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The Waiting Game

Britishisms have been somewhat of a novelty to me. Not to disrespect British folk or their culture, but the things they choose to say as a matter of idiomaticism over pragmatism has been mostly bewildering. I’m not talking about throwing Us into words haphazardly or inscrutably preferring “cheque” to “check” (I actually prefer “theatre” to “theater”). Instead, I mean words and phrases that only make sense colloquially. Being a Texan and having grown up around those that use “fixin’” to not mean “repair,” I’m fine with that practice. I take issue with that fact that most of the local flavor from the kingdom often makes its way into journalism, frequently defeating the actual meaning of these words.

Blower. Mush. You know, zebra crossing. These already have predefined meanings that have been misappropriated for not just British life but also professional English writing.

There are instance, however, of when they opt for a more discrete word selection. “Telephone kiosk” is much more apt than “payphone,” for example, as just about every phone and every call is being paid for by somebody.

One such boundlessly accurate word that I can’t wait until all English speakers adopt is “queue” instead of “line.” Lines must be disambiguated from meaning mere squiggles to mean an orderly waiting procession whereas queue means exactly what it means: a line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended to or to proceed. Bam. No confusion.

So it’s no wonder that when industry folk talk about the psychology behind waiting in lines, they refer to it as the “queueing experience” (academics also refer to the mathematics behind lines as “queueing theory“). The preeminent corporate scholar is Disney. They’ve mastered the queues you go through as you bandy about their parks. For example: they twist and turn the cordoned off queue areas so that you have more to walk and thus less time standing idly, judging how much further you have to wait (the serpentine action also hides the true length of lines).

It’s the same psychology applied to airports. Namely, a Houston airport a few years ago fixed the amount of customer complaints about baggage claim waits by simply putting as much distance between arrival gates and the carousels. This resulted in a 600% increase in total waiting time but also a 100% decrease in complaints.

This is referred to as occupied time versus unoccupied time. Occupied time is the time spent doing something else, distracting you from the wait, such as when you look at the mirrors (purposefully placed, mind you) around an elevator. Unoccupied time is the same amount of time but spent looking at the floor so you don’t have to make eye contact with other elevator riders. One feels like waiting while the other feels like a few seconds checking to make sure your hair is still perfectly coiffed.

And it’s something similarly applied to video games. Most memorably, I think, is when you install Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots to your PS3. Each time you live through the ordeal, you are treated to an extended, somewhat intimate scene of Snake smoking. Like, a cigarette. He just sits there, puffing on his stogie, and you watch him. It’s not entirely too complex, but it represents the most basic of queue experience psychology applied to video games. When you rotate the models in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or play those dumb little Breakout clones while your Flash game loads, you are experiencing occupied versus unoccupied time psychology being applied to your supple, malleable brain.

But there’s more to it than just waving a shiny object in front of you to distract you like you would distract a kitten. There’s so much more to it that is currently being employed and yet continues to elude gamers. Disney, for instance, gives you exaggerated wait time estimates so that when you finally make it, you are usually ahead of schedule and thus come away with a positive experience (as the last minutes tend to be the deciding factor of coming away with good or bad memories). Multiplayer games that have queues when servers are overloaded could utilize this. Take the average time each player plays and move it like 2% up the bell curve, the resulting time being what you present to the waiting player. We desire to know.

This could play into the fact that humans also seek out shorter lines rather than shorter waits. If one server says I’m fifth in line and the estimated wait is 15 minutes while another says I’m tenth in line with a 10-minute wait, studies show that I’m more likely to pick the former over the logical choice of the latter. We pick queues based on length, so these estimations can help coerce rationalization over petty humanity.

Ostensibly single-entrance queues are great because it follows the FIFO (first in, first out) nature of queues anyways. It’s a natural play to what we humans incessantly desire: fairness. A survey shows that people will wait twice as long for fast food “provided the establishment uses a first-come-first-served, single-queue ordering system as opposed to a multi-queue setup.” Games like Diablo III—most notably during its rocky launch—use this as everyone is placed in a single line but is eventually distributed among multiple servers.

This differs from other games like Counter-Strike where you choose a server and wait. It’s most similar to picking a line in a supermarket and watching all of the other queues around you dwindle as yours appears to have come to a grinding halt. People tend to focus only on “losing” to other queues instead of clearing out faster than the rest. What could help is by placing arbitrary progress markers and informing the player of how far they are along in waiting more frequently for longer lines than shorter lines. This gives an ephemeral and illusory sense of progress that is key to shuttling minutes over from unoccupied to occupied territory.

But these are complex solutions to a problem that people necessarily deal with regardless. It’s a risk to implement these ideas because they could easily backfire when compared to how difficult it is to develop, tune, and integrate these meta systems into a currently straightforward grid of lines and queues. Single player loading screens, sure, they’re easy to do because once they’re in, they’re in. Multiplayer fixes, however, are complex because they bow to the impulses and desires of a multi-headed beast, fickle and vindictive.

Of course, you could just put in one of those cheesy Tetris– or Tapper-style clones and have score battles to gain places in line. Participating enables you to both gain and lose spots in the queue while not participating means you are staunchly holed up in your spot. I think that would be pretty fun.

Up until the point where you start having queues for that, too.

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