Tag Archives: ludomusicology

The Finish Line Is Back There a Bit

I submitted my PhD thesis the other day.

This is a rather excellent development.

I think I’m happy with how it turned out. Though, of course, I’m not really willing to re-open it and check just yet. I’ll wait and see what the examiners say, and in the meantime, I will try to recover from the final stretch. I took six weeks off work to finish the thesis—a time period in which I took about three days off thesis work, not including the time I spent preparing and presenting a paper at the Games Research Methods Symposium at Sydney Uni (a really interesting conference, but from a timing perspective it wasn’t my greatest decision). I worked myself beyond exhaustion, lost track of the day several times, and still had to make compromises on several aspects and processes. I had to avoid Twitter to keep my mental health above water. I had to employ several fine-toothed combs, including one to remove spaces around em-dashes (a bad habit), one to ensure the use of Oxford commas (easy things to miss, it turns out), and one to switch out the singular ‘they’ (a good habit, but a PhD thesis isn’t the time to fight that battle). EndNote caused a day of intense frustration when it started changing citations of its own volition. And while most aspects of the formatting style I’d previously used for my honours thesis could be re-used to save trouble, I did have to switch the font in the end. But all told, I think it turned out well.

My initial plan, going into this PhD, was to study the intersection of thematic and gameplay genres. However, I soon found semiotics to be a more interesting and less well-trod path. My thesis ended up being a very substantial development of the work I started in my “Meaningful Play” article: a semiotic framework capable of analysing the initial composition and interactive configuration of game music separately (because there are some quite different processes going on in each). I was quite impressed by the idea of the player’s authorship of their experience—a concept which is not new in studies of games, but which had yet to be fully applied to game music, and which gets really interesting when comparing gameplay to other forms of play. With the exception of some work on Microsoft Flight, all of the analysis and writing I’ve done over the last five and a half years has made it into the thesis in some way. However, there are several avenues of investigation that came up during my study that I didn’t have time or space to pursue. I dropped four potential chapters, and still nearly hit my word limit.

In between afternoon naps, I’ve been trying to think of things to do with my reacquired freedom. I’m presenting a conference paper in December, but I’ve decided not to do any academic work until September to give myself a break. I’ve been reading for leisure again, which is nice. I’ve got time for photography, including astro and analogue. And there’s a mountain of unplayed games in my Steam library to play through. But I’ve also completed my strategy of encouraging thesis progress through self-bribery. I found that I was much more likely to write when I set myself goals with tangible rewards, and for the ultimate reward I decided to aim for a MIDI controller. I’ve been itching to make music, to play some piano, and even to compose. So I’ve bought a device with plenty of scope for productivity and experimentation, and am having quite a lot of fun playing around with music again. I might even try my hand at making some game music—coming at my object of study from the other direction, as it were.

Anyway, thanks for reading up to this point. I plan to keep writing (who knows? I might even do so more frequently), because games and music are excellent things. Somehow, writing my thesis hasn’t crippled my ability to enjoy either. I think that must be some kind of miracle.

Literally a Long, Long Time

Last night I finished the first complete draft of the literature review chapter of my thesis. It’s 10,455 words long, and according to my versioning system it’s the 20th draft file. The first draft file is dated 26 August 2014.

Writing a literature review is an interesting exercise. In my experience at least, there’s not a great deal of official information out there about what a literature review is, or what it should contain. I’ve found it a constant challenge to find out what’s required of me throughout this PhD adventure (pro tip: try not to be left off the mailing list when you start a new degree), but even accounting for that there’s a dearth of information on literature review formats or expectations. Perhaps it’s the relatively self-explanatory title of the concept. “A literature review is… a review… of the literature…? Duh.”

