Sound and Immersion in Timekiller Games[1]

Anahid Kassabian



On 24 May 2013, a Vietnamese app developer named Dong Nguyen posted a game called Flappy Bird to both the Apple and Google app stores.

Nothing much happened in the first months of its existence, but in early 2014, the game suddenly exploded in popularity. At its height in January 2014, Flappy Bird was earning $50,000 a day in in-game advertising income, people were claiming addiction, and Nguyen was reportedly receiving death threats. And then, on the 10th of February, it disappeared. Nguyen said: 


I am sorry Flappy Bird users, 22 hours from now I will take down Flappy Birds. I cannot take this anymore. 


As the story evolved, the BBC remarked that it was hard to tell what he was upset about. But by Sunday night, Nguyen had indeed removed Flappy Bird from both the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store (Cellan-Jones 2014).

This is a high profile version of a common story—casual video games (i.e. app and browser games as well as games on motion sensing platforms like the Wii) take players by surprise, and suddenly they are spending unexpected amounts of time (and often money, too) playing some game that really only seemed like a passing, brief amusement. A casual game is one that is played by casual gamers, as opposed to a game played with dedication, over hours, by people who are proud to call themselves “gamers.” (I will discuss this further below.) In this article, I want to offer an analysis of a particular, and particularly undertheorized, form of immersion that these timekiller games engage, to consider the role of sound in this form of immersion in relation to the perception (or lack thereof) of time and the production of affective surplus value. While I will discuss immersion in a later section of this article, for now, I offer the opening of an article in The Guardian on the topic. Its author, Keith Stuart, begins his article with:


How do you know if you are immersed in a game? There are a lot of signifiers: time passes unnoticed; you become unaware of events or people around you; your heart rate races in scary or exciting situations; you empathise with the characters. (Stuart 2010; emphasis mine)


He goes on to discuss the research of Human Computer Interaction researcher Paul Cairns, who studies time and immersion. Cairns’ research shows that gamers can often give fairly accurate estimates of how long they have been playing, and he is studying how games tell players about time (Stuart 2010).

As this makes clear, immersion is bandied about in game journalism as well as scholarship, and there is no generally agreed upon definition beyond the common sense one. Stuart’s list, above, is a good starting place, as it lists both cognitive (lack of awareness) and somatic (racing heart) qualities. But before entering into a fuller discussion of immersion and immersive experiences, I want to consider the idea of “casual games.”


[1] I would like to thank James Barnaby, Mark Grimshaw, Ida Ottesen, Leo G. Svendsen, the three anonymous readers, the journal editors, the participants at Creativity, Circulation, and Copyright: Sonic and Visual Media in the Digital Age (28-29 March 2014, Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, Cambridge University) and the European Sound Studies Association: Mapping the Field (27-29 June 2014, University of Copenhagen) for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article and Mo K. Svendsen for his willingness to share his deep knowledge of video games day and night, no matter how silly my questions were. All of them have contributed to the final version here, although any mistakes are my own.

Casual games


In his 2010 book, A Casual Revolution, Jesper Juul argues that the game industry was caught by surprise when casual games really took off. He describes the March 2005 Game Developers Conference, where Microsoft announced that their Xbox 360 was going to set a new bar in console capacity, the HD era. While Sony’s entry into that generation of consoles, the PS3, traded on similar improvements in power and graphics, Nintendo made a very different choice, introducing the Wii, which did not attempt to compete in traditional game aesthetics, introducing instead a whole new kind of gaming targeting a whole new range of markets. As Juul points out,


According to a recent survey, 50 percent of consumers report price to be an important factor when purchasing a console, but only 11 per cent reported high definition graphics to be important (eMarket, Importance of Select Factors to US Console Video Gamers, 2008). In the not-too-distant future, all video game consoles will undoubtedly feature high-definition graphics, but as of now high definition is the prime example of how a technical selling point has failed to excite a broad audience. (Juul 2010: 220, fn. 28)

Casual games, identified as both the kinds of games produced for the Wii (and for its significantly less successful competitors, Kinect[2] and Move) as well as games like Flappy Bird and its long history of predecessors that includes TetrisAngry BirdsCandy Crush Saga, Plants vs Zombies, etc., are all of those games that:


    • are not triple AAA blockbusters (the games that are advertised on TV, that cost about £40 to buy)
    • are not sprawling MMOs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft or EVE Online, where thousands of players across the globe are playing at any given time and can interact with each other in the game world)
    • are not advertised as taking 70 or 80 hours to complete
    • are often thought of as amusing time fillers, something to do while a player is waiting for something else to happen
    • are not addressed to people who self-identify as gamers.[3]

(It is, of course, perfectly possible that casual games in general, or the app and browser games that I address more specifically here in particular, are played for even longer periods of time than the Assassin’s Creeds and Calls of Duty of the game world.) But how do we recognize a casual game? What makes a casual game, and perhaps as importantly, what makes a casual gamer? Is “casual game” even a useful category?

