Monday, May 27, 2013

How Culture Plays With Time: Part 2

This is the 2nd blog on this subject. 
See my first blog about games and time:

While we must each live, work and die with the unrelenting march of irreversible time, the culture often *plays* with time in safe ways, ways that provide metaphors for life. 

Games, movies, drama, music and other cultural forms are time based. But their peculiar nature allows people to consider time in a secure environment.

Who has not felt their pulse race when the home team is down a few points with only seconds to play? Or the exhilaration when the team wins? Or the crush of defeat when they lose?

We tell ourselves, it is only a game -- yet these victories and defeats are rehearsals for the real things in life -- when someone close to you dies, when you suffer a serious injury, when you achieve a major goal.

Every game has a beginning, a middle and an end, just like living: birth, life, death. Just like episodes in our lives: being born into a family, growing up, leaving.
Game: A complete episode or period of play, typically ending in a definite result: "a baseball game".
Google instant definition
While some games are open ended when it comes to a specific time span such as baseball, others are controlled by the clock such as football. Yet every type of game plays with our sense of duration, as I have written about in an earlier blog: Time & The Human Sense of Duration.

Baseball in the United States is particularly interesting -- especially with sayings about the game that have spilled over into life: It ain't over 'til it's over; you're down to your last out; three strikes and you're out; it's the ninth inning with bases loaded. See a full list of English Language Idioms Derived From Baseball at

And baseball provides many other ways of thinking about time as well. Each action occurs within the context of a bigger event, which itself is part of something even larger. For example, each pitch is an event which in turn leads to plays which lead to hits, runs and outs which lead to the completion of innings which leads to the completion of the game. And the game is part of a season and the season part of the ball club's history.

A sequence of shots showing the complete motion involved with making a pitch. This is a modern chronograph similar to the horse galloping sequence of photos by Muybridge. (
Football, because it deals with time constraints, has a different dynamic. In the beginning there is often plenty of time to make up for mistakes -- because in the early periods of the game, fluid time (see my blog about this in my next post) is available and a team can make up for early errors. However, as the clock ticks down, hardened time (read my upcoming blog) begins to take over and every little mistake or success can have major consequences. In a close game in football, the tension builds to a fever pitch. A team down by 2 points with 2 minutes to go, could win the game, but the window of opportunity is closing fast.

And while sports operates on one level, movies operate on quite another. If you arrive late to a baseball game, lets say the 4th inning, you can easily catch up by looking at the score board and seeing the number of runs, hits and errors for each inning. Not so with movies. If you arrive twenty minutes into the movie, you may never catch onto the full meaning of the story.
Drama plays with our short term memories as you must hold in your mind the action from beginning to end to make sense of what happens. For example, some insignificant event in the beginning might have serious consequences at the close. And for you to make sense of the plot, you will need to remember this small event that occurred at the start.

Film and drama also deal with an arch of emotions. This emotional passage is like a journey. In one type of typical story the hero or heroine, for example, is faced with seemingly impossible tasks, but somehow overcomes obstacles to prevail at the end. Such a story often takes us through a slew of roller coaster emotions. At times it may look as though the hero can never survive. The emotion we feel at the end, when the hero triumphs, occurs only because we have followed his journey from start to finish, because we shared a time span with him.

The audience reaction is often quite intense, even though everyone knows the action is fictional. (
Tragedy, especially Greek or Shakespearean tragic drama, takes us though an arch of emotions, but with the death or destruction of the hero at the end. In this kind of story, we often know what will happen to the hero or heroine but are helpless to keep him or her from their inevitable fate -- a fate often brought on by their own blindness or pride. We see the path they have chosen swallowing them and we want to stop time, stop the relentless march that takes them to their final end. And many in the audience are deeply saddened or weep when the fictional hero dies.

FILM TITLE: D.O.A. (Dead On Arrival) From the moment this American Film Noir tragedy starts, we know this fictional hero, Frank Bigelow, will die. A quiet accountant, he has been poisoned and is doomed. Yet while he is alive he is driven to find out why. We follow his journey knowing the inevitable -- and are deeply moved at the end when he dies. (

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Games & Time: Part 1

We are involved with games from the moment we are born. And these games usually involve time. They allow us to "play it safe," to work with and consider time in ways that would be impossible in real life.

