Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Conference Report: Video Game Music

by Ryan Thompson

I enjoyed speaking at the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music, which took place at Youngstown State University during the holiday weekend of January 17–20. Conference organizer Steven Reale and his program committee, chaired by William Gibbons, showed, indisputably, how the small research conference—I'm carefully avoiding the word “niche”—remains a critical venue in our field. One especially nice touch was the art exhibit by the gathering space: brief videos showed the faces of game players as they worked through a first-person-shooter.

The breadth of game and music repertoire explored at the conference dispelled any notion that the field is narrowly defined. Presenters employed a variety of approaches, including source studies (Dana Plank-Blasko’s paper revealed some missing accidentals in implementations of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, while Eugene Belianski shared his work on the iMUSE engine, the interactive music system used in Monkey Island 2); Schenkerian and other methods of analysis (including a well-spoken presentation by an undergraduate student); semiotic domains (my own presentation on audio in “eSports” games); mismatched aesthetics (1912 arrangements of the Beach Boys and Cindi Lauper in Bioshock Infinite); connections between games and film in papers by Neil Lerner and Iain Hart; and the incorporation of gameplay themes into musical ones and vice versa (Steven Reale’s presentation on Portal 2).

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Karen Collins’s keynote address noted a common problem faced by nascent research areas: since there are so few people studying video game music, there are by extension few peers to review our work adequately. Whereas a mistake in a Brahms biography is corrected immediately by other specialists, errors in video-game history are likely to go unnoticed—or, worse, be cited as fact is subsequent work. Collins, whose own research has documented the history of pinball machines and their mechanical predecessors, encouraged the adoption of a broad definition of “games,” and to tread carefully in creating canons. Canon formation, as important as it can be, also runs the risk of excluding wide swaths of potentially significant research materials. A cursory glance at the conference program reveals the many types of video games that remain in need of further study. Toys specifically designed for and marketed to children come to mind (like the Leapster line of products), as do slot machines and gambling devices of any sort, all of which fall under the wide umbrella of “video games.”

It was bracing that Steven Reale had invited so engaging a group of Youngstown State undergraduate students to attend the conference. Having an interested, participatory body of young college students was motivating (and a sign of good things to come for the future of musicology, video games aside). If the field at large learns one lesson from this event, I hope it is that energetic and enthusiastic students can powerfully transform a conference. I look forward to the work these scholars will accomplish, and of course to next year’s conference.


Ryan Thompson is a Ph.D. student in musicology at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses primarily on exploring relationships between audio and gameplay. He has previously presented on Left 4 Dead, Bastion, and Final Fantasy VI at the Music and the Moving Image conference held at New York University. In his spare time, Ryan contributes to video game music community OverClocked ReMix. When he is not spending time researching or playing with his one-year old son, he can be found online as @BardicKnowledge in various places around the web.

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