Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination, by William Cheng

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Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination, by William Cheng.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.  ISBN: 0199969973. 

Video games have spawned sizable communities of devoted fans, professional gamers, and casual players, to the extent that this audio-visual-haptic multimedia is currently a significant component of many peoples’ lives. The Entertainment Software Association estimated in an April 2015 report that 42% of Americans play video games regularly (for 3 or more hours per week).1 Along with visuals and physical actions, sound—music, sound effects, voices, and so on—is a critical and intriguing part of the way (most) players interact with and relate to video games.

In Sound Play, William Cheng—Assistant Professor of Music at Dartmouth College and Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows—examines video game sound in the context of broader cultural and social issues, from agency and nostalgia, to violence and fear, among others. By focusing on audio in and around games, Sound Play probes humans’ relationships to sound, technology, and each other, and questions what games can reveal about other people and oneself. Cheng brings a deep knowledge of his subject as both a musicologist and a gamer, and the result is an exceedingly thoughtful and provocative book. Throughout Sound Play, Cheng demonstrates convincingly the importance of video game music and other sound as a locus of player experimentation and imagination, and the value of scholarly attention to this multimedia.

At its core, Sound Play engages with questions of the virtual and the real, which reappear in many guises in studies of technology and games, and Cheng does a masterful job of teasing apart these issues and spinning them out into compelling lines of inquiry. As Cheng puts it in the prologue, “Many games grant opportunities to interact with audio phenomena in manners that might not be prudent, practical, or possible in the physical world. In virtual environments, there’s unusual license to play with sound, to push the boundaries of its signifying and sensational capabilities in diverse, fantastical contexts.”2 Sound Play proceeds to examine game sound in its myriad real/virtual manifestations: What happens when real bodies, environments, and sounds come up against or even become virtual ones, and vice versa? Indeed, where is the line between virtual and real in a medium where (for example) an in-game synthesized aria is revered as a heart-wrenching fan favorite and performed years later by live singers in concert (Chapter 2), and where players project their own voices over online multiplayer gameplay to affirm or obscure their identities, or to provoke, or harass (Chapter 5)?

As Cheng confronts the virtual/real divide and related issues (including liveness and authenticity), he consistently returns to larger questions of ethics, social norms, and rules of behavior. With such wide-reaching humanistic purview, Sound Play is a vital contribution to the relatively young field of game music and sound studies, as well as musicology at large.

Sound Play’s importance hinges on three main strengths: First, along with Kiri Miller’s 2012 book Playing Along, Cheng provides one of the few existing ethnographic approaches to video game sound.3  In Sound Play’s final two chapters, Cheng pulls from his own extensive fieldwork in two online multiplayer environments, each with their own emergent social norms, player debates, and codes of conduct. Throughout most of the book, Cheng also carefully sources other types of user data, mainly gathered from online forums and interviews. This player-generated information not only reveals popular and personal views regarding the specific games that Cheng treats, but it also highlights these games’ cultural resonance—read: value as objects of study. Second, Sound Play benefits from Cheng’s impressive command over scholarship in diverse topics and disciplines; he thoroughly references discourses on noise, violence and music, the voice, and other wide-ranging topics as appropriate. Sound Play’s high quality of scholarship places video games into dialogue with such existing discourses while highlighting some of the many productive directions from which one might approach a study of this multimedia. Perhaps the biggest strength of the volume, however, is Cheng’s deep and insightful readings of the games he examines, which—especially in the first three chapters—typically hinge on his own gameplay experiences and reflections on those experiences, relayed with a storyteller’s command. Cheng’s self-examinations of his unique thoughts and reactions while playing games show in a personal way what games and game sound can do.

Sound Play is organized around five main case studies of specific video games—one per chapter—and Cheng places each study in fluent dialogue with a broader purview of other games, films, and scholarly discourse. With this contextualization, the case studies point to wider popular and humanistic concerns, while setting into relief the particularly unique and intriguing aspects of each game.

