From New Media to Art Game

What is New Media?

         New media is not simply reappropriating traditional artforms with emerging technology. It’s not about giving a technological product the look and feel of a fine artwork either. As New Media artist Mariuz Swartz has pointed out, “Technologies like machine vision and geo-location are not new by most standards. What is new is their integration into our lives to the point where we are bringing them to bed” (Swartz, 2012). The unique capability of computer to provide generative and interactive outcome challenges our fundamental understanding about what a Machine, an Object or a Thing is or could become in a world that has previously been seen solely through a human-centered perspective. It also fundamentally challenges our understanding about an art making process. An analog process with artist in complete control is being challenged by a new relationship of co-creation, with artist, machine, and audience openly sharing the process of making an object of the art.

          Lev Manovic is a scholar who attempts to provide a systematic explanation to decipher intertwined relationship between art and technology. Having worked extensively as a graphic designer, computer programmer and digital artist, Manovic gained wide acknowledgement as a pioneer in new media theory. According to Manovic, the following five principles provide a general foundation for understanding new media language: Numerical Representation, Modularity, Automation, Variability and Transcoding (Manovich, 2001).

          Numerical Representation refers to the representation of a new media objects as digital code, either created programmatically by defining each digital pixel’s attribute or by converting analogue forms of art into numeric codex.

Rosa Menkman showing us her new piece DCT:SYPHONING THE 64TH INTERVAL.

           Modularity means a new media object is also a systematic combination of elements that function independently. Consider two popular video games Super Mario and Mario Go Kart. Each Mario character maintain the same, unique facial feature, body language, behavior and special sound effect regardless of which procedurally designed game world it participates in. However, when inhabiting different game worlds, these characters responds differently to unique game objects which partly defines a larger video game that we are familiar with.

           Combined with Numerical Representation, Modularity renders a media “Programmable”, meaning that new media objects are represented mathematically, which make them subject to dynamic algorithmic manipulation, or digital interactivity. When we press the JUMP button on a game controller, our Super Mario instantaneously performs a JUMP motion while maintaining the rest of its behaviors unchanged.

            Uniquely different from other tools, computer has a memory card that functions similarly as our human memory, with much greater capacity and accuracy. Consider again our Super Mario example above. Let’s say that each time as we press the JUMP button to successfully avoid an poison ivy, the computer memorizes the time interval since the previous jump. Over time, the computer is able to predict a running average based on previously registered timestamps, and thus give us a “warning” when we are likely to perform another foreseeable jump in the immediate future. Based on time series behavioral data, computer can perform conditional statistical analysis to mimic the way human thinks and behaves. This is called automation. When the rules of the analysis dynamically optimize over time based on extensive data, the accuracy can compare or sometimes even surpass human judgement. This is referred to as Artificial Intelligence. In November 2017, a video gamer and programmer self-referred to as SethBling built a recurrent neural network based computer algorithm to play Mario Kart. He called the program “MariFlow”, and trained it with 15 hours of video footage. The program has since won gold metal in the in the 50cc Mushroom Cup and the 50cc Flower Cup.

           Variability is refers to the idea that artistic experiences made with computer code is not static, but permeable. Each version of the generative code can potentially result in infinite versions of the final artwork. Consider a classical visual programming approach called Random Walk. We arbitrarily place a single digital pixel of any given color on a digital canvas. Each time when the computer executes, we ask the pixel to step “randomly” towards its Top, Right, Bottom, or Left direction. Over time, an organic pattern emerges on the canvas, reminiscing a crawling beetle with ink on its feet. And each time when we execute the computer algorithm from the beginning, the path of travel of the pixel will remain uniquely different from any of the previous iterations. This kind of rule-based thinking allows computer certain degree of liberty to “improvise” based on the primary art maker’s intention, and produce outcome that’s simultaneously determined by the art maker and the computer’s execution. Within new media art, a group of artists such as Casey Reas are actively practicing a subgenre called generative art. It attempts to explore the unique variable quality of code based art, and position indetermisity directly as a new mode of expression.

Examples of Random Walk found on Google Image

      Transcoding, according to Manovich, is an intrinsic quality to any new media artwork. It refers to the intertwined relationship that emerges when human and computer jointly share a creative decision making process. It refers to a humanistic layer in computer ontology, as well as a computational layer in contemporary cultural and artistic production in human society. Manovich believes that we live in a time and space where each layer builds upon and directly influences the other layer. According to him, computing and media have a long historical trajectory of mimicking each other which recently started to rapidly converge inside computational devices. “Since new media is created on computers, distributed via computers, stored and archived on computers, the logic of a computer can be expected to have a significant influence on the traditional cultural logic of media……The result of this composite is the new computer culture: blend of human and computer meanings … ” (Manovich, P.63).


How games work

A game works as a simulation, a set of rules and regulations that allow inputs to be manipulated and output in a specific way.  As a player of video games, we supply user input through user interfaces, such as keyboard, mouse, joysticks, and custom objects or hardware in some games. The game maker decided on the rules of the game. Software allows input to be manipulated and returned back to the user as feedback. Game binds an important contractual relationship between the maker and the player – makers cannot control how user choose to input, and user cannot control how makers design and development the game. However, by observing the feedback of their actions, users can gradually build an understanding about the rules that govern the games, which in turn, allow them to act differently while playing the game.