Juul identifies the difficulty for scholars in creating definitions of casual games, defined by what he calls the player-centric view and the game-centric view:  


Player-centric view: If I start with casual players and focus on the way they play, it seems that players can take a video game and use it in any way they want. Yet different players enjoy different games, and casual game design supports more different ways of playing than traditional video game design does, hence casting doubt on a purely player-centric view. 

Game-centric view: If I start with casual games and focus on their design, it seems clear that the casual revolution discussed here is first and foremost a question of new, more casual designs. Yet it turns out that many players of casual games play in ways that appear distinctly non-casual, hence casting doubt on a purely game-centric view. (Juul 2010: 53) 


Juul’s view demands that we keep our perspectives on these questions open. I agree with him that there is no simple definition of either a casual game or a casual game player, but there is a clear phenomenon requiring attention, which we might think of as a casual gaming state/attitude/experience. In this experience, as I will argue below, the perception of time is often altered or attenuated in particular ways. For my purposes, however, I want to make a further distinction, distinguishing physical games that take place in three dimensions, like Guitar Hero, especially for the Wii, from what Sam Anderson, writing in the New York Times, calls “hyperaddictive stupid games.” He says:  


In the nearly 30 years since Tetris’s invention—and especially over the last ten, with the rise of smartphones—Tetris and its offspring (Angry BirdsBejeweled, Fruit Ninja, etc.) have colonized our pockets and our brains and shifted the entire economic model of the video-game industry. Today we are living, for better and worse, in a world of stupid games. (Anderson 2012, paragraph 3)


His article is a self-confessional semi-rant about how such games take up masses of time. Before he got an iPhone, he tells us, his wife had one on which she became addicted to Words with Friends. He threatened to invent an iPaddle, a paddle that could be slid in front of the addict’s phone, with humanist messages like “I love you” or “Be here now.” But then, in the name of taking pictures of his children, he succumbed to the seduction of the iPhone, and more or less immediately became addicted to a variety of games, from chess to Bejeweled. He says: 


One tiny masterpiece, Plants vs. Zombies, ate up, I’m going to guess, a full “Anna Kareninaof my leisure time. One day while I was playing it (I think I had just discovered that if you set up your garlic and your money-flowers exactly right, you could sit there racking up coins all day), my wife reminded me of my old joke about the iPaddle. This made me inexplicably angry. (Anderson 2012:paragraph 11)


I want to suggest that, while this article is about the relationship of timekiller games to time, immersion, the attention economy, and affective labor, this small detour is important.

In most timekiller games, the events are fairly predictable, so even playing for the first time, one feels a certain “mastery.” Anderson’s description of having spent countless hours on games that, at least in those moments, seemed very stupid indeed, is both recognizable and widespread. However, seen from a different perspective, these games are anything but stupid. As the New Scientist pointed out on 11 March 2014 in “Addictive Candy Crush video game is officially hard”Candy Crush Saga, which was being played by 93 million players a day at that time, belongs to a class of math problems called NP-complete. “Most researchers believe an efficient way to solve NP-complete problems can’t ever exist, but studying different versions of the problems might reveal that some examples are easier to solve than others. (New Scientist, 2014, paragraph 8-9) ‘It would be interesting to see if we can profit from the time humans spent solving Candy Crush’ says Walsh, a mathematician.” There is a lot written about the potential usefulness of games - see, for one well known example, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken - and there are already all kinds of games that are helping solve genuine, tangible-world problems, such as the solution to the 3D protein folding problem of FoldIt, where gamers were able to solve the protein folding of a particular enzyme that causes a disease similar to AIDS in monkeys, or the identification of the existence of 40 planets that might be able to support life. The enzyme problem had stumped scientists for some 13 years; gamers were able to resolve it in three weeks by folding sections of what looked like tubing into the smallest, most compact shape possible. But more than that, playing games in general might improve many kinds of skills; in November 2013, the American Psychological Association released an analysis of all the research into positive effects of video game playing, and they found that such effects included developments in learning, health, and social skills.[4]

Many of the games under consideration here, including Candy Crush Saga, are games that I play and that the industry calls “tile-matching games.” They are about, in one form or another, either moving tiles to make straight rows of the same color, or tracing paths through the tiles to connect long lengths of the same color. Bejeweled is one of the most famous, though Candy Crush Saga is also well-known and widely played, and there are many, many more. On a purely personal level, these games have taught me new ways of seeing patterns, spaces, and visual relations—while I don’t yet know if or when that seeing might be of use, I would hardly call the games “stupid.” In Anderson’s case, it is fairly clear that he is calling them stupid because he is so irritated at all the time he has “wasted” playing them. 

