Filmmakers, composers, and playwrights carefully author the time dimension of their work. A pregnant pause, a slow-burn conflict, and an accelerando feel the way they do because of how they’re experienced by viewers over time. Those mediums express a few hours’ evolving experience—but what about days, months, years? Cultural institutions often author their experiences over those time scales (e.g. multi-year religious coming-of-age rituals), but mass mediums rarely do. That’s an unfortunate limitation: mass mediums give authors enormous reach. (see also Enacted experiences are hard to distribute)
This prospect is what I’m calling Timeful text.
Books often take weeks or months to read. But books almost never have an authored time dimension like that of films or plays. The days, weeks, and months aren’t usually specified by the author in the way the minutes are by a filmmaker. Lots of ideas take time to sink in: Spacing effect aside, people must engage with them on many occasions before their real meaning becomes clear.
Consider a real expert–apprentice relationship. The expert can introduce an idea, then observe it as it blooms in the apprentice over the ensuing weeks, perhaps referencing it a few times in various ways to nudge its evolution. Then after the apprentice has had enough time to thoroughly absorb the idea, the expert can introduce some consequence of that idea at a time when it’ll make the most impact. This isn’t just about the problems described in Most explanatory media make participants run their own feedback loops: the expert is curating the time component of the apprentice’s experience.
By contrast, if an author wants to introduce both an idea and some nuanced consequence of that idea, those points can only separated by pages in a book’s spine. Occasionally authors will write notes like “don’t read this chapter until…” but this approach is obviously quite limited.
Some MOOCs begin at specific times, collecting students into cohorts who move through the syllabus together. If the course includes collaborative learning components, the shared timelines may meaningfully affect students’ experiences. But as far as I’ve seen, MOOC designers aren’t carefully authoring how that experience unfolds over weeks and months: they convene a group of people, then have them do mostly-time-independent things together over some period of time.
MOOC instructional materials often “unlock” over time, but the material doesn’t meaningfully interact with that timeline. It’s generally more as if an author had written a complete book, but the publisher later decided to serialize it, mailing subscribers a chapter at a time for their convenience. Sure, there’s an experience over time—yet there’s no authorial intent. This arrangement leaves much on the table.
By contrast, consider Rinpoche and David Chapman’s Aro meditation course. It’s a sequence of 18+ emails, one automatically sent each week after you sign up. But the emails aren’t written like MOOC materials: the passing weeks are carefully woven into each letter. They spiral back, returning to earlier ideas as a refresher after a few weeks have passed. They intentionally leave space for concepts to sink in before returning several weeks later. They lean on the reader’s growing trust, which e.g. anyone still reading at the 3-month point must possess. This series of emails, simple as they are, feel like a much more profound evolution relative to books than MOOCs represent relative to traditional courses.
Games with high replay value are explicitly designed with second, minute, hour, day, and month+ timelines. Casual games like Bejeweled make sure that new players experience success instantly. They’ll evolve to a qualitatively different “level” of play at the hour scale. They’ll introduce a feeling of progression over multiple days to keep players coming back every day. And they’ll layer on rare collectibles, meta-games, and advanced goals to keep the experience unfolding over months.
Likewise, MOOGs like World of Warcraft carefully choreograph players’ incentives and environments to create a feeling of an ever-expanding horizon over many months. The design elements aren’t about a raw number of hours: they’re more about how the character of a play session changes from week to week.
Some single-player narrative games take 50-100 hours to complete, but these are treated much like films: the experience doesn’t meaningfully involve the fact that days or weeks might be passing for the player.
Games are unusual in this regard: Dynamic mediums usually lack an authored time dimension.