Notes on real-time and dirt-time

tywen kelly
4 min readApr 19, 2020

Real-time (adj): Relating to media in which the data is processed nearly instantly as feedback.

Dirt-time (adj): Relating to media content in which the depiction of time passes at the same rate as time in the real world.

Dirt-time is a term I have made up.

In Minecraft a full day and night cycle passes in 20 minutes. Minecraft time passes exactly 72 times faster than time passes on earth. Minecraft is not a dirt-time game.

In Animal Crossing a full day and night cycles passes in 24 hours. If you open the game at 2:30PM on a Sunday in real life, then the game will start up at 2:30PM on a Sunday. Animal Crossing is a dirt-time game.

This distinction is important because most journalists describe Animal Crossing as a “real time game”. To me, real-time meant one thing already, so it was an opportunity to think of a new clarifying term.

Playing a video game is always real-time. Not all video games are dirt-time.

All video games require some input from the user to activate the world. A video game is not a video game without some level of input/output behavior from the game engine. This could be something as simple as tapping a button that animates and plays a sound. Or it could be something as in-depth and interactive as a first person shooter. Interactivity with instant response constitutes video games as real-time.

Real-time and dirt-time can be used to describe media beyond just video games.

Cinematic films, when they are not actively played, are not real-time. Films are packaged in .movs and celluloid film as pre-recorded and pre-encoded content, each frame embossed into an inert material. The content of the film itself, as an inert repository of information, is not real-time because it is not interactive. There is no feedback from the film file.

The playback of films is real-time. Playback is a complex interfacing process of input and output which precisely displays 24 frames per second. Thus the interface of film is real-time, but the content itself is not. A film projector that is actively projecting is real-time, but the film itself is not.

Cinematic films have the capacity to be dirt-time. If a film is 2 hours long, and by the end of the film 2 hours of the film-world have passed, then the film is dirt-time. Most films are not dirt-time.

CCTV is dirt-time, but not typically real-time. Most CCTV is not watched, meaning it is never interacted with, processed, or viewed. Until an object is interfaced with it cannot be real-time.

Livestreams and teleconferencing are both real-time and dirt-time. Instant messaging is real-time and dirt-time. The stock market is real-time and dirt-time.

Talk radio is dirt-time, and if you are listening as it is broadcasted, real-time.

No photograph is dirt-time. A photograph that changes over time is a film.

Some tools are real-time but it would be impossible to ascribe a dirt-time label to them. Tools are mere interface and are not content. Adobe Photoshop allows real-time manipulation of still images. The photographs that Photoshop manipulates are not a part of Photoshop.

Dirt-time is the opposite of airtime. Airtime describes simply how long something is transmitted, projected, played. Airtime only increases in value as long as it is being transmitted. A TV show with 30 minutes total airtime could have been broadcast into three 10-minute chunks with 5 minutes of ads in between, and it would still only be 30 minutes of airtime.

Dirt-time increases at the same rate as real world time. Dirt-time does not care if the content is played forward or not; time in a dirt-time piece of media continues to accumulate. If the TV show described just now were to also be a dirt-time TV show, then from beginning to end the content of the show and the depiction of the world in the show would cover exactly 45 minutes (30 minutes airtime and 15 minutes ad time).

The idea of real-time and dirt-time are lenses to understand media. With media tending to become more immersive, I think these ideas will become more useful. When entire worlds are constructed in different types of media then we will need precise language to talk about basic components of the virtual world, such as time. To have precise language about media is to have a greater understanding of it effects.