I want to propose a different way of thinking about these games. As important as consoles are in how we think about games, thinking only about triple A games may be very misleading indeed. Not only does much video game scholarship miss out on indie games, but according to the Casual Game Association, “smartphone gaming made up 17 percent of the $75.5 billion dollar global gaming market in 2013 and predicted that market share to grow to 22 percent by 2017.” (All about Casual Games 2014)  Similarly, a recent study by the NPD Group, a major international market research firm,

of PC gamers and their gaming behaviors found that “the largest segment is Casual at 56 percent, with Light Core at 24 percent, and Heavy Core at 20 percent.[5] Certainly, this suggests that by at least some parameters, casual gaming is a significant component of the video game industry. Because casual games on smart phones and tablets are routinely used as timekillers between appointments, or while waiting for someone, or on mass transit, I have decided to call them timekillers—it highlights the role of these games in gamers’ lives rather than comparing it (by implication, negatively) to other kinds of games (triple A, hardcore, etc.) First of all, it was clear in both Anderson’s article in the New York Times and Keith Stuart’s in the Guardian that the amount of time “lost” to such games is a major feature of how they are discussed. Second, there are countless sub-genres of casual games: puzzle games like Tetris, hidden object games like the Samantha Swift series, launch games like To Fu, brick-breaker games like Brick Breaker, physics puzzles like Bubble Ball (which was famously developed by a 14 year old), and so on. But for all of their differences, these games share at least one very important defining feature. In short: They consume a great deal of players' time.[6] More particularly, how do such apparently trivial games, which only take a tiny bit of time to complete a level or two, end up killing untold hours, or, as Anderson put it, Anna Kareninas of time?

[2] While it never really had much success among gamers, the Kinect has found a life among artists. Examples range from F U T U R E’s “art/music/time-recurring event known to include multi-media and immersive environments” live shows to the three-minute film “as-phyx-i-a” by co-directors Maria Takeuchi and Frederico Phillips and dancer/performance artist Shiho Tanaka.

[3] The “Gamergate” controversy of 2014 was, as many commentators discussed after the fact, very much centered on the question of who is and is not a gamer. A game developer, Zoe Quinn, released Depression Quest in 2013, a game that was well received by critics but that got a harsh response from some groups of gamers because the interactive fiction was not what they wanted in a game. Depression Quest was eventually released on Steam, a membership game distribution site. Shortly thereafter, an ex-boyfriend of Quinn’s contended in the New York Times that she had slept with a journalist from Kotaku (a powerful web magazine about games and gaming), raising the specter of compromised journalistic ethics.

This might seem like a fairly ordinary issue, except for two aspects of it. First, the group of gamers who became the posse hunting down fake gamers presumed, without even a hint of self-awareness, that gamers are men, which explained (in their discourse) why games written by women are bad. The second matter is the scale: to call the outpouring of vitriol large would be to have missed the massive response across many forms of social media, web and print magazines, and just about everywhere else. Before the question of journalistic corruption arose, Quinn was receiving rape and death threats, and she had to change her telephone number and move. Or, to let a part represent the whole, the debacle even made it onto the front page of the New York Times.

There is more than ample coverage of these issues on YouTube and across the web. The points I want to note here are simply that a) a group of “gamers” decided they could speak for the entire gaming community, b) there were substantial threats of misogynist violence, and c) the attackers bear no resemblance to the real demographics of gamers, which show that 48% of women play games on both consoles and mobile devices (Pulliam-Moore 2014). In an episode entitled Are 50% of Gamers Women?” on 30 September 2014, PBS Game Show host Jamin Warren argued that there are two definitions of “gamer”: a generic one that simply means “one who plays games,” and another that is a marker of social identity. In other words, the entire Gamergate fiasco is predicated on the distinction between “casual” and “serious” gamers, entirely marked by gender. For more on “Gamergate,” see Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube Channel Feminist Frequency, several episodes of PBS Game Show, and countless columns on game and feminist websites.

[4] Of course, there is the distinct possibility that these skills are not analytical or critical, and therefore they participate in a particular notion of instrumental education that is currently quite popular in Europe and North America. Such a focus might lead one to conclude that the majority of games, produced by major game-making corporations, train people for life in the corporate world. There is, of course, a lively and significant indie games industry that produces titles like Depression Quest and Mighty Jill Off that do anything but. For example, Depression Quest, the game that triggered the Gamergate debacle, tried to show players what the experience of depression is like, and Mighty Jill Off is a game about a lesbian submissive with a boot fetish.

[5] In addition, the study found that “women now account for 52% of the gaming audience, up from 49% three years ago” (see footnote 3 on Gamergate). Note that the percentage of female gamers cited by Warren in the PBS Game Show video and the percentage found by the NPD was off by just one percent: 48% compared to 49%.

