Author: Michiel Kamp

Bibliography reflections

A video game audio