Anyway, early on I was dreading the thought of the anomalous excercise of writing the lit review. And when I started, I kept getting hung up on it. So many times I’d start doing work on it, then flounder so completely that work on the whole thesis would stagnate. This is my excuse for the chapter taking almost three years to complete. Three to four years is the regular timeframe for a full-time PhD in Australia, and while I’ve been part-time since early 2015 this chapter has still been an excruciatingly long endeavour. When something is repeatedly difficult, it becomes difficult to even pick up your work on it, let alone to get it finished.

Something changed this year, though. Or started to change last year. I took some time off work mid-2016 so that I could get deeper into the study mindset for a while, and wrote 20,000 words in a month. So, I did it again late-2016 and it didn’t work quite so well (not sure why). I tried it again over Easter and got sick twice in two weeks, the frustration of which seems to have extended my fervour for thesis work beyond the typical pattern (finally!). But something that did happen in these attempts was that for some bizarre reason I was kind of having fun.* There is an art to collecting, collating, and presenting information concisely. It requires a certain amount of creativity to determine what to include, how to include it, and how to relate it to everything else that’s included. Ludomusicological semiotics draws on a lot of fields — semiotics, musicology and game studies at the very least. The process of diving into each of these fields, threshing the salient points from the gritty details, weaving them into a coherent representation within 2,000 words or so, then dashing on to do the same thing for another entire body of work, is kind of a rush when it’s done at the pace of the final stages of a PhD.

But I think I also just enjoyed seeing a snapshot of the full context of my work. In a young field, it’s easy to feel as though you need to justify your choice of study before you can even discuss it. Reviewing the literature gave me a perspective on my work that relates it not only to the ludomusicological literature of the last decade and a half, but to the literature of several well-established fields that go back much further. The most encouraging part of that is to see that my work is not an outlandish endeavour; similar things have been done before, in similar ways and for similar reasons.

But, said work is not finished yet. There’s still a fair bit to do before my submission date (early August), and I’ve no doubt it will not be fun. Bloggings may well be as sparse as they have been lately. But hey, the end is now certainly in sight, and there’s one less seemingly insurmountable hurdle in the way.

 

*This statement is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written.

New Year News

Happy new year!

While it’s generally too hot to think at this time of year in Sydney, I have set myself the task of finishing my thesis in the next couple of months. Why that is inspiring me to write blog posts instead of chapters is beyond the scope of the current study.

Twitter reliably informs me that the ludomusicological year is off to another flying start with the fourth annual North American Conference on Video Game Music held over the weekend in Austin, TX, USA. If you were (like me) unable to attend, the Twitter hashtag #NACVGM is definitely worth perusing. It sounds like there were some fascinating papers presented, and it’s always great to kick off the year with a flurry of ideas.

In related news, the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games (SSSMG) was launched late last year — a collaborative community formed from the Ludomusicology Research Group, NACVGM, and Audio Mostly. It’s a hub for ludomusicological resources and discussion the world over. Get on over and check it out!

My own year is starting a little slower. The Christmas break was relatively quiet for me from a gaming perspective, being away from Sydney with only my old laptop and with lots of people to hang out with. One new thing was that my brothers in law and I made a game. We held a very informal game jam with just us, and built a third person puzzle game in UE4. I built a level or two, but my main task was audio. I scrounged and spliced together some audio files and gave the game a soundscape — fairly rough, but serviceable. And by all accounts, the 16 bar looped score that I composed in an hour was super annoying and therefore “good video game music”. A lot of the levels were really hard, and the music was ultra cheery, and that combination is all kinds of evil. All told, quite fun.

Over the last few days I’ve been working towards a thesis case study (on blurred boundaries between sound effects and music) by playing through Portal 2 and then Portal for comparison. I played through Portal in one sitting the other day. I ended up with one of the worst cases of what I call “gamer brain” that I’ve ever had (what others may call “motion sickness”, but I only get it when I play games; not a reference to gamergate, etc.). Half-Life 2 and its derivatives seem to have a knack of messing with my inner ears like that. Any ideas on how to avoid it?

