Dirt Time

Read time: 7 minutes
1,252 words

Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen all at once… and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.

Most video games have their own day and night cycle. Minecraft has a 20-minute full day (sol) cycle. Stardew Valley’s is 14 minutes and 20 seconds. One Skyrim day is 1 hour and 12 minutes. Runescape is permanently day.

Other games like Animal Crossing and Second Life use the day-to-night cycle of the real world. If you open the game at 7pm on Sunday, the game will look like 7pm on a Sunday.

It’s less common to find games where the game clock parallels reality. There is something cozy about these kinds of games. When I turn one on it feels less like entering a fantasy realm than it feels like peeling back the fabric of the current world. It has a here-ness, a kairos. Tragically, there’s also no good word to describe this time-passing media effect.

In the past reviewers have called these sorts of games “real time”. But that’s not quite specific enough of a term. In the realm of computers the term real time can mean many things. It can mean that the latency between input and output is so low that the program feels like it is happening instantaneously, in the now; the now-ness is its real-ness; only the now is real. The problem is that in this sense every video game is real time. They all render and animate at such a frequency that they give off the illusion of “real”. This might even be a prescriptive property of video games: to be a video game it must be real time.

Real time is too generic of a phrase. It’s especially generic given the poignancy of this effect of the passing of time in Animal Crossing and Second Life. This effect A) cannot be comprehensively described as “real time” and B) is secretly its own loaded idea that it deserves its own phrase. With Second Life, the developers of the game Linden Labs call this mechanic Linden Time. The problem is Linden Time is localized to PST. It’s not relative to the player. This is where dirt time comes in. Dirt time is the passing of time in media that is synchronized with the passing of time in the real world, relative to the user.

Dirt time is the passing of time in media that is synchronized with the passing of time in the real world, relative to the user.

Dirt time applies to media in general, although games are a potent example. If you use a Mac, there is a feature on the operating system which automatically turns on dark mode and adds a yellow tint to your screen when the sun sets outside. That feature is dirt time.

By my bed is a computerized alarm clock. It has a feature that helps me wind down at the end of the night by simulating a sunset over the course of 30 minutes. This is not dirt time. The sun does not set at 11:45PM where I live.

Twitch.tv is a dirt time platform. It’s in the business of making dirt time as entertaining as possible. Stake.com is not a dirt time platform. Like casinos in real life, this betting platform wants to black out the windows and remove all clocks from its interfaces so the gambler completely immerses and e-scapes into it.

In the early 2000’s the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation broadcasted a live, unbroken video feed from a train winding its way through the country’s natural landscape. This broadcast was popular and pioneered a genre called “Slow TV”. It proved that air time can be dirt time too.

Why “dirt time”? Firstly, it’s weird so it’s easier to remember. The weirdness also attempts to make it a more distinct, pointed, and by extension a more useful term than real time. Dirt time is just time passing at the speed of the dirt below your feet. The point where one interfaces with the hardware is the rate at which time passes in the software. Dirt is the anchoring context from which we call come from and is the background in which time, in the foreground, plays out.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s because the phrase is a reminder of where time comes from. It’s a reminder that time is real beyond the screen. That the reality of time or space is materially tied to the Earth is not tied to some metaphor. This is a worthy reminder, in a period when many computer programs, by weaponizing the invisibility of time to maximize attention and immersion, forfeit the benefits of dirt time mechanics.

The Proteus Effect describes the ability of a virtual environment and a virtual avatar’s appearance to affect a player’s behavior. The researchers who coined the term concluded, based on a series of experiments tracking the behavior of players given “attractive” and “unattractive” avatars, that an individual’s behavior conforms to their digital self-representation independent of how others perceive them.1 Dirt time is a kind of ambient Proteus Effect. How time is surfaced and how time expresses itself is an environmental cue to a person in it on how to behave. In biology zeitgeber refers to external cues that affect one’s circadian rhythm. Dirt time is one category of zeitgeber in a media environment. When we use computer programs we project ourselves into our avatars: be it an elf on the screen or a small, sharp cursor icon. The proteus effect tells us we tend to match the “rhythm” of our avatars; when our avatars are in slow media we slow down with it, fast media we speed up with it.

In 2018 Facebook invented “flicks”, a new unit of time for use in their VR hardware. A flick is exactly 1/705,600,000 of a second. If there is any indicator of the speeding up of time, it’s the flick.

The word “dirt” in dirt time is also a flag to dig further into what makes time dirt-y. People have used rocks for millions of years to describe, document, and make sense of time. Quartz crystals are today used in everything from watches to cars to rockets to keep track of time. Atomic clocks also rely on the piezoelectric property of quartz to maintain a consistent tick-speed. Rocks, from the dirt, make it possible for this blog post to exist.

Besides being used as tools to dig and cut, stone is also one of the oldest time-keeping devices. The Gezer calendar, a stone tablet dated to the 10th century BCE, is one of the oldest time-keeping artifacts discovered. It documented agricultural crop patterns. Stonehenge, too, is an example of metamorphic time keeping. Not only temporally, stones also helped orient historical people spatially. “Sun stones” were stones with light-polarizing properties that vikings used to navigate the seas even when it was overcast. The stones could “see through” the clouds and allowed them to track the stars and the sun.

These examples remind us that how we make sense of time is inextricably linked to our use of Earth’s material. Computers and media in general often abstract that reality away, even though time-keeping was one of the first uses of computers (see: the Antikythera mechanism). If there’s one thing that arises from the idea of dirt time, it’s this: Be Now, Here.


  1. Proteus Effect