[6] While any notion of a first person plural is fraught with difficulties, here I simply mean it to refer to most users of smartphones, especially in the industrialized world.



Rather than drawing on the long history of what we might call “time philosophy” or the significant literature on music and time, I have chosen to approach these apps from the comparatively recent perspectives on the relationship between changes in time measurement and perception and changes in modes of production or historical epoch. So, for instance, work by Annaliste historian Jacques le Goff discusses the clash between merchant’s and church time in the Middle Ages, and of the clash of agrarian and urban labor time (Le Goff 1980). These perspectives give an important account of the relationship between the changing mode of production and the change in time. Similarly, geographer David Harvey argues that there is a time-space compression at the advent of modern technologies of communication and travel as part of the advent of industrial capitalism (Harvey 1990). More recently, scholars have considered the change in time that has come towards the end of the 20th century with the internet, fiber optic cables, exponential increases in processing speed, and so on. As Barbara Adams puts it in her “Foreword” to 24/7:  


ICT [information and communications technology] time departs significantly from the established clock-time norm. It is simultaneous rather than sequential, marked by a chronoscopic temporality rather than spatially constituted clock time. This raises problems for time control: with instantaneity there can be no interception, no intervening action. (Adams in Hassan and Purser 2007: x-xi)


Adams is insisting that the change in time that has arisen with the digital is a fundamental shift: previous social orders that depended on clock time are no longer possible, and new orders of information and simultaneity are coming into being alongside, over, and under the older forms to challenge them.


This transformation not only makes games possible (as well as most contemporary popular music, filmmaking, television, print media—and a host of things that are not media), but it also creates the culture in which every minute is usable, and the boundary between work and home has more or less dissolved completely.




Almost every sound, both musical and non-musical in origin, is now a substrate for a new sound or piece of music. That is to say, the “machine” of contemporary music making is fed by processes that developed quite recently in the history of music: sampling, looping, and layering with beats, raps, melodies, and/or autotuned speech. The same technologies that are collapsing time in the ways I quoted Adams and Hassan as analyzing above are also collapsing the time of music making. It is no longer linear in any sense:


·      composition does not require a hand moving across staves or improvisers moving linearly and together through time

·      the nature of practice does not rely only on repetition in the same way as learning a musical instrument did (and still does, in most but not all ways)

·      reception is almost entirely defined by the listeners’ practices in terms of orders of tracks, equalization, background noise levels, when to start and stop a track, other uses of clips of tracks (alarms, smartphone sounds, remixes, etc.), and much more.   


What seems most evident in the discussion of music in timekiller games is their looped nature, which exaggerates even further these tendencies in contemporary music; game loops set up quite rigid and always fulfilled expectations of endless iterations of the same (very short) musical unit. As K.J. Donnelly argues in his essay on Plants vs Zombies (Donnelly 2014), one of the very few essays on music in a timekiller game,[7]


the music is pre-rendered, recorded as a selection of pieces of distinct music rather than being interactive and dynamic, and although it is not tied securely to gameplay, perhaps it is related to the game through a different logic, engaging with a primitive essence rather than functioning as the more modern process of interactive and dynamic video game music. (Donnelly 2014: 151-2)


The music in these games has always struck me as very simplistic and repetitive; perhaps this simplicity is a simple response to industrial exigencies and constraints, or an ironic nod to a nostalgic past when one didn’t worry about the passage of time, or perhaps it is an indirect evocation of the arcade in which such games were first made available to the public. But while most scholars have argued—as does Donnelly—that the use of this music is a waste, James Barnaby (Barnaby 2014) has argued that loops are not the problem in video game music that they are so frequently made out to be. The widespread assumption is that loops are unpleasant and unimaginative; Barnaby argues that this is a commonplace that is at best an oversimplification. I believe he is correct, and the world of circuit-bending and chiptune composition suggests at least that the 8- and 16-bit loops that are so widely reviled actually not only garnered a great deal of affection but also provoked many people’s musical imaginations.[8]

In many timekiller games, however, the music can be genuinely irritating. Many players turn off the music in timekiller games, for at least two reasons.[9] Firstly, they are often being played while something else is going on, from watching TV to waiting in a doctor’s office to sitting in a classroom. In those settings music is not only unpleasant but actually disruptive to the immediate context. Secondly, as discussed above, the music itself is unimaginative and unpleasant. For example, the music in Candy Blast Mania, a Candy Crush rip-off that took a chunk of my life in its first six months of existence, is a few chords, slightly arpeggiated and at regular intervals, with no harmonic motion, under a little melody with a timbre that recalls the 16 bit sounds of the late 80s and 90s.

