interact with the world (Linderoth and Bennerstedt, 2007). As objects redefined themselves in relation to other objects, my perception adjusted to make objects invisible and hypervisible, silent and loud, subtle and percussive. For example, when I didn’t need ice, the freezing and melting glaciers that dotted the map basically became invisible to me. I didn’t need them so I didn’t acknowledge them. This perceptual shift might seem minute, but the importance here resides in the acquisition of new forms of seeing, looking, hearing, feeling, and doing.

Additionally, a player’s  gaming apparatus can be defined as an “open-ended practice” that encapsulates and defines the intra-actions between such “locally stabilized phenomena” as the player’s eyes, the photons emitted from the screen, the synaptic pulses in the brain, and the structural stability of the couch cushion (Barad 2003, 817). Therefore, by analyzing how I become attuned to the gaming apparatus in both space and time, I recognize that the apparatus simultaneously directs, reforms, and delivers my capacities as a player (Shinkle 2005; Massumi 2002).

“Let Me See”: Playing Spectators and Spectating Players

Don’t Starve Together revolves around cooperative gameplay, and the PlayStation 4 version of the game allows up to four players to have characters on the same screen simultaneously. For the purpose of this paper, my partner and I stick to a strict splitscreen-only play style.

A screenshot from Don't Starve Together from the first day of a co-op game, showing the characters Wilson and Woodie.

Woodie and Wilson: Day 1

As our number of hours spent playing the game increase, the dividing line that separates my screen from my partner’s becomes more permeable. In the beginning, Woodie (Adam’s character) stands still as I show Adam via Wilson how to navigate the map.

A screenshot from Don't Starve Together that depicts one player showing the other their map.

Wilson shows Woodie his map.

Around the tenth hour of gameplay, however, we transition away from this negotiated form of visual projection and consumption and instead rely heavily on verbal cues to direct each other.

A: How do I make a log suit?
B: It’s by the thing…the, um…go to the crossed swords and look for it.
A: Here? Where? Oh, I found it.

This “verbal screenlooking” resonates with professional gamers’ tactics when they alert one another about enemy locations in League of Legends or claim certain routes in first-person shooter games. Expert players effectively use their voices to extend one player’s gaze to the rest of the team (Taylor 2012). The acquisition of expertise similarly allows us to stretch our vision across the split screens. As we improve, we no longer ask to see the other’s screen; instead, my eyes naturally jump over the dividing line to mine data off of his. As novices, we needed to pause gameplay in order to separate player, spectacle, and spectator. Through experience, however, these categories become perceptually and temporally enmeshed. I start to glance over at Adam’s screen to check his inventory, his vitals, his location, and the resources around him; then I immediately transition to my own map and inventory to see what we collectively need. We are both display and on display for one another (Darley 2000, 104). In these moments, I spectate Adam’s play, play myself, and become spectacle for Adam.

“Hold On”: Temporal (Re)Configurations of Perception

Although many enemies lurk in the wilderness, time is the most dangerous enemy in DST. Over time, the characters get hungry and lose sanity; over time, Adam and I lose interest or the affective energy to continue. Recalling Sharma’s (2014) distinction between temporality and time,  temporality of gameplay is amorphous and constantly fluctuating. When I first began , the game’s autumn days felt short and the nights dragged on. After surviving into the dead of winter, when days are far shorter and nights are far longer, the autumn diurnal system now seems extremely survivable.

Temporality and time became convoluted within the game. The better I got, the longer the sun seemed to stay up, yet the shorter the daylight actually stayed on the screen. While the amount of time I spent playing the game extended  as I gained expertise, DST’s place in the “economy of temporal worth” actually condensed (Sharma 8). When my partner and I both died on our first attempt after surviving seven days, it seemed like we spent a majority of our time waiting for the sun to rise. To an external observer, however, our characters bumbled in the daylight for about 45 minutes and only spent 10 minutes panicking around a campfire. In other words, our temporality moved more quickly than standard time. As we became more adept at surviving through autumn, and as the winter season constituted more fear than night, the first 20 days (approximately 2.5 hours) happened at a quickened temporality. When winter came, however, the days dragged on.

Perhaps this elongation of time can be attributed to our anxiety associated with a loss of expertise. Even as we develop experiences surviving winter, we still have yet to survive until the days get longer. Unlike the day/night clock, the seasons have no visual countdown to tell us how much time we have left until spring. This uncertainty contributes to Adam and I talking more and leaning in closer to the screen, and it also causes Woodie and Wilson to spend more time dawdling around the campground. After the single session when we survive 31 days, we stand up from the couch and realize that we have been sitting there for over 4 hours. In this scenario, our temporality slowed in comparison to time. When our temporality realigned with standard time, we recognized that we’d been playing for a lot longer than we had thought.