Also, I’ve just listened to the soundtrack for Quake, which I had never heard before. I played the first episode of Quake over and over again when I was young, on a 486 DX2 that really couldn’t handle it. The first episode was shareware, and I’ve never yet played through the full game with an original CD; like quite a few games of the pre-MP3 CD-ROM era, the music was played straight from tracks 2+ of the game disc. So, Quake for me was never musical. It was sparse, sci-fi, horrific, ambient. I’ve assumed for a while that the soundtrack was something like that of Quake II with heavy metal all over the place, and so have been concluding that my cautious play style (which has lead to me being better at playing things like Skyrim and Portal than Quake III or Call of Duty in its later multiplayer forms) was at odds with the intended experience. But listening to the soundtrack now, I see that’s not necessarily the case — the music is really quite dark and fairly spooky in a sci-fi way. I’m quite surprised, and doubly so — perhaps I’m used to series like The Elder Scrolls and Halo and Portal and Half-Life where the aesthetic differences between games in the series are more nuanced, but the leaps in aesthetic styles between Quakes 1 through 3 are fairly stark in comparison. Is that a common thing in game series where the story is less prominent?

One last thing for now: Games with CD audio music can produce some unintended-yet-interesting soundtracks. Forget to put the game CD in the drive, and voila, your Age of Empires gameplay is forever associated with A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step, track two and onwards.

Anyway, notwithstanding my inability to update blogs on a regular basis, I’ll try to keep this updated with thesis completion info and other thoughts. Laters!

HOWTO: PhD Procrastination through Computer Hardware

One of the greatest distractions available when studying a computer-based medium is the computer. And the computer is made up of parts. These parts are cool and totally have thesis-based functions. Here’s how to devote as much of your PhD-writing time to them as possible.

 

Controller

I should have got one of these ages ago. A controller (like this XBOX 360 Controller for Windows) can close the gap between console and PC gaming for ease of use, if you think controllers are easier to use than a mouse and keyboard. They’re not, but whatever. For certain edge cases they’re invaluable: games made with controllers in mind, driving games, and games that have been half-heartedly ported from consoles (this is one of the reasons I only started playing Dark Souls recently). If you don’t have a controller, get one, and then re-play all those games that felt clumsy with a mouse and keyboard.

Procrastiation gain: 2+ weeks.

 

Joystick

The former go-to input device for computer gaming, the joystick is now more of a specialist device for simulations involving movement of a plane or a spaceship. But as anyone who’s ever tried to land a biplane on a grass runway using a keyboard will tell you, the joystick is still really good at what it does. If you don’t have a joystick, get one, load up a flight sim, and feel like a pro instantly.

Ludomusicology trivia: the book Music in Video Games: Studying Play features a joystick on its cover. Its usefulness to the pictured conductor is doubtful, however, given that the joystick is around the wrong way. I question whether the person who photoshopped the joystick onto the standard book series image has ever played a game.

Procrastination gain: 10 minutes per painfully slow runway approach, up to your boredom threshold. Multiply by 100+ if you own a VR headset and play Elite: Dangerous, because that is without a doubt the most amazing thing out there.

 

Mechanical keyboard

Making words flow from your hands is pretty cool, so why not do it noisily? Mechanical keyboards are currently hot stuff among computer gamers and typists alike because they feel better, they’re faster, they sometimes let you hold down more keys at once, and there are plenty of configuration options to suit your preferences. Mine has RGB backlighting with various effects; the “rain” effect set to bright green is currently taking me back to when I was 15 and The Matrix was the most awesome thing anybody had ever seen. I’ve also added o-rings to the back of each key to add some refinement to the clackity-clack.

Productivity gain: A few words per minute.

Procrastination gain: Several weeks research, plus extra time waiting for your perfect configuration to be back in stock, plus extra time for modding it when it’s not quite perfect after all.