Chapter 1 examines the real-world music—patriotic American music, popular music of the 1930s and 40s, and classical violin music—that plays over in-game radios in the post-apocalyptic world of the action role-playing game Fallout 3. Observations of the incongruence between this upbeat music and the often gritty and bloody gameplay leads Cheng to engage with wider discourses on music and violence as well as art’s role after catastrophic events. Cheng uses this case study—including other players’ attitudes toward the radio music expressed in online forums—to probe moral and ethical questions of music in relation to violence, and how players’ actions in games might interface with (contradict, question, hint at) their real-world beliefs. Such a discussion is timely considering the ongoing public debates about whether video games could be vectors for real-world violence, and Cheng provides a careful and reasoned examination of this issue, with music’s signifying and affective potential at the fore.

In a particularly fascinating passage in this first chapter, Cheng tells of how, in one playthrough of Fallout 3, he found himself—without fully intending to do so—pressing a button to detonate a bomb and destroy an in-game town in time with the finale of a Sousa march. In his account of his thoughts at the time and his later reflections on these actions, Cheng examines issues of performance (he was recording his actions for others to later see), compulsion (did the music partially trigger his destructive act?), boundaries between pragmatics and morals in games, and disturbing mimetic similarities between the press of a button on a keyboard and the avatar’s corresponding press of a red button in the game. Such tensions between the virtual and the real—and between just-a-game and not-just-a-game mindsets—are here dramatically emphasized, and they resonate throughout the rest of the book.

Chapter 2 turns to an aria from a playable opera scene in the role-playing game Final Fantasy VI. This song—composed for the game by Nobuo Uematsu—has become a particular fan favorite and undergone numerous fan-driven revivals and transformations—on YouTube, in live concerts, and so on—since its original appearance in the 1994 game. Cheng examines how this aria (as well as the sound of a villain’s laughter in the game) can have had such ongoing resonance with players, especially given that the original aria is so sonically sparse: a consistent synthesized “ah”-like timbre with visual superimposed text. In sourcing fan comments on YouTube videos as well as scholarly discourse on the voice, Cheng explores issues of nostalgia and how these technologically-limited sounds might have stimulated players’ imaginations to long-lasting effects. At the center of this chapter is the idea that voices are particularly powerful sounds, even—Cheng argues—when synthesized, and even when not immediately linguistic. In discussing the synthesized timbres of singing voices in Final Fantasy VI, Cheng raises the tantalizing notion that the game’s other musical themes—which underscore nearly the entire game—might also evoke characters’ voices, bringing the entire game closer to an opera than it might initially seem.

In Chapter 3, Cheng uses the survival-horror game Silent Hill to explore issues of control, both in terms of players’ expectations of control in a game (fulfilled and subverted) and ways in which games can control players—emotionally, physiologically, and ludically (e.g., when players comply with how they think a game should be played). Two types of sounds in this game provoke discussions of control and the virtual/real divide: First, the industrial noises in Silent Hill’s virtual soundscape and/or musical underscore can sometimes seem to come from the real world, or can absorb real-world sounds into the game’s sphere, intensifying player uncertainty and irrational fear (on which horror media so fundamentally play). Cheng recounts a compelling example from his own experience playing Silent Hill, in which he noted a faint mechanical hum that—alarmingly—persisted even after he turned off the game. Even his subsequent realization that the sound had actually been coming from his own refrigerator all along couldn’t erase the fear in the moment that the game’s horrific environment apparently bled into Cheng’s own. Second, static on an in-game radio alerts the player throughout the game to the presence of monsters, but not their precise location, leading to an engrained/reactive type of fear response that Cheng contrasts with the type of instantaneous fear provoked by the jump scares that are more common in horror media. Chapter 3 presents the only case study in Sound Play that does not reference other players’ views gathered online or through interviews, but this is by no means a pitfall; instead, Cheng engages with an already rich vein of other scholars’ discussions of Silent Hill—themselves implicitly players—along with broader academic discourse on noise, monsters, and horror media.

