In this essay I will analyze Thieves Between Time and how it relates to Manovich’s Principles of New Media.
All new media objects, whether created from scratch or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations.
Thieves Between Time defies Manovich’s definition of new media, in that it has both a digital and an analog component.
On a digital level, our product is very much like an automated watch: it follows a predefined set of instructions every time it is switched on, as interpreted through machine code. All the messages and audio files created by our device are translated from digitized copies into real-world impulses. In this respect Manovich’s theory holds water.
However, Thieves Between Time is very clearly not restricted to the mechanical electronic device itself. Rather, it is the intangible game hosted by the device that is the actual work. This game takes place in reality, in an analog space with human actors. It thus cannot be said to be a “numerical representation” by Manovich’s definition (certain theories of quantum physics notwithstanding).
Media elements […] are represented as collections of discrete samples (pixels, polygons, voxels, characters, scripts). These elements are assembled into large-scale objects but continue to maintain their separate identities.
Thieves Between Time is a highly modular work. It is obvious that the digital code and data files hosted on the microcontroller are highly modular, as are the microcontroller itself, the electrical components and wiring, etc. These are manufactured objects that we have bought and assembled into a new whole.
At the same time, the game experience is also modular. It consists of a discrete device, game rules, and treasure objects assembled into a whole, much as game pieces arranged on a chessboard form chess. These items, too, could be taken out of context and rearranged to create new meaning.
In all honesty, modularity is not a trait limited to new media alone — it can be seen in a wide variety of art forms. A painting, for example, is essentially a collection of brushstrokes; a landscape is a collection of hills, mountains, trees, and figures, all of which would stand as a work on its own, but together combine into a larger whole. Likewise, a symphony is composed of many individual instruments playing in unison. I thus question Manovich’s line of thinking in associating modularity with something new.
The numerical coding of media and the modular structure of a media object allow for the automation of many operations involved in media creation, manipulation, and access. Thus human intentionality can be removed from the creative process, at least in part.
Thieves Between Time is a highly automated work. The entire design of our product revolves around automating the work of “emceeing” or “gamemastering” the game; not only is it automated by an on-board script, but it also automates the entire flow of the game rules. In this respect Manovich is correct.
However, I disagree that automation represents a loss of authorial intent. To attribute the outcome on an interactive work to the machine rather than the author is like attributing the beauty of a music recording to the music player rather than the musician.
Everything that comes about as an outcome of our device’s automation is a result of planning and design. We have hand-crafted the “possibility states” that can result from our automated process, so that every possible outcome feeds back into our original goal. In other words, automation is merely another way to enforce human intentionality.
A new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, possibly infinite, variations.
Thieves Between Time was designed from the ground up to work in a variety of spaces. Our intention is that it can be played in a space as small as a classroom or as large as a concert hall. The gameplay and tactics of our players will also change, even when played multiple times in the same venue. Hence, despite the uniformity of the game rules and instructions, we believe that no two games are likely to play out the same way. In this way, Thieves Between Time showcases high variability.
Nonetheless, I question Manovich’s association of new media with variability, when media has been expressed in different variations for as long as painting and music has existed. The same musical composition can be expressed very differently by two differently inclined musicians; likewise, a cleric copying an illustration from one book into another will introduce subtle variations into the copy. Even in the industrial era, works of intellectual property have been copied, remixed, abridged, modified, and so on. This does not seem to be a difference between “new” and “old” media so much as it is an invention of Manovich’s own thinking.
…the computer layer and the culture layer influence each other. […] they are being composited together. The result of this composite is a new computer culture — a blend of human and computer meanings, of traditional ways in which human culture modeled the world and the computer’s own means of representing it.
As a hybrid between digital programming and analog behavior, Thieves Between Time is an interesting example of transcoding. It automates digitally the traditional process of “emceeing” or “gamemastering,” translating the very human and intuitive process of communication into numerical representation in code. Even human players are forced to play by the rules of the game, effectively becoming an extension of the device’s programming.
That being said, I believe that the dichotomy Manovich asserts between “human culture” and “the computer world” is a false one. What is human culture but all the collected ways in which humans can view the world? We can understand how computers work because we designed them to be functional and intuitive to operate for humans; ergo, the “computer world” is merely a subset of human culture, a subculture if you will.
In this light transcoding is not two monolithic cultures colliding together, as in the picture Manovich paints, but a previously obscure subculture bleeding into the larger pool of collective human identity. It is no different from the blending of different cultures, philosophies, and scientific disciplines in the real world. Like a clueless anthropologist, Manovich tries to use the terminology of his siloed academic understanding of culture to describe the culture of the Information Age, before realizing that the terminology is already there, in the computer’s own language.