Candy Blast Mania

It isn’t difficult to imagine getting irritated by such music. Moreover, the music rarely adds anything to game play—it doesn’t warn of or hide things that are just out of visual reach, but instead it creates a simple, childlike tune fit for a fair, making sure that listeners are in the mood for simple fun. A bit further along in timekiller games, the music is often a filler, not even providing atmosphere—and when it might be, as in Forbidden Arms, it does so at a very reduced, unimaginative, and highly stereotypical level.

For these reasons, I will not focus on music as a primary source to explain how many players are drawn in to spending so many hours on games in ways that are, if not involuntary, at least not always consciously chosen.[10] Instead, I will turn to the sounds that are used in these games, and I will consider the ways they are used to condition immersion. It is important to note at this juncture that every one of these games that I have played offers the possibility to mute sound and music separately. The game producers appear to expect players to want to silence, or perhaps control, these aspects of the game separately, suggesting that they are conceived and used as distinct parameters.

[7] The study of music in video games has undergone a truly wonderful explosion of work; when Karen Collins first published Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design, it seemed like an orphan field; now, there is an annual UK conference (Ludomusicology) and a significant bibliography that is genuinely difficult to keep up with. See, for a very good “selective” bibliography, the listing of 159 entries on the Ludomusicology research website.

[8] 8-bit music is made with the sound chips of the earliest home computer consoles and arcade games from approximately the 1970s to the early 1990s, while 16-bit is built on sounds generated by chips that were in use from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. This kind of music, often called chiptunes, is still being made in an active underground scene. For more on chiptunes, see, e.g. (Driscoll and Diaz 2009), (Pasdzierny 2013) and (Tomczak 2008).

[9] Many, perhaps even most, such games do not treat music and sound as one thing. Instead, they make it possible to turn music and sound on and off separately.

[10] One thing that music in these games could be doing is helping keep players immersed. By filling up the attentional field, they are less likely to notice a movement or sound and be distracted by it. For more on attention and “background” music, see (Kassabian 2013; Kassabian 2001).



One of the biggest issues in video game scholarship, as well as public discourse about games, is the question of immersion. Often bandied about casually by players and critics, immersion turns out to be quite complicated: it is used to cover many broad features of players’ engagements with fictional narratives, without a single, steady definition, and it also means a wide range of possible approaches to theorizing those engagements. There are several fairly distinct bodies of scholarship on it: human-computer interaction studies (e.g. Weibel and Wissmath 2011); sociological approaches (e.g. Roberts 2012); psychophysiological research (e.g. Nacke and Lindley 2008), and cultural studies/media studies (e.g. Ryan 2001 and Dyson 2009). One of the earliest of these is Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, in which she says:


Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus. (Murray 1997: 98)


This is one of the early definitions of immersion from a theorist of culture in relation to virtual reality, cyberspace, and video games, and it uses a deeply physical, tactile, sensory metaphor to explain the experience. But while the term is thrown around in video gaming communities as if it were a central and agreed-upon idea, there is more agreement in discussions of virtual reality (VR) than of games, and of large, big-budget roleplaying games than of small screen apps.[11] Since games hope to seduce one into believing one is somewhere else, the connection between VR and gaming is significant, but they are not the same thing.[12] And the difference between standing in the holodeck in Star Trek: Next Generation and looking at a TV screen while playing a game should make that difference clear indeed.

As the discussion about immersion developed, scholars and game designers developed immersion typologies. There are a handful of these that parse, for example, tactical, strategic, and narrative immersion (Adams 2004); or sensori-motoric, cognitive, emotional, and spatial (Björk and Holopainen 2004); or sensory, challenge-based, and imaginative (Ermi and Mäyrä 2005) and at least a handful of others. I won’t list or summarize all of them here, but Adams’ typology, which is among the earliest, offers some useful insights.


According to Adams, tactical immersion is the state of being absorbed by the gameplay, which requires that the game move at a speed that requires you to be making constant decisions with just barely enough time to make them. Tactical immersion keeps a player “in the zone,” constantly scanning the game terrain for the next decision and the next move. This is a kind of immersion that can be found in timekiller games, other types of casual games, and in most non-casual (serious?) games alike. While many games do not require speed, many do. And speed is the fundamental feature of games that offer tactical immersion.

Strategic immersion is the decision to insert oneself into a fictional world. My son did this for many years when doing the dishes, which meant that we weren’t allowed in the room. He would take one of his fantasy world creations – not one that was real or possibly close to it - and while he was forcing himself through the awful, hateful, burden of loading the dishwasher, he would consciously choose to “dial in” to another reality and insert himself into it. I have never been drawn to such an activity, but it is quite clear that many people are.