Sound Play’s fourth and fifth chapters draw from Cheng’s extensive fieldwork—including observations of gameplay and interviews with players—in two online multiplayer games: The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and Team Fortress 2, respectively. In these chapters, interpersonal interactions across the virtual/real boundary come especially to the fore, as each game gives rise to its own ethical issues and debates among players regarding the use of sound in relation to the game. Chapter 4 examines musical authenticity and transgression in a virtual environment where players can perform music—which is audible to any other players with nearby avatars—either note-by-note (mapping particular notes to keyboard keys) or wholesale (triggering a pre-composed piece of music with a single button press). Cheng reveals players’ debates about who should play music in LOTRO, and how and under what circumstances music should be played, and he places these topics in dialogue with wider discourse about recorded sound, aesthetics, copyright/ownership, and music’s perceived privileged status versus its accessibility. These issues become especially pertinent in two situations Cheng observed in which players used music to purposefully annoy other players; Cheng casts such “griefing” as yet another facet of experimentation and play, and one that tests the boundaries of music’s appropriate use within the game’s technically allowable actions.

In his examination of Team Fortress 2 in Chapter 5, Cheng again considers the power of voices, but rather than the synthesized voices from Chapter 2, he here deals with the implications of real players’ voices projected over multiplayer gameplay. The main questions here are how—and to what extent—these voices reflect/affirm/obscure the real bodies they belong to, and Cheng uses these issues to complicate other authors’ assumptions of the voice’s authenticity, especially in a medium where voice-changing technology and performative personas are possible. Issues of gender are a central theme in this chapter, and especially female players’ experiences in online games; Cheng casts female players as closeted (presumed male) until they choose to out themselves, often by speaking. In a community that many players assume to consist primarily of teenaged or adult males (reaffirmed by the preponderance of voices that fit readily into that category), players that are perceived as somehow other—female or pre-adolescent—stand out. Cheng probes issues of harassment in such communities through interviews with several players who espouse varying points of view, leading to problematic blurred boundaries between the virtual and the real. This research is especially relevant in light of current trends of virtual harassment and threats of real-world injury that center around some portions of the gaming community.

With its groundbreaking research and insightful discussions, there is much to recommend about Sound Play, and very little to criticize. One might wish for Cheng to more firmly connect virtual harassment to real-world harm in Chapter 5 than he does, but his overall neutral tone is understandable given the academic setting, and he has since made this connection more explicit in a recent article for the Huffington Post.4  Even beyond Sound Play’s high quality of research and significant insight, moreover, the book is a joy to read, mainly owing to the fact that Cheng handily fulfills his promise of a “rigorous yet playful” tone.5  Word play seems especially appropriate given the book’s title and topic, and Cheng’s prose frequently includes quirky music- and game-based references that serve as treats for those in the know (e.g., the chapter subheading “The Hill is Alive” in a discussion of the game Silent Hill’s uncanny, almost-living qualities6). Personal stories and active—and at times casual—language balance the heavier theoretical discourse and contribute to the book’s accessibility for readers from a variety of backgrounds.

Although Sound Play is aimed primarily at music-academic audiences, most of the book remains readily approachable for non-specialized readers, as well as readers without a musical background. Musical terms (e.g., “double stops,” “portamenti”) and excerpts of scores in musical notation appear in most chapters and enhance the discussion for readers comfortable with this material, but Cheng does not conduct music-theoretical analyses, and his discussions do not require that readers have a technical understanding of music to be able to follow and engage with the challenging issues he raises.

For readers unfamiliar with video games and game sound studies, Sound Play provides a powerful introduction to these topics and will hopefully pique readers’ interests to examine the games in Cheng’s case studies further (beginning with the gameplay videos from his fieldwork that appear on the book’s accompanying website). For readers already experienced with gaming cultures, Cheng opens novel and productive lines of inquiry into what are likely to be some familiar games. In Sound Play, Cheng ably argues for a serious academic treatment of video game sound and music, while reminding us that play—in games, in music, and in scholarship—is also valuable.


1. Entertainment Software Association, Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry, April 2015. This report is based on a survey of over 4,000 American households. The cited statistic encompasses all genres and types of video games, including social, mobile, puzzle, action, online, and so on.
2. Cheng, Sound Play, 5.
3. Kiri Miller, Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
4. William Cheng, “Gamergate’s Cold War,” Huffington Post, June 26, 2015
5. Cheng, Sound Play, 18.
6. Ibid., 94.

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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2019

Elizabeth Medina-Gray

Elizabeth Medina-Gray received her Ph.D. in Music Theory from Yale University in 2014, where she completed her dissertation on the analysis of modular music in video games. Her research interests include music in video games and interactive multimedia, and 20th-century tonal music. 

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