Games force adults to play 

Kids live in a world that’s not primarily designed for them. Most objects in our daily lives are too high, too big, too heavy, too difficult for kids. Kids interacts with objects around them with very little expectations. They focus on coming up with all kinds of options to affect objects, observe the result, reflect, and try again. When playing video games, adults adopt a sense of childlike humbleness by realizing that they partake in a world that they have very little control of. They shift focuses from the world to adjusting their own behaviors, and observing outcomes, allowing them to redirect attention to actions and results.

Games uses New Medium for a Purpose

Writing for Slate, Michael Thomsen asked if a 100-hour video game was ever worthwhile, stating:

There is real beauty in Dark Souls. It reveals that life is more suffering than pleasure, more failure than success, and that even the momentary relief of achievement is wiped away by new levels of difficulty. It is also a testament to our persistence in the face of that suffering, and it offers the comfort of a community of other players all stuck in the same hellish quagmire. Those are good qualities. That is art. And you can get all of that from the first five hours of Dark Souls. The remaining 90 or so offer nothing but an increasingly nonsensical variation on that experience.

Jason Killingsworth wrote a response to Thomsen’s review for Edge, arguing that the game’s “vertigo-inducing breadth makes it the gaming equivalent of a marathon”.

According to Video Game theorist, “Play isn’t doing what we want, but doing what we can with the materials we find along the way…The ultimate lesson games give is not about gratification and reward, nor about media and technology, nor about art and design. It is a lesson about modesty, attention, and care. Play cultivates humility, for it requires us to treat things as they are rather than as we wish them to be. If we let it, play can be the secret to contentment. Not because it provides happiness or pleasure—although it certainly can—but because it helps us pursue a greater respect for the things, people, and situations around us.”

Here is an attempt at explaining Dark Souls philosophy from wisecrack edition:

Miyazaki stated that the notable difficulty of the Souls series had no intention of being “more difficult than other titles on purpose”. Rather, the difficulty was a part of the process that gives players “a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds”, while also having a certain level of difficulty incentivizing players to “experiment more with character builds and weapon load-outs”. He has stated that death is supposed to be a tool meant to be used to learn in a trial and error process, and that the idea of using death in-game as an educational tool would have been received poorly by both his superiors and the players, at least before the commercial and critical success of Demon’s SoulsWhen asked about his style of storytelling, Miyazaki stated that despite what others may believe, he does not dislike direct storytelling, but instead prefers players to interpret the world for themselves; stating that the player gets more value from it when “they themselves find out hints of plot from items or side-characters they encounter in the world”. 

Central to Dark Soul’s gameplay design is the idea of emptiness. Emptiness is not complete nothingness; it doesn’t mean that nothing exists at all. This would be a nihilistic view contrary to common sense. What it does mean is that things do not exist the way our grasping self supposes they do. In his book on the Heart Sutra the Dalai Lama calls emptiness “the true nature of things and events,” but in the same passage he warns us “to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or an independent truth.” In other words, emptiness is not some kind of heaven or separate realm apart from this world and its woes. The Heart Sutra says, “all phenomena in their own-being are empty.” It doesn’t say “all phenomena are empty.” This distinction is vital. “Own-being” means separate independent existence. The passage means that nothing we see or hear (or are) stands alone; everything is a tentative expression of one seamless, ever-changing landscape. So though no individual person or thing has any permanent, fixed identity, everything taken together is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” This term embraces the positive aspect of emptiness as it is lived and acted by a person of wisdom — with its sense of connection, compassion and love.

When we say “I feel empty,” we mean we are feeling sad or depressed. Emotionally speaking, “emptiness” is not a happy word in English, and no matter how often we remind ourselves that Buddhist emptiness does not mean loneliness or separateness, that emotional undertow remains. At various times I have looked for a substitute translation for the Sanskrit sunyata — I have tried “fullness,” “spaciousness,” “connectedness,” and “boundlessness” — but as Ari Goldfield points out, “emptiness” is the most exact translation. “Emptiness” is also the term that my own teacher Shunryu Suzuki used, though he usually added context. Once, speaking of emptiness he said, “I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form.” Another time, speaking of the feeling tone of emptiness, he said, “Emptiness is like being at your mother’s bosom and she will take care of you.”

Demo of Melee Combat

Miyazaki’s gameplay is designed with a consistent effort: through joyful effort, to give up self-grasping and observe emptiness as the true nature of being. Different from studying emptiness as an intellectual or conceptual subject, new media languages allow creators to study emptiness with ease and intuition.

Dark Souls adopts an extremely complex combat system. Dark Souls proves to be a game that is definitely not meant for casual gamers looking for simplicity. The game never holds your hand to help you find out where to go.

It has no map, it has no difficulty settings and the combat system forces you to be very careful with your decisions. Any rushed tactic could easily mean death even when fighting a group of weak enemies. Many gamers criticize Dark Souls for having unfair mechanics that make the game very difficult, but the truth is that most of the combat in the game is quite accurate. The way a sword is held and used to attack is quite realistic and the way that the sword hits surfaces will create a different reaction depending on how hard that surface is.

You can be standing in front of a common enemy that is going to circle around for a while, or they might decide to strike fast. Then when you come back to the same type of enemy, their behavior will change and they could delay their attack to make you miss your parry if you don’t pay attention to the animations.




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