Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play edited by Michael Austin

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2018.58.sr.11374

In the ever-growing catalogue of literature on video game music, much critical attention has been paid to one particular genre: the rhythm action game, or more broadly, the music video game. In his introduction to Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play, Michael Austin sets the parameters for inclusion in this category as those games whose “formal elements... are musical in nature.”1Michael Austin, “Introduction- Taking Note of Music Games,” in Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play, ed. Michael Austin (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2016), 2. Given the crucial role music plays in the mechanics, structure, and narrative of these games, a collected volume dedicated to the subject was inevitable. In Music Video Games, the work of fourteen different authors fills this gap.

The eleven chapters of the book are divided into three sections, roughly grouped together by subject. The articles are bookended by Austin’s introduction and a brief afterward penned by William Cheng. Austin lays out goals for the volume in the introduction, which include examinations of musical play and interactivity, the use of video games as musical instruments, and performativity. These topics, along with uniquely musical games such as Guitar Hero, have long been common subjects in the discourse.For a discussion of play and interactivity, see Karen Collins, Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games, (London and Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013). For video game as instruments, see the chapters by Roger Moseley, Aya Saiki, and Steven Beverburg Reale in K.J. Donnelly, William Gibbons, and Neil Lerner, ed., Music in Video Games: Studying Play (New York and London: Routledge, 2014). For Performativity, see Kiri Miller, Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). Music Video Games differs from these studies in its interdisciplinary inclusion beyond the musical realm, both in authorship and intended audience. Musicologists and theorists are joined by general historians, sociologists, pedagogues, psychologists, and media and communications scholars. The resulting diversity of method and viewpoint is the core of this volume’s value.

The first section of the text contains the most disparate assortment of subject matter. William Knoblauch leads off with a history of the production and development of SIMON. Knoblauch ably explains that, though it was perhaps not the first true music video game, SIMON introduced several features which later influence the genre. Designed by Ralph Baer, considered one of the fathers of video games thanks to his work on the Magnavox Odyssey, SIMON was released in 1977 just as video games were reaching the height of their market power. SIMON foreshadows future music video game features with musically-integrated gameplay, difficulty toggling, and the marketability of inexpensive gadgets amid costly competitive merchandise.

Through her examination of Mario Paint Composer, Dana M. Plank uncovers larger critical issues of nostalgia, the lure of limited creation, and online community participation. The original 1992 Mario Paint was a free-form game in which players could paint digital artwork. A secondary feature of the game was a composition program limited to a few sound samples in C major, all themed on images from Nintendo’s iconic Mario series. Mario Paint Composer released as an expansion of the compositional capabilities, while still retaining some of the limitations which had charmed users over a decade before. Exploring YouTube videos and online MPC forums, Plank explains that the updated program’s allure comes from the desire to engage in community participation and re-presentation of shared memory.

Stephanie Lind examines the interactions between diegetic and non-diegetic music in the popular title The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), and proposes that interplay between the two increases player immersion and engagement. Lind collects all the songs in Ocarina that the player can perform on the titular diegetic instrument and categorizes them according to their function: songs which advance the plot, provide assistance (such as calling the character’s horse), and warp the player’s character to predetermined locations. Plot and assistance songs have non-diegetic corroborations in the underscore and the player’s partial control of crucial leitmotivic elements of the music blurs its diegetic status, which in turn creates a deeper sense of immersion. Lind’s categorization of the melodies is useful, though a more thorough investigation of the player-created “Scarecrow Song” would have bolstered her discussion.

By examining two games, Chiptune Runner and My Singing Monsters, Michael Austin demonstrates that music video games emulate many attributes of music sequencers and as such, should be considered legitimate instruments and avenues for composition. Austin applies the methodology of game theorists Robin Hunicke, Mark LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek to both sequencers and his two case studies. The largest difference between sequencers and the two games is in-game aesthetics. Chiptune Runner, a platformer in which players must navigate obstacles by jumping in time to music, contains the elements of a sequencer and compositional expression cloaked under gamified goals. My Singing Monsters focuses more on music creation, allowing players to program a custom “sequencer” in the form of collectable monsters. Austin leaves little question as to the compositional capabilities of these games, and he opens doors for further study of the music’s authenticity and its potential audiences.

