125 Frames Per Second: Quake 3 and Synchronized Networks of Play

An abstract for a paper that will likely go unwritten…

Lag; no word engenders greater pathos in players of on-line first-person shooters. Hurled as excuse for failures personal, a single death in a game, and collective, the loss of a match by a team, it references the experience of temporal delay in the game circuit of event, representation, perception, reaction, and response. Hacking, a close rival, is an infrequent, intentional aberration of gameplay mechanics and politics. Lag is a constitutive, painful by-product of play in an on-line FPS. “125 Frames” explores the experience, code, and cultural consequences of desynchronized, anachronic time in the synchronized network of an on-line FPS, Quake 3. Emblematic of the genre, Quake 3 served as the benchmark for competition, retained a viable community 10 years after its release, and persists in contemporary ports to web and mobile platforms as Quake Live by ID and Eliminate Pro by Ngmoco. Its two hallmarks were speed of play and management of networked time.

This paper’s title alludes to the com_maxfps setting for how many frames to render per second. That number was imbricated in the overall timing of the system from netcode and hardware to human perceptual and processing systems. Highly divergent from the visual standards of 24 and 30 frames per second for film and 50 or 60 interlaced fields per second for television, the system’s goal of 125 FPS yields two realizations: 1) First-Person Shooters are interactive in a time-scale roughly four times faster than cinema, and 2) time, for a network of players in a FPS, is a synchronized simulation training a community to perceive deviations in normalized time on the order of 1/125 of a second. FPS are the highly coordinated edge of the networked non-geographic time zone, and Quake 3 allows for the assessment of the cultural impact of that time zone and the code that provides its platform.

That assessment begins with the work of Stephen Kern and Jasper Juul. Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 describes the conditions and technology that led to global, standardized times formats. Principally, regions synchronized to communal times because new methods of transport, e.g. rail, required simplified expanses of time to ease scheduling, and new methods of broadcast, e.g. radio, allowed for the construction of norms covering areas circumscribed by the power of a broadcast network. This technologically motivated normalization allows Culture to recognize cultural, scientific, and social productions as expressions of conflicting, emergent understandings of time: public and personal, atomistic and continuous, irreversible and constant, reversible and contingent. Jasper Juul, in “Introduction to Game Time,” describes a game-centric theory of time resembling a theory of narratology; game world, player, and playing through are temporally related yet distinct. Quake 3 serves as Juul’s example of a “real-time game”; the time of play and of the game world are synchrnoized, thereby providing an experience of “urgency and immediacy.” From Culture‘s delineation of the forces changing conceptions of time and geography, and “Game Time”’s exposition of the compression, expansion, and correspondence of time in games and play as a measure of the psychic urgency of a FPS, “125 Frames” argues that Quake 3 specifically, and the FPS generally, instantiates a new perception of time and the networked platforms enabling timing, through a punishing awareness of synchronic and anachronistic moments in on-line competitive game play.

About Ben M.

Assistant Professor of English and Communication at Georgia State University New and Emerging Media Lab
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