 

Headphones

Headphones help you hear things. Mine are old and plastic-squeaky, so moving my jaw/chewing food/speaking to team mates in-game while playing is very loud. Needless to say this is not exactly the kind of thing headphones are supposed to help you hear. However, if you keep your jaw really still you can hear a few things that don’t come through the speakers well, or that would otherwise be muffled by city noise, and you can more clearly observe stereo effects.

Productivity gain: Bonus analytical accuracy.

Procrastination gain: Gosh darn, better play that game again with headphones in case I missed something.

 

The guts

Computers are complex machines that are made up of building blocks that fit together in standardised ways. Like Lego for nerds. They reward endless amounts of tinkering with either significant additions of functionality, slight performance improvements, or crippling system instability. Which of those you get is pretty much down to the luck of the draw.

Until recently I was running an extra video card in order to do more BOINC science tasks. I also run a nice sound card, and I’ve set up the fans to run extra cool and extra quiet so I can hear said sound card’s beautiful work. But I’ve recently stopped overclocking because it was causing random instabilities. I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed the performance drop, but my nerd cred hurts.

Procrastination gain: 1 hour per part installation or upgrade, plus 6 hours troubleshooting per part installation or upgrade. Also add 1 week per overclocking episode.

 

Portable computer

For when the computers at uni are also used by undergrads. A great thing to take with you to cafes, libraries and holidays so you can maintain the self-impression of productivity while chilling out. Basically the same as a desktop computer but less tinker-able. However, keen players can install an additional OS or three for multiplicative software maintenance requirements. Also, due to lower hardware resource overheads there’s often more incentive to spend time “optimising” how it runs.

Procrastination gain: An hour a month per OS for software updates. Several hours over the length of the PhD trying to connect to various WiFi networks (I’m looking at you Eduroam).

 

Printer/scanner/multifunction device

Invaluable for printing articles and for communicating with university departments that haven’t yet digitised any of their paperwork. A mainstay of any home office, the multifunction device (literally: the thing that does all of the things) can also help budding academics to do all of the things. Keen observers will note that I am employing a Hart Industries Make-a-Multifunction Adapter Kit (literally: three pieces of wood and some screws) to minimise device footprint while maintaining full functionality.

Productivity gain: Lets you print and scan things, so you don’t have to trek to a library just to renew society memberships.

Procrastination gain: Kit construction ~1/2 day. Maintenance and upkeep: a few hours whenever you can least spare them (see also Office Space, Mike Judge, 1999).

 

Raspberry Pi

For when your thesis doesn’t contain enough Linux. Useful for nearly any task, but often less useful for any of those tasks than a device created specifically for that task. But look at them, they’re such cute little computers! And a high cable/LED/footprint ratio, so they look like serious business. I have an RPi model B that runs as a print server and a VPN server, and an RPi 2 than does automated backups of my thesis every hour or so. Both also run BOINC science tasks (very slowly, but they’re always on so at least they’re doing something).

Procrastination gain: If you already know how to Linux, 2+ hours every time you think of something else you can make them do. If you don’t know how to Linux, this is a procrastination goldmine of indeterminate depth — good luck.

 

Lo-fi information storage and communication devices

There are three kinds of books: 1. books that tell you stuff, 2. books that tell you stuff that isn’t real, and 3. books where you tell them the stuff. All of these smell better that computers and only require a source of light to be usable (and in case 3, a writing implement). So, in the inevitable event that one of the various proposed apocalypses occurs and worldwide electricity grids go down, you can still complete your PhD on video games the old-school way. Except for the case study chapters. And now with more of a historical than a theoretical flavour. And with a near-crippling suspicion that you’re wasting your life and should probably be out gathering resources (which may or may not be standard anyway).

Productivity gain: Can enable your thesis work to proceed post-apocalypse. At least until you get eaten by a zombie because you were reading and not running — reverts to an interminable state of procrastination at that point

Procrastination gain: You could read a thousand books a day for 100 years and still not get through all the books in the world. Go nuts.