Studies of player interaction and assumption of musical persona comprise the second portion of the text. Mario A. Dozal examines two popular series, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and determines that the evolution of their creative intentions from attempts to recreate rock-star fantasy (which he labels “counterfeit performance”) to corporate commodification explains their meteoric rise and subsequent decline in popularity. Dozal identifies key moments in the series’ respective chronologies when the production teams “sold out.” The sale of Harmonix and RedOctane (the developers behind Guitar Hero and Rock Band, respectively) to larger conglomerates led to more extensive product placement and moved the games away from their original artistic intention as entertainment. In addition, the later entries in the two rhythm games suffered from over-serialization, in both game and periphery production, and licensing wars in which the companies obtained as many exclusive artist rights as possible.

Through the examination of two games featuring Michael Jackson, Melanie Fritsch discusses the portrayal of musical persona and to what extent players are able to fill the shoes of Jackson, and by extension, other celebrity characters. Drawing from popular culture scholars Mats Johansson and Michael Mario Albrecht and performance studies scholar Philip Auslander, Fritsch argues that Jackson’s musical persona is defined by its ambiguity (of musical style and lifestyle). While Jackson certainly had a hand in the construction of this indeterminate persona, audience appropriation plays an even larger role. These ideas are applied differently in two games, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1990) and Michael Jackson: The Experience (2010). Players of the former game control Jackson, who uses his signature dance moves to attack enemies and progress through the game. All the while, players can enjoy a limited MIDI selection of the performer’s most popular songs. The Experience, a karaoke and dance game, puts players directly in Jackson’s persona by requiring that they physically perform his dance moves. Each game successfully transfers something of what made Jackson’s musical persona so memorable but in both cases, poor game mechanics holds back the personification.

Following Jacques Attali’s divisions of musical political economy, David Arditi explores the ways in which music video games facilitate creation for its own sake. According to Arditi, music is on the verge between Attali’s third and fourth divisions, repetition (music beholden to industrial capitalism) and composition (music creation for its own sake). Arditi sees potential for the realization of this somewhat utopian vision in virtual jam sessions made possible by games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. However, the author identifies several problems with these platforms for true musical creation. First, the platforms were created with the intention of commodification and second, in-game limitations allow only for rhythmic matching of pre-recorded tracks rather than free composition. Arditi briefly mentions other platforms more suitable for virtual jam sessions but does not significantly expound on these alternatives.

The final four chapters discuss musical education, both in and out of the classroom. David Roesner, Anna Paisley, and Gianna Cassidy investigate the pedagogical possibilities of music video games by exploring opportunities for creativity in the medium. Their article is a summarization of the initial findings of a network funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which brought together interdisciplinary scholars and teachers to explore the topic. As such, its methodologies and evidence run a wide gambit. The authors posit that creativity and musicality are not exclusive to music composition but can also be developed through games with predetermined actions and possibilities. They suggest that formal musical education benefits from the inclusion of music video games because they promote self-reliant learning, integrate easily amongst other disciplines, and crucially, give students a sense of both “being and becoming a musician.”David Roesner, Anna Paisley, and Gianna Cassidy, “Guitar Heroes in the Classroom: The Creative Potential of Music Games,” in Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play, ed. Michael Austin (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2016), 214.

Daniel O’Meara’s case study of Rocksmith addresses issues of developer intent and player interpretation. Designed in answer to criticisms of inauthenticity about games such as Guitar Hero, Rocksmith teaches players to learn real guitar. As O’Meara explains, the developer’s choices of visual aesthetic and difficulty curve subtly influence player interpretation of musical context and structure. The Rocksmith developers created a difficulty curve which reduces preexisting songs to absolute essentials. For example, “Islands” by The XX is reverse engineered from the original eighth note ostinato to whole notes in the easiest difficulty setting. As the difficulty rises, more notes are added yet the different levels often emphasize different rhythmic structures not found in the original song.

Peter Schultz analyzes the Rhythm Heaven series through the lens of “rhythm sense,” which in-game text differentiates from rhythm, saying, “Rhythm is the ability to count time intervals; rhythm sense is what you express, feel, and spontaneously engender through groove.”Peter Schultz, “Rhythm Sense: Modality and Enactive Perception in Rhythm Heaven,” in Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play, ed. Michael Austin (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2016), 265. Rhythm Heaven’s creators intended to improve the rhythm sense of its audience by forcing players to create internal rhythm against irregular or absent metric pulses and contradictory, often amusing, visual cues. One of Rhythm Heaven’s mini-games, “Hole-in-One,” has players control a golfer who must hit balls in time as a monkey tosses them in the air. This is further complicated when the drum track that previously helped timing disappears and other animals begin to throw golf balls at faster intervals. Schultz argues that the games intentionally cultivate a sixth sense (rhythmic sense) that functions similarly to touch, sound, sight, etc.