Not Paused. Seriously. It’s Not: On Economies of Time

Attuning with the temporality of one’s gaming apparatus also requires certain forms of labor and management. Dead time in DST initially elongated my temporality during the night portion of the day/night cycle. In this context, dead time refers to the unproductive management of time in which the character/player waits for time to pass. This practice of waiting is an attribute of novice play. In the first few plays, I spent most of my nights running around the fire to keep myself occupied until the sun came up. As an experienced player, I operate as a more rational subject. In a rational economy of time, I not only manage my time, but I fragment it to be as efficient and productive as possible for resource collection and–ultimately–game progression (Eklund and Jonsson 2012). With increased expertise, I utilize the night as a time to cook, clean out my inventory, and make plans about the next day. Since DST has no pause function, the campsite at night becomes the temporal space for strategizing and realigning my perceptual apparatus for the next day’s tasks. For example, if we primarily collect crafting materials at the end of day 6, I spend that night looking over the map and talking to Adam to see where I should search for the nearest food item and what I should look for on the following day.

Experience also changes how my body reacts to in-game stimuli. As I attune to the game, my fingers and eyes minimize dead time. If my character isn’t moving, then I am quickly navigating menus or inventories. Consequently, dead time only occurs when I do not know what to do next. Idle hands and eyes become a marker for confusion and hesitation.

Fluctuations of temporality also manifest throughout our play sessions and can best be seen in the distribution of logged hours. While expert players can build necessary equipment more efficiently than novices, temporal progress does not change with an increase in expertise. Each 8-minute day in DST still takes 8 minutes to complete itself regardless of the player’s skill level. In other words, the experienced player and the new player take the same amount of time to survive until day 10, 23, 46, etc. This progression of time is fixed.

While expertise evolved from spending more time playing, talking about, and researching the game, it also brought with it a larger temporal allotment from our bodies. Getting better at the game meant surviving longer, which also meant playing for an extended amount of time. The more adept we become at playing the game, the longer we situate our bodies on the couch or the floor and the less we acknowledge distractions such as other people walking through the house, the cat stepping across our laps, or even basic needs such as drinking water and taking restroom breaks. We are either rationally spending or haphazardly killing our time based on the comfort afforded to us by experience.

Conclusion

For game scholars and cultural theorists, an understanding of time as a constitutive element of mastery could provide valuable insights into professional burnout. Our experience with in-game professionals Woodie and Wilson emphasizes this strange relationship between mastery and enjoyment. As mentioned earlier, Adam and I lost the desire to play the game after we started to figure it out. Although we did gain some level of mastery, knowing how to survive the first 30 days actually made the first four hours of gameplay remarkably dull. The pure repetition of chopping wood, finding food, making camp, and prepping for winter caused us to eventually lose interest in the game.

If expertise allows for more work to be done in a shorter amount of perceived time, then perhaps concentrating labor in this way provides insights into rapid burnout both inside and outside of games. In DST, getting better at the game meant that I as a player needed to be constantly challenged and engaged to maintain a compression of temporality and a rational economy of time. Once I got good, dead time re-emerged when I had time to kill, which resulted in boredom and ultimately in shutting off the game. One does not have to be an expert in order to gain expertise or to feel the effects of experience. As this investigation has shown, time improves skills and skills alter time in ways that both encourage and hinder continuous engagements with games and labor.

References

Ash, J. (2013). “Technologies of captivation: Videogames and the attunement of affect.” Body & Society, 19(1), 27-51.

Barad, K. (2003). “Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society,  28(3), 801-831.

Darley, A. (2000). Visual Digital Culture: Surface Pay and Spectacle in New Media Genres. London: Routledge.

Eklund, L. & Jonsson, F. (2012). “Time to play: The rationalization of leisure time.” Proceedings of the iConference 2012, 145-151.

Giddings, S. and Kennedy, H. (2008). “Little jesuses and fuck-off robots: On aesthetics, cybernetics, and not being very good at Lego Star Wars.” In M. Swalwell and J. Wilson (eds.), The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory and Aesthetics. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 13–32.

Jenson, J., & de Castell, S. (2008). “Theorizing gender and digital gameplay: Oversights, accidents and surprises.” Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, 2 (1), 15-25.

Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Linderoth, J., and U. Bennerstedt. (2007). “This is not a door: An ecological approach to computer games.” In Situated Play, Proceedings of DIGRA 2007, 600-609.

Massumi, B. (2002). “The political economy of belonging and the logic of relation.” Parables for the Virtual. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sharma, S. (2014). In the Meantime. Durham: Duke University Press.

Shinkle, E. (2005). “Corporealis ergo sum: Affective response in digital games.” In Garrelts (ed.), Digital Gameplay: Essays on the Nexus of Digital Game and Gamer. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 21-35.

Don’t Starve Together (PS4 Edition), Klei Entertainment, 2016.

Taylor, N. (2012). ““A silent team is a dead team”: Communicative norms in competitive FPS.”   In G. Voorhees, J. Call, and K. Whitlock (eds.), Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games. New York, NY: Continuum, 251-276.

[Two characters from Klei Entertainment’s game, Don’t Starve, flee from a giant spider approaching their campfire.]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2017, from Klei Entertainment