Narrative immersion is the kind we are most familiar with, according to Adams. From books to movies (and presumably to television and beyond), we know how to get lost in stories; he says “a player gets immersed in a narrative when he or she starts to care about the characters and wants to know how the story is going to end” (Adams 2004). This type of immersion is a central part, although to varying degrees, in RPGs (role-playing games), RTSs (real-time strategy games), MMOs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), and FPSs (first person shooters), and it is often a more important feature in game franchises (as in TV series, film sequels, and book series). It is less obviously important in timekiller games, which rarely have more than a narrative excuse. For example, the Candy Crush Wikia site has the following to say about the game’s narratives:


Candy Crush Saga has 1,145 levels in Reality [meaning ‘reality’ within the game] and 665 levels in Dreamworld, giving a total of 1,810 levels. All these levels [are] grouped into episodes. Each episode has a different story, mascot, and name. The episode name has 1, 2, or 3 words. Most episodes have the same initial consonant sounds. There are currently a total of 77 episodes (currently 6 episodes in the first ten worlds, 3 episodes each in World Eleven to World Fifteen, and 1 episode in World Sixteen) in Reality and 45 episodes in Dreamworld (seven worlds: 6 episodes in each except World Eight). Dreamworld has now been released in its entirety so no more Dreamworld episodes will be released but there will still be more episodes in Reality.


And yet, all the story areas of the Wikia are empty. As they are on IMDB, i.e. the Internet Movie Database. The stories of the episodes are simply not a significant part of the player’s engagement or immersion.

Adams’ typology is quite useful, but it is derived from a producer’s perspective and based less on the player’s experience. Ermi and Mäyrä offered a quite different kind of typology at the 2005 meeting of the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA). In their paper, “Fundamental Components of the Gameplay Experience: Analyzing Immersion,” (Ermi and Mäyrä 2005) they propose a model that they call SCI, based on the three types of immersion they posit: sensory, challenge-based, and imaginative, all of which are derived from player experience. Sensory immersion, as they define it, has to do with technology; large screens, good headphones, and excellent graphics allow the player to block out the rest of the world and become immersed in this audiovisual experience. Challenge-based immersion is “the feeling of immersion that is at its most powerful when one is able to achieve a satisfying balance of challenges and abilities. Challenges can be related to motor skills or mental skills such as strategic thinking or logical problem solving, but they usually involve both to some degree” (Ermi and Mäyrä 2005: 8). This is one component of timekiller game immersion, especially in timed games, but there would surely be a component of challenge-based immersion in many, if not all, the games I mentioned above. In their third type of immersion, imaginative, Ermi and Mäyrä say that gamers can become immersed through identifications with characters, becoming intensely involved in the storyline. Specifically, they say that regardless of the genre of the game, a player “begins to feel for or identify with a game character,” giving “the player a chance to use her imagination, empathize with the characters, or just enjoy the fantasy of the game” (Ermi and Mäyrä 2005: 8). This last type is more or less identical to Adams’ narrative immersion, though there are a few subtle differences.

The one widely-commented-on type of immersion that is missing from either of these typologies is spatial. Spatial immersion in particular is considered important by game designers, because if a player feels immersed in the game space, she is deeply involved in the game and certainly quite likely to lose track of time and the material world around her.

While these debates are both important and intriguing, they do not, unfortunately, help explain what happens in timekiller games. At the very least, we can be clear that it is neither narrative, given the at-best-sparse nature of narratives in these games, nor spatial, given that by far most of these games work in two dimensions and not three; nor do most of the other types of immersion scholars and designers have written about seem to fit the bill for timekiller games.


To put it very simply: if the game

    • consists of a grid of brightly colored little candies, and
    • rewards players for making a row or column of three objects disappear
    • drops the next row or column of candies down from “above” with random types and in no predictable order

then most forms of immersion that have been theorized don’t seem likely, and there is no story or story world that can offer narrative or spatial immersion. Many of these games don’t even try to represent three-dimensional space. From the perspective of the visuals, then, there is little chance of any type of immersion except challenge-based in these games.

[11] Immersion is often thought of as a feature of virtual reality to which video games aspire, once again putting triple A games at the heart of thinking about video games. Both individual player role playing games (RPGs) and massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs), as well as big-budget first person shooters (FPSs) and real-time strategy games (RTSs), depend on at least a significant immersive quality to keep players playing. In these settings, spatial immersion is perhaps the primary desideratum, and it has led some theorists to think about “presence” as an alternative and perhaps less vague term. Others have moved in different directions: Kiri Miller, for example, prefers to think of Grand Theft Auto players as moving back and forth between immersion and critical detachment (Miller 2012: 11), while Gordon Calleja discusses “incorporation” as an alternative: “Incorporation […] acts on a double axis: the player incorporates (in the sense of internalizing or assimilating) the game environment into consciousness while simultaneously being incorporated into that environment” (Calleja 2012: 169). See, for other examples of careful thinking about immersion, Frances Dyson’s Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (Dyson 2009), where she discusses immersion in new media art, and Alison McMahan’s “Immersion, Engagement, Presence: A Method for Analyzing 3D Video Games.” (McMahan 2013), whose particular focus is 3-D gaming. In Chapter 6 of Ubiquitous Listening, I discuss a related question about the uses of world music by Putumayo and Starbucks in retail spaces where the listener experiences herself in both the retail space and another part of the globe simultaneously.

