Finding the Beat

This post was originally written in 2012 during my time at Hide&Seek as part of a team enquiry into the use of ‘time’ in games. It originally appeared on the Hide&Seek blog.

There is a version of this post in which I logged all of my network traffic, from all of my devices, for two weeks, and interpreted the data as audio. In the beautiful interactive timeline visualisation I produced, patterns appear. Human rhythms, work and play, rest and arousal. The pervasive digital hiss of our machines automatically organising themselves around us. Sudden slabs of noise as content is streamed and consumed.

The data timeline doesn’t exist as a real thing, at least not yet. Between work, play and content consumption, it has yet to find a gap in the traffic. There’s also the issue of tracking signals across multiple 802.11 wi-fi channels to hack around. But when we started thinking about games and time, it immediately came to mind. What would be the sound of play?

Traditional media forms that have transitioned online might sound like a gunshot. The click of a trigger pin as a link is discovered and followed, an explosive bang of attention as a video or news story is downloaded and viewed. Perhaps a faint echo as a link or a reaction is shared. Its creators may have managed to make a recording, assuming they were well prepared and the user was within listening range, not viewing a copy on a competitor’s site. In any case the event is over now, silence.

By contrast, listening to the network traffic of a player engaged in a game might sound less like a gunshot but a heartbeat. A regular, rhythmic and, if the game is healthily constructed, long lived beating as the player checks in every day or every hour. Data analysts working in Free To Play are more than familiar with these patterns and devote significant effort to recognising the races of excitement around new game features or item sales. Correspondingly, the gradual fading of the pulse as the player/game relationship ages and eventually dies. The best analysts are able to recognise the symptoms and suggest interventions in the form of targeted player communications and reengagement incentives. Sudden death is common too, normally a violent, flatline reaction to ill-advised changes on the part of the developers.

But on the whole, the rhythms of games offer lasting, dynamic and measurable engagement with their audiences, as many small game studios have realised over the last few years. As organisations and brands catch up, their campaigns have a unique opportunity to upgrade their interactions from gunshots to heartbeats.