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Published: Hard Boiled Music

My article “Hard Boiled Music: The Case of L.A. Noire” has been published in issue five of the online journal Screen Sound: The Australasian Journal of Soundtrack Studies. It’s related to a paper I gave at the MSA/NZMS conference 2013 and the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music in 2014. It was fun to write — I’m a pretty big fan of Raymond Chandler’s novels so drawing links back to his work and style was pretty great.

From the abstract:

Comparing L.A. Noire to notable examples from film, television and literature, this article discusses the game’s explicit attempt to be an authentic jeu noir and its musical accompaniment to crime and justice in 1940s Los Angeles. By exploring the origins of the game’s musical aesthetic, this article determines L.A. Noire’s relationship with the noir tradition. Although the game’s strong links to period noir film are unsurprising, L.A. Noire’s nexus of period style and open-form gameplay connects the player to film noir’s earliest influences, allowing exploration of both a constructed history and the notion of ‘noir’ itself. Accordingly, L.A. Noire should be considered as a progression, rather than a derivation, of the noir tradition.

Go have a read! Also, Screen Sound is open access and is one of the few journals to focus on screen media music studies in this part of the world, so check it out while you’re there.

Terminological Technicalities

I recently* asked my facebook friends the following:

1. Do you prefer to use the term ‘video game’, ‘video-game’, ‘videogame’ or ‘computer game’?
2. Do you think it’s an arbitrary choice?

This was inspired by having “video game” corrected to “video-game” in compound forms (such as “video-game music”) during a review process, a correction I found a little odd. While it seems to be a matter of grammar, it did get me thinking about how even the most fundamental terminology can be up for discussion.

My readings of video game theory etc. tend to indicate that there’s no single accepted form. A lengthy treatise on some aspect of video games will sometimes discuss the matter briefly, indicating (more or less) that the author thinks each term has these or those pros and cons but that they prefer the particular term they’ll use because reasons. Karen Collins often refers to “video games audio”, David Myers chooses “computer game”, and both “videogame” and “video game” are well represented in academic discourse and the press. Each has good points and bad points. I prefer “video game” because reasons. Well, because habit really. I know I thought about it for a while when I was writing my honours thesis, but I can’t remember the details of that inner dialogue — I just know it must have happened, because until then I used “computer game”.

Anyway, I asked my friends the question above. As expected, there was a fairly even representation between “video game” and “videogame”, with a slight preference towards “video game”, and a few preferences for “computer game” or “console game”. There was fairly wide consensus that “video-game” wasn’t an option. Two editor friends pointed out that a hyphenated form is sometimes used when a compound modifies a noun, but that since “video game” is an accepted form (a head word in the Macquarie Dictionary, also accepted by the OED) the hyphenated form probably shouldn’t be used. Aside from that, the difference between “video game” and “videogame” did seem to come down to personal preference and/or local conventions, i.e. US or UK or Australian English usage norms.

The more divisive question was whether “video*game” or “computer game” was more accurate. This tended to boil down to technological factors and preferences, but there also emerged a sense that “video*game” was a conventional term that has perhaps outlived its accuracy. My friend Darvids0n made this point:

Video game is what I say, but computer game is what I mean…. Any console, handheld, phone/tablet/phablet or personal computer is now classifiable as a ‘computer’ imo, and definitely not merely a ‘video’ device. Smart TVs are even computers.

My friend Kyle made this point:

computer game – noun – a game utilizing a computer
video game – noun – a computer game with moving images

which agrees with another point made by Darvids0n:

Whack-A-Mole is not a video game but it is a computer game (arcade if you want to be pedantic)

(which makes the assumption, I presume, that the arcade game has some electronic controls behind it – probably a safe assumption for later versions of the game). In favour of using different terms based on the device on which you’re playing, another friend, Toby, said:

I use “video game” when I’m talking about something played on the TV and “computer game” for one on my computer. In any other situation I’d probably just say “game”

while Evan said:

Computer game and console game. This differentiates primarily between keyboard/mouse and controller based input. Video game is too old and non-specific for me – it’s like ‘moving pictures’.