As I have pointed out before in an earlier blog [Our Most Important Sense: A Sense of Time],  I believe it is the unique human sense of time that has allowed our species to become dominant. I also believe the human concept of time is linked to ways that the brain functions.

Games allow us to 'play' with and improve our unique time skills, to exercise our brains -- as the following quote about short-term memory and chess points out. 
This ability to hold on to a piece of information temporarily in order to complete a task is specifically human. It causes certain regions of the brain to become very active, in particular the pre-frontal lobe. This region, at the very front of the brain, is highly developed in humans. [ED: my emphasis]
Perhaps the most extreme example of short-term memory is a chess master who can explore several possible solutions mentally before choosing the one that will lead to checkmate.
SHORT-TERM MEMORY': McGill University, Montreal, Canada
We all know the game Peekaboo that is played with very young children. An older person covers their face or hides behind a door only to reemerge. Some children are quite upset when the person goes away and bubble with laughter when the person comes back.

peekaboo game with child
US Navy personnel play Peekaboo with a young baby. (
Peekaboo is thought by developmental psychologists to demonstrate an infant's inability to understand object permanence. Object permanence is an important stage of cognitive development for infants. (
Another way to talk about 'object permanence' is from the point of view of time. Peekaboo requires that a child remember the person when they reappear in the 'now' moment and to not be upset when they disappear as they will come back. The game trains a child to develop short-term memory. 

Peekaboo appears to be quite old and is played worldwide in a variety of cultures.

While Peekaboo is a game, separation anxiety is the real thing -- and affects many young children. When a child must leave a parent and go to kindergarten or is left with a baby sitter, he or she may become upset. In this sense we can see Peekaboo as a safe game that allows a child to work through the idea of a parent being gone for a while.

Children's games are often about 'now you see it, now you don't'; they frequently involve hiding while retaining a sense of the permanence of things even when out of sight.

Hide-and-seek played by older children, has some of the same elements as Peekaboo but at a more sophisticated level. The children are first together, then all hide separately until they are caught; finally at the end they come back together and are reunited. This reinforces the central theme: people can go away but when they are out of sight, they still exist.

It is also interesting to note that this game is usually passed down by older children to younger children -- not taught to them by adults. This is  an example of an oral tradition that still persists in our culture.

Blind Man's Bluff is an older children's game during which people in a sense disappear because the person who is 'it' is blindfolded -- but at the end everyone is back to normal. It has been played around the world by children for about 2500 years.

 Blind Man's Bluff. (

have universal appeal 
and often cut across cultural boundaries. 
Chess, for example, is remarkable in this way.


Chess began about 1500 years ago and has been played continuously around the world at all levels of society, by all ages, by both men and women and in developed and less developed countries.

Two knights at a chess game in 1283. (
The black and white alternating squares are a grid, a classic artificial human pattern, that becomes the frame, the world during the game. Like all games it has a beginning, a middle and an end. While not necessarily limited by a specific time, the game goes through clear phases such as the beginning characterized by the phrase "opening moves" and the final moves known as the 'endgame', a term which comes from chess. 

Chess Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade in competition in 2002 at the U.S. Chess Championships in Seattle, Washington. (
If you have ever been around serious chess players, you know that when they are playing their concentration is total and they are not to be disturbed. For the duration of the game, they live on the chess board. Normal everyday time, in a sense, is suspended while it, nevertheless, continues relentlessly forward on the field of play -- the board.

Two boys playing a game of chess in Santiago, Cuba. (
Benjamin Franklin on Chess & Time:
In his essay, On the Morals of Chess, Franklin listed the lessons learned from the game -- starting with how it taught a player to consider the future: 
Foresight: which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action; for it is continually occurring to the player, "If I move this piece, what will be the advantages or disadvantages of my new situation? What use can my adversary make of it to annoy me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?" 
Benjamin Franklin On the Morals of Chess (1779)

Chess players at a park in Kiev, Russia. (
Young German chess players in 1952. (
A game of chess in Algeria. (
Painting by British painter James Northcote about the game of chess, circa 1800. (
A page from a Persian manuscript, A Treatise On Chess, from the 14th century. (
Carved ivory mirror case depicting a couple playing chess around the year 1300. (
Known as the Charlemagne chess set, these pieces were made in the 11th century. This piece is a knight from this ivory set. (