[12] It is worth noting that many game developers—again, probably, from the discourse of virtual reality—imagine full physical immersion, through helmets, bodysuits, gloves, and boots, as among the best possible approaches for the future of gaming. Oculus Rift, due to be released this year, and even Google Glasses, are at least in part attempting to address these hopes. But casual gamers are far less interested in ‘suiting up’ before gaming.

The sounds, on the other hand, offer a different possibility altogether. In almost all cases, the sounds make (sometimes very unreal) visuals “feel” material by being themselves hyperreal, without origin but operating as if it has one, blurring the line between fantasy and reality, or fictional and non-fictional spaces. So, for example, the tiles in Bookworm, a word game, make a metallic clicking sound when you select them, and a kind of whoosh with a clear suction component, when the correct word you have made is “sucked” away.

Bookworm Deluxe

In Jelly Splash, a tile-matching game (that first made me think about these issues), the sounds are initially a kind of thunk, accompanying the click on each color and rising in pitch as you accrue more and more jellies in your line, then a distinctly wet, bubble-popping sort of sound when you release the line, followed by a little three note arpeggio as you achieve the next star.

Jelly Splash

In Candy Blast Mania, you hear little pop sounds each time you move a tile, followed by an arpeggio to accompany your success as the tiles disappear. (In fact, these arpeggios suggest there is an unclear boundary between music and sounds, as I have argued elsewhere is the case in film [Kassabian 2013].)

Candy Blast Mania

The Angry Birds  franchise is full of cartoon sound effects as well as lots of bird noise, but when you destroy the constructions, there are clearly identifiable physical sounds of destruction, as the timber falls and the glass breaks and so on. As is clear in this clip of gameplay, every visual event is made more perceptible because it is synched to a sound that makes it much more palpable than the visual representation. You hear the slingshot creak as it is pulled back, along with every bit of contact and destruction.

Angry Birds

All of these sound effects, whether cartoonishly overplayed, as in, e.g., Jelly Splash, or closer to realistic, e.g. Angry Birds, have a materiality firmly grounded in the real world (as we like to call it). They are hyperreal: they simultaneously evoke both realistic and overblown versions of the sound, collapsing any boundary between the two. That materiality, I am arguing, is an important component of immersion in the game; the player hears real world sound signifiers and cartoon sounds rolled into one, which in turn draws one closer and closer to the bright cartoonish world of the game. The palpable, visceral, physical qualities of the sounds contribute to player immersion in the game, drawing players into experiencing the game space.

From immersion to affective labor


Sound has a much more central role than music in creating the field of possibility within which immersion can work in timekiller games. If the music has a role in making these games immersive—and I am very aware here that there are always going to be exceptions—it is simply to mark them as members of this pseudo-arcade kind of super genre or family, which comes with a nostalgic aesthetic. The little ditties hearken back to the days of 8- and 16-bit game music, and they announce the games as limited in scope, playful, nostalgic, and especially fun. 

The (non-musical) sounds, however, offer a very different register of affect from either the visuals or the music. While both the latter are often cartoonish, sound is very often used to root the specific events in a visceral experience by making the sounds very sensible, material, and somatic. The conjunction of cartoon and reality makes these games oddly seductive and contributes to a particular field of immersion that makes these games able to occupy Russian-novel-length units of our time without our clear, conscious intention. By combining the real and the cartoonish, the sounds are a part of the unlikely immersive structure of these purportedly small games. I propose calling this audio material “audio-hyperrealism” and the immersion based on it “audio-hyperrealist immersion.”


Immersion and timekiller games are both areas that ask for a great deal more research. Is thinking of genre a helpful way of thinking about immersion? Certainly Mark Grimshaw’s important work on sound and immersion in first-person shooters (FPSs) suggests so, as I hope this article does as well. Is it possible to think of immersion in games such as the ones I have discussed here, when they have no physical or narrative space into which a player can immerse herself? The loss of time that players experience, as well as their surprise at it, is certainly a strong argument in favor of such an analysis, as are the hyperreal sounds that are so commonplace in these games. The mixture of cartoonishness, on the one hand, and very physical, embodied reality of the sounds, on the other, helps them create audio-hyperrealist immersion, which in turn combines with other aspects of immersion (especially challenge-based immersion) to produce a very engaging experience in which time is easily lost. And I can say from personal experience that at those moments, regardless of the technology, size of screen, pixels per square inch, etc., even the tiny speaker in my phone can provide what is needed for a truly immersive experience.[13]