However, Kyle counter-argued in favour of a text-based rather than device-based classification:

Is minecraft a computer game one day and a console game the next depending on how you’re playing it? No. It is a video game, plain and simple.

I see merit in both these arguments — the device on which you play can greatly affect your experience of a game, and yet if you play the same game on different devices you’re likely to get a very similar experience. Personally I think there’s a good case to be made for sticking with a conventional term like “video game” for the medium as a whole, and using more specific terms as required.

Take Osmos (Hemisphere Games, 2009) for example. This game is available on nearly all platforms — Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android — and the player experience is quite similar on each aside from the user input aspect (I think the touch screens of mobile devices work best, but the mouse is just as usable). I’ve played it most on my phone so I kinda think of it as a mobile game. But on my computer it works as a computer game, with near identical visual and sonic experiences. If I were discussing the similarities between the phone and computer experiences, I could differentiate using the terms “mobile game” and “computer game”; likewise if I were discussing the differences in the haptic experiences. But if I’m just talking about Osmos as a text, the term “video game” works perfectly well.

And yet, the term “video game” does seem, in Evan’s words, “too old and non-specific” in a sense. Many computer games use moving images, but I think it’s difficult to argue that the moving images are all that sets them apart from other games (music, anyone?). Two friends called Paul contributed thoughts on this point — Paul 1 believed that the distinctions between the terms discussed were arbitrary because:

We misuse the word ‘game’ in ‘video game’ so much that being finicky about the word ‘video’ seems silly

While Paul 2 preferred the term “videogame” because:

While board games are games played on boards, you can argue that video.*games don’t require videos or games (in the traditional sense). They’re a new form of media so they ought to be given a single-word name.

Regardless of the terminology chosen, video games can differ markedly from other forms of games even to the point where the definition of “game” is a relevant discussion. It’s possible that the terms “digital game” or “electronic game” create a subset of “game” sufficiently different from other game forms and sufficiently encompassing of the diversity found in games on computers, consoles, mobiles and tamagotchis. Some do use these terms, and I have to admit the reasons seem compelling, but not quite compelling enough to overcome convention. It’s nice when people know what you’re talking about immediately, and “ludomusicology” is a term that tends to use up many of the explainings. Or, perhaps we could follow my friend Andy‘s advice:

People should start saying vig for [VI]deo [G]ame. Along the same lines as movie for moving picture. I’ll inform the President of Games about this.

All in all, it was an interesting discussion. And it relates to a number of different discussions I’ve come across through my studies — ludology versus narratology, “semiology” versus “semiotics”, the rise and significance of mobile gaming, etc.  If you have any further thoughts, let me know in the comments or on the socials.

 

*Because I started writing this post in 2014 it’s probably best to consider this term in the cosmological time scale

Re-Welcome!

Welcome to the new Eine Kleine Pwnmusik!

Along with a new site there’s a new platform and a redesign! Well, a new blog theme, but hey. It’s taken me about a year to get around to learning how to WordPress, which is part of the reason this blog has been silent. The other reasons are a) work, b) thesis, and c) I’m lazy.

“I’ve never been a particularly good blog updater type”
— Iain, July 2014

I’ve got a bunch of draft posts that haven’t reached publication yet, so I’ll get some of those pushed out soon. I’ll also get into some of my recent game experiences in Skyrim (finally finished the main quest), EVE Online, and a few indie games I’ve tried lately. Stay tuned!

Published!

Finally!

My article “Meaningful Play: Performativity, Interactivity and Semiotics in Video Game Music” has been published in Musicology Australia, the journal of the Musicological Society of Australia. It follows directly from a paper I gave at the Performative Voices conference at the University of South Australia in 2012, and which I also gave (slightly revised) at the Ludo 2013 and MaMI 2013 conferences.

