Time perception during video game play by adolescents (Tobin & Grodin, 2009)

So far I’ve managed to contact four potential advisors who are willing to take in a grad student. I still got three more to find, but it’s a daunting task, going through the research literature, combing the faculty lists and googling around. What I discovered that there are more video game researchers from communications studies than psychology.

Many gamers had at least one experience of losing track of time, and there are some who have ended up playing until the next day. I certainly experienced this loss of time tracking during my gaming sessions. Simon Tobin and Simon Grondin, from Université Laval, decided to do an experiment on time perception and video gaming. It should be mentioned that there were previous studies of this type.


In the present study, we tested the hypothesis that adolescents might underestimate time while playing a video game. To test this hypothesis, 116 adolescents (14–15 years old) had to judge prospectively or retrospectively the duration of three consecutive tasks: a 8 min and a 24 min task of playing video game (Tetris) and an 8 min task of reading on a computer screen (control task). The main hypothesis received support: for a same duration, the video game task was estimated as shorter than the reading task. Moreover, participants with a game-inclined profile showed a stronger underestimation of time while playing. Finally, the short durations were overestimated and the long duration underestimated. The main findings are accounted for by an attention-based explanation.

 I’m not very good in psychophysics, but I am curious on rather bizarre topics.

What are some the theories for players losing track of time? One popular theory is because of enjoyment, you enjoy yourself that you don’t pay attention to your surroundings, including time. It even fits with the concept of flow where players in a flow state are totally involved with their gaming and lose track of time. However, is this good enough explanation? Do players lose track of time because of the video games or do players have underestimate their playtime which leads them to play longer?

Delving into the time perception literature, Tobin and Grodin listed two factors affecting time perception: Task difficulty and segmentation (i.e. doing different kinds of task in a single session). The more difficult a task is and the more tasks to be done in a single session, the less attention one have on time. There are biological factors that affect time perception, such as body temperature, psychoactive drugs, etc. The authors decided to examine task difficulty only.

How time perception is measured? Two ways: prospectively and retrospectively. Prospective time judgment is where participants are asked, in advance, to estimate the length of time of an activity. The literature refers this type of time judgment as experienced duration because participants are actively estimating time. Retrospective time judgment is where participants are asked, after they finished an activity (and were not told in advance) how long it lasted. This is referred to as remembered duration because they were not actively estimating time, therefore relying on their memory.

The factors mentioned earlier have differing effects on the two kinds of time judgment. Task difficulty influences experienced duration, but not remembered duration. Whereas, segmentation influences remembered duration, but not experienced duration.

So, the authors examined both type of time judgment, video game task vs. control task, task difficulty, video game experience, video game addiction (just to see) and time lengths.


Participants: 116 high school participants, average is 15.02 years. 47 males and 69 females, they come from eight different classes from the same school and grade.


Demographics and video game experience: the number of hours of play per week, previous experience of playing the video game in the experiment, level of enjoyment from the game.

Video game addiction questionnaire (not its true name): questionnaire translated into French from a previous study made by Mark D. Griffiths. 8 questions answered through “yes” or “no”. Those who answered yes to 4 or more is identified as addicted. Of course, this is just academic and has no significant real life bearing.

Reading task: a text about the life of Albert Einstein. Participants read this text for eight minutes.

Video game used: a version of Tetris called RotoBlox. The reason in choosing this game is because they needed a game that everyone knows and easy to understand. IMO, they probably wanted a simple game to minimize confounding variables (e.g. graphical immersion, video game characters, narrative elements, music, etc.) and proceed by adding more gaming features through future studies. Second, they probably wanted a game that remains essentially the same during the experiment, much like reading. Any game that has changes gameplay or gives different game objectives in each level is ruled out. Well, this is an experiment after all, tight control over the experimental setting. Participants play this video game for either 8 minutes or 24 minutes (see procedure)


Each class of students is randomly assigned to either prospectively or retrospectively estimate time, play either the video game on easy mode or hard more and whether they start playing the video game for 8 minutes (short) or 24 minutes (long). The experimental is as follows: Each class come in to the school’s computer room, they played the video game first (based on their random assignment), then read the text for 8 minutes, then play the video game again (length of time different from the first time). Afterwards, they are to type their estimates of how long each of the three activities. They were asked to give a temporal range (a minimum and a maximum), instead of a single time estimate.

Why the experimenters don’t asked the participants to estimate time after each activity? It’s something that I’m not going into since it’s very much in the realm of psychophysics.

Why 24 minutes is referred as long? Because in terms of psychophysics, that’s a very long task. The authors argued that the longer an activity, time perception estimates becomes more inaccurate and more variable. This compromises the comparison between the two tasks. Another reason is that they’re dealing with high school students, can’t take a lot of time from their education.


Five participants were excluded from the analysis due to their time estimates as being way out of range.

They calculated a ratio referred to as estimated to real time ratio where the estimated time is the mean from the minimum and maximum time estimates. This is how they can tell whether participants are overestimating or underestimating the duration of an activity. So, I’m not giving the numbers since they’re ratios.

In general, they found that participants overestimated during the short tasks, whereas they underestimate for the long task. When looking at the total duration (by adding all three time judgments), the participants were fairly accurate, according to the authors. There were no gender differences, differences between task difficulty, previous experience, level of enjoyment or type of time judgment.

A peculiar result (academically, but I don’t see how it would affect in real life) is how participants who started the short video game task tended to have greater overestimation of the short task and greater underestimation of the long task.

Comparing the time ratio between the short video game task and the reading task, they found a statistically significant difference in that participants had smaller overestimation of time than the reading task. It’s possible that enjoyment may have a hand in this. The authors made a curious argument in that even though reading may be less enjoyable, it was at least something to compare video games with another real life activity and showed how teenagers prefer video games than books or homework.

Additionally, the authors argued that since there are enjoyment differences between tasks, but the enjoyment level did not correlate with time judgment, it means something else, and not enjoyment, is a factor in time perception. They argued that the video game had a larger mental workload (e.g. hand-eye coordination, planning, etc.) than reading which could affect time perception. In future studies, they should match two tasks in terms of mental workload, say Tetris vs. Puzzles? Perhaps the mediating experience (television) might affect time perception? Although, I don’t see the theoretical basis or why it might be so…

Investigating the role of addiction, 14 participants were identified as addicted. They found a difference in the long video game task only in that the addicted had a greater underestimation than the non-addicts. Again, this is only significant academically and has no real life weight and the sample size is very small. This is just something suggestive for further exploration.

They found a significant different in the number of hours of play per week, those who played 7 hours and more per week were found to have greater underestimation on the long video game task than those who play 6 hours and less. I don’t know what to make of it since they’re correlations. Perhaps a longitudinal study on the developmental of time perception might be in order.

What’s the final take? Individuals estimate time as much shorter when playing video games. No causal links can be made to show that video games disrupt individual’s time perception or individuals’ time perception lead to longer video game sessions. And I’ve got not much of an opinion on this rather complex field of study.


Tobin, S., & Grodin, S. (2009). Video games and the perception of very long durations by adolescents. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 554-559.


5 thoughts on “Time perception during video game play by adolescents (Tobin & Grodin, 2009)

  1. Pingback: Time Keeps on Slipping Away in Video Games « Educational Games Research

  2. Pingback: Time Keeps on Slipping Away in Video Games « iThinkEducation.net!

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