In this sense, immersion is a genuinely overdetermined issue. While sounds are an important experience, neither they nor any other single feature can bear the whole burden of creating an immersive experience. Many writers on immersion have noted something related to this (see, especially, Calleja 2011) without using the terminology of overdetermination. Immersion is not simply a function of a strong, complex narrative, or of a convincing space in a compelling world, or any other thing. Nor is it simply a combination. Rather, immersion is overdetermined—based on a combination of a range of features that not only overlay and pile up in a single instance to create the sense of being in this world that is on the screen in front of you. Immersion is, because it is overdetermined, layered with older and newer thoughts, needs, and desires. While the game tries to offer an experience that is unitary and consistent, its overdetermination carries with it many different kinds of possibilities.

In the case of 2D games, which most timekiller games are, perhaps our immersion is better thought of as being absorbed by the happenings coming from the phone or tablet or other technology. The audio-hyperrealism, the cartoonish visuals, the increasing obstacles, and many more layers, create an overdetermined immersive experience, which leads to the question of attention economy. As a player’s focus narrows due to the game’s challenges, sounds, etc., she is participating in the contemporary attention economy. As Herbert Simon first argued in 1971, and as has become increasingly clear ever since, when information is abundant, attention becomes more and more scarce, creating an attention economy (Simon 1971). A player’s attention, engaged by audio-hyperrealist sound and challenge-based immersion (and, presumably, other forms of immersive engagements), produces affective value (excitement, fear, etc.) that then is converted into “pay-to-win” purchases by so-called “freemium” games, thus exchanging affective value for material value. (Both “pay-to-win” and “freemium” are common disparagements of games that, as in many timekiller games, are free to download but then encourage in-game purchases of more lives or stronger tools to help you level up more quickly or, in some cases, at all.) This conversion is really a circuit, in which affective and material value are converted into a loop that drives the entire system. And without the immersive engagements conditioned by audio-hyperrealist sound, this whole system would not be possible. Audio-hyperrealist sound is certainly not sufficient to create the immersive engagements that lead to strong experiences of affect, but it may well be, as I am arguing, necessary to them.

[13] This is not to say that the technology makes no difference at all, but rather to say that immersive experiences of timekiller games are available even without great graphics cards and surround-sound technologies.



Let us review in the briefest possible terms, how sound in timekiller games contributes to immersive experiences and how those experiences operate in the attention economy:  1) playing timekiller games demands increasing levels of attention; 2) the games participate in the attention economy, despite appearing to be simple little timekillers; 3) the games produce affective value; 4) players and games participate in a mixed economic model of game purchase, advertising, and in–app purchases, converting affective value into material value and back again; and 5) the player is re-inserted into the attention economy to produce further affective value and continuing the circuit.


In sum, then, audio-hyperrealism is a crucial component for the overdetermined immersive engagements that lead to the production of value in timekiller games.  As one component of a complex “package” of features in an immersive experience, the ability of the clicks, squishes, and vacuum sounds in these games to straddle the otherwise clear division between fantasy and reality offers one powerful component that has drawn me into spending far too many hours playing them—or perhaps just enough to be able to begin thinking about them. These apparently simple little games are not just complex mathematical problems, as New Scientist pointed out about Candy Crush Saga, but also nodes of participation in an attention economy that, at least in the case of these timekiller games (and, I would argue, much more generally), converts forms of value back and forth in circuits that make them anything but “stupid.”




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Angry Birds (2009 et passim) Rovio Entertainment

Assassins’ Creed (2007 et passim) Ubisoft

Bejeweled (2001 et passim) PopCap

Bookworm (2003 et passim) PopCap Games

Bubble Ball (2010) Nay Games

Call of Duty (2003 et passim) Activision

Candy Blast Mania (2013) Storm8

Candy Crush Saga (2012) King

Depression Quest (2013) Postmortem Studios

Farmville (2009) Zynga

Flappy Bird (2013 ) GEARS

Forbidden Arms (2014) GodSeeD Studios

Fruit Ninja (2010) Halfbrick Studios

Guitar Hero 

Harmonix (2005–2007)
Neversoft (2007–2010)
Budcat Creations (2007–2009)

Vicarious Visions (2007–2010)

FreeStyleGames (2015–)

Jelly Splash (2013) Wooga

Mighty Jill Off (2008) Anna Anthropy

Plants vs. Zombies (2009) PopCap

Samantha Swift series (2008) MumboJumbo

Tetris (1984) Alexey Leonidovich Pajitnov (and many developers and studios since)

To Fu (2011) HotGen Ltd.