Mind versus body: time perception

Posted on May 29, 2016 with tags life, sports, cycling.

Since mid-April I’m playing a new game. It’s really awesome, and I learned some surprising things.

The game—Zwift—is quite different from the games I’m usually playing. While it does have all or most of the elements of a game, more precisely an MMO, the main point of the game if physical exercise (in the real world). The in-game performance if the result of the (again, real-world) power output.

Playing the game is more or less like many other games: very nice graphics, varied terrain (or not), interaction, or better said competition, with other players, online leader boards, races, gear “upgrade” (only cosmetic AFAIK), etc. The game more or less progresses like usual, but the fact that the main driver is body changes, to my surprise, the time component of the game.

For me, with a normal game—let’s say one of Bioware’s Dragon Age games, or one of CD Red’s Witcher games—a short gaming session is 2-3 hours, a reasonable session 6-8 hours, and longer ones are for “marathon” gaming sessions. Playing a good game for one hour feels like you’ve been cheated—one barely starts and has to stop.

On Zwift, things are different. A short session is 20-30 minutes, but this already feels good. A good one is more than one hour, and for me, the longest rides I had were three hours. A three hour session, if done at or near Functional Threshold Power (see here for another article about it), leaves me spent. I just had today such a long ride (at around 85% FTP) and it took me an hour afterwards (and eating) to recover.

The interesting part is that, body exertion aside, the brain sees a 3 hour Zwift equivalent to an 8-10 hour gaming session. Both are tiring, and the perception of passed time is the same (long). Same with shorter sessions: if I do a 40 minutes ride, it feels subjectively as rewarding as a 2-3 hour normal gaming session. I wonder what mechanism is that influences this perception. Is it just effort level? But there’s no real effort (as in increased heart rate) for computer games. Is it the fact that so much blood is needed for the muscles when cycling that the brain gets comparatively little, so it enters slow-speed mode (hey, who pressed the Turbo button)? In any case, using Zwift results in a much more efficient use of my time when I’m playing just to decompress/relax.

Another interesting difference is how much importance a good night sleep has on body performance. With computer games, it makes a difference, but not a huge one, and it usually goes away a couple of hours in the game, at least subjectively. With cycling, a bad night results in persistent lower performance all around (for me at least), and one that you easily feel (e.g. for max 5-second average power).

And the last thing I learned, although this shouldn’t be a surprise: my FTP is way lower than it’s supposed to be (according to the internet). I guess the hundreds of hours I put into pure computer games didn’t do anything to my fitness, to my “surprise”. I’m curious to see, if I can keep this going on, how things will look like in ~6 months or so.