In the final article of the volume, Nathan Fleshner studies two mobile applications to highlight the lack of pitch-based mechanics in music video games. He contends that the more pitch-centered goals found in the iPad games Sundrop (2010) and Circadia (2013) offer valuable pedagogical tools for music theory classrooms beyond what is found in other rhythm games. Sundrop gives players the ability to compose music by placing lines on an X-Y axis upon which virtual balls are dropped to produce pitch and rhythm, dependent on the speed of the ball and placement of the lines. Circadia exchanges some compositional freedom for puzzle gameplay enhanced by the user’s ability to recognize intervallic relationships. Fleshner makes a good case for utilizing these games in a classroom setting. For Sundrop, he proposes an exercise based on the rules of the popular card game Apples to Apples, in which students compose within pre-set limits and take turns evaluating the results. Fleshner’s suggestion for Circadia is a more loosely structured activity that uses the program as an interval training coach. The pedagogical value is more readily applicable with Circadia, as it intricately combines rhythm and interval training within its gameplay in a less time-consuming manner.

A brief afterword by William Cheng rounds out the volume. Cheng reminisces on his early video game compositions in Mario RPG (1996). One area of the game allows players to finish an incomplete melody initially created by the great “Toadofsky.” However, the melody can only last a few notes and the game’s automatically harmonized accompaniment precludes many musical possibilities. Music video games such as these sometimes offer only illusory control of music but, as Cheng argues, this does not negate the player’s creative spark.

Music Video Games successfully injects fresh perspective into the ludological discourse with interdisciplinary collaboration, though this very factor puts slight strain on its intended audience of all scholars, students, musicians, and players. Most of the articles were written by music theorists and musicologists, meaning music researchers will find themselves more at home. However, general students and scholars of video games will still find value in the interdisciplinary research contained within this volume. Music teachers may discover fresh pedagogical perspective, particularly the entries by David Roesner, et al., and Nathan Fleshner. Practical classroom implementation depends on the reader’s ability to acquire the necessary games and technology.

Music Video Games is a must-read for scholars interested in video game music. The strongest works in the collection are focused case studies and especially insightful are Daniel O’Meara and Melanie Fritsch’s explorations of player perception. In addition, Dana M. Plank’s raised issues of community-creation and shared experience positions music prominently in game history and historiography. Mario A. Dozal’s article also deserves mention as his notion of games “selling out” likely applies to other Triple-A gaming franchises. Overall, the high-quality entries in Music Video Games illustrate the continuing consolidation of video game music research, and scholars will easily find potential avenues for future study within its pages.

Michael Austin, “Introduction- Taking Note of Music Games,” in Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play, ed. Michael Austin (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2016), 2.

For a discussion of play and interactivity, see Karen Collins, Playing with Sound: A Theory of Interacting with Sound and Music in Video Games, (London and Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013). For video game as instruments, see the chapters by Roger Moseley, Aya Saiki, and Steven Beverburg Reale in K.J. Donnelly, William Gibbons, and Neil Lerner, ed., Music in Video Games: Studying Play (New York and London: Routledge, 2014). For Performativity, see Kiri Miller, Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

David Roesner, Anna Paisley, and Gianna Cassidy, “Guitar Heroes in the Classroom: The Creative Potential of Music Games,” in Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play, ed. Michael Austin (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2016), 214.

Peter Schultz, “Rhythm Sense: Modality and Enactive Perception in Rhythm Heaven,” in Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play, ed. Michael Austin (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., 2016), 265.

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Last modified on Thursday, 27/09/2018

Justin Sextro is a Ph.D. student in musicology at the University of Kansas. He holds degrees from the University of Missouri, Kansas City (M.M., vocal performance and musicology) and Truman State University (B.M., vocal performance). His research focuses on the music of Samuel Barber, opera, and song studies. He also has an active interest in music in film and multimedia. His Master's thesis, "Press Start: Narrative Integration in 16-Bit Video Game Music," analyzed the function in music found in video games of the 1990s.

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