From the abstract:

Through an understanding of interactivity as a performative act, we can treat the musical experience of gameplay as the text to be studied—a text the player has a non-trivial role in creating. The player’s unique series of actions during gameplay evolves into an interpretation of the designers’ complete, preconceived game experience. Similarly, although music is received in a series of unique contexts during gameplay, the player’s actions shape the music into an interpretation of the musical experience envisioned by the composer… Video game music exhibits a twofold semiosis, the analysis of which must contextualise both the music’s initial composition and the player’s interactivity in relation to the complete musical experience.

The article can be found online here. If you have institutional access, go have a read!

Reflections on the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music

At the time of writing* I’m sitting in Pittsburgh International Airport, looking out on the snow-covered concrete while I wait for my flight home. I’ve just attended the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music at Youngstown State University. I’m a bit of a nervous traveller sometimes so I’ve given myself a 6hr wait, which is about half way through. But Pittsburgh Airport is large and near-empty; the classical music playing over the PA and the solitude (relative to Sydney or Los Angeles) is calming. And I’ve had a good weekend, and I’m heading home, so I’m feeling pretty good.

The conference—the first of its kind in North America—was full of interesting and varied papers from academics across the US, together with a few from Canada and myself. As I did after the Ludo2013 conference last year in Liverpool, I’m coming away inspired, intimidated, encouraged, daunted and (perhaps least surprisingly) keen to play more games. Among the papers, only a few games were discussed by more than one presenter, which speaks to the diversity of the work going on in this field at the moment. Enoch Jacobus’ and Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey’s papers on BioShock Infinite made me even more keen to get through the first two BioShock games so I can play it. I’ve added the quirky game Catherine to my list of games to buy a PS3 for after Will Gibbons’ paper on its dualities reminded me of its unique weirdness. And the fact that I haven’t played any Zelda or Final Fantasy games is really starting to feel like a hindrance. I think I’ll have to get some kind of AV switch box thing so I can plug my PlayStation and N64 into my HDMI-only monitor. I don’t often miss having a TV, but for things like this it would be rather useful.

The first two papers, by Dana Plank-Blasko and William Ayers, discussed alterations of Bach and Chopin pieces respectively; Dana demonstrating a mistranscription of Bach’s BWV 565 in the NES version of Captain Comic was an excellent way to start the conference. I enjoyed Steven Reale’s paper on Portal and William O’Hara’s paper on Proteus, both games that give exceptional musical experiences and that I’ve a lot of respect for. Nick Exler gave a paper in which he used a Schenkerian analysis of a Zelda melody, and Elizabeth Medina-Gray constructed a method for analysing smoothness in game music transitions, leaving me convinced I need to bulk up my analytical muscles. Matthew Thompson’s paper on his experiences teaching a music appreciation course using video game music was very warmly received, with many welcoming his pedagogical approach and applauding his successes. And I resonated with Peter Shultz’s paper that challenged the adaptive-is-always-better approach to game scores (perhaps unsurprisingly, as I’m an Elder Scrolls fan).

The keynote address came from Karen Collins, who is among the most prolific and inspiring researchers in the field. Her address did raise a lot of questions among those present, both about the future of the field and the nature of what we’re doing. Collins’ response to a question from Steven Reale about the term “ludomusicology” provoked a great deal of discussion for the remainder of the conference. Many agreed with Collins in thinking that the term was virtually indecipherable to most people and was therefore unhelpful. Others believed that the term is useful because it lends legitimacy to the field. A few made the good point that both “ludomusicology” and “video game music studies” can be useful according to who you’re talking to. I think I agree with this last idea. There were three things that convinced undergraduate me it was possible to study video game music:

  1. There were books published on game music (most notably Collins’ Game Sound)
  2. There was an organised group of researchers studying game music (shout out to the Ludomusicology Research Group), and
  3. People had bothered to give a name to the field.

These things indicated that people studying video game music took their research seriously, and that they considered their research field to be a field in its own right, rather than a sub-field or a side project. That kind of thing is invaluable to a young researcher about to invest their future in a field. It gives such a student courage in the face of almost certain opposition and/or apathy (from institutions and fellow students alike). At least, it did for me. And as I watch the term be understood and even used by a growing number of academics at my institution, I’m convinced it’s helping contextualise my work within the respected body of knowledge. That said, it’s still just a Greek word play, and it’s not the hill I’m going to die on.

All told, it was another engaging and inspiring conference—which, for a young academic field, is a huge success. I’m very glad to have been able to attend, and I’m looking forward to the next stages of ludomusicological research in North America and throughout the world. And I’m all the more inspired to start a ludomusicological research group on this side of the world, if only so I can make everyone else spend 20 hours on a plane to get to a conference.

Press coverage of the conference:
Vindy: http://www.vindy.com/news/2014/jan/19/ysu-forum-explores-music-in-video-games/
Wired: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2014/01/game-music/
YSU YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRsLZjIHDmE

*Though not at the time of publication — I’ve been back in Australia for about five days. I’m a slow blogger.
 

Reflections on the MSA/NZMS 2013 conference and my own place in the world

I’m in Brisbane at the moment, having attended the joint annual conference of the Musicological Society of Australia together with the New Zealand Musicological Society this week. It’s been an intellectually stimulating week of papers from a truly diverse range of disciplines. As I usually do after a conference, I’m coming away with a head full of ideas and an inexplicable desire to start composing again. But that will definitely have to remain a hobby (at best) for the time being since, as I might mention a bit further down, things been hella busy.

I mentioned a diverse range of disciplines, and I wasn’t kidding. Highlights included a set of papers suggesting that certain composers should be considered as modernists, a paper on “the cup game” and its role in high school musical culture, a paper on the metal scene and underground sub-scene of Adelaide, a paper on remodernism in the work of a Georgian composer, a paper denouncing the labelling of Reich’s “Different Trains” as documentary, a paper on the inaccuracies (and otherwise) of an amateur scribe, a paper on child soldier musicians in Australia and England, and another set of papers on creativity in the recording/producing processes. My favourite thing about conferences like this is that your mind is stretched in so many different directions. Quite beyond just being interesting, it helps me think about my own work in new ways.

Also thought-provoking was the discussion around music and musicology’s place in Australian university culture and the nation’s culture at large. What I heard, and what resonated with me, was that there’s a certain sense of entitlement among musical practitioners, educators and theorists regarding access to the public purse which stands in direct opposition to the uniquely anti-intellectual, anti-academic rhetoric and mentality found in Australia. The call was to be responsible and to be able to justify your place—this is something I struggle with frequently, and I suspect that’s because I don’t fully expect people would accept my justification, even if I had a good argument prepared. I think I can justify my research to someone who’s sold on the notion that the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms is beneficial to society, but people (and even universities) these days don’t seem to buy that without significant discounts. But quite apart from my puny little PhD, I find it disturbing that music itself is falling under the same ire. I guess when Spotify etc. let you access music ad nauseum, musical practitioners seem as abstract and irrelevant as a cow does to a supermarket-bought scotch fillet. Super sad.

The presentation of my own paper on L.A. Noire‘s place in the noir tradition went well. I had a chance in the week leading up to the conference to re-do some of the video examples, and I think it paid off. Removing the part where I crash a car into a power pole certainly made me look more professional. The questions I received afterwards were helpful, as always—I often feel as though I learn more from the questions than I impart in the presentation. But it’s particularly good to have had another chance to discuss ludomusicology on the national stage. I’m slowly getting more of an idea of who’s interested in this field in Australia, and while numbers are small I’m hopeful that talking and presenting can help change that.

My big stack of work at the moment is finishing off the article version of this paper and sending that off for publication (hopefully). I aim to get that finished ASAP so I can start working on EVE Online and its multiple musical experiences, which I’m quite excited to do. Things are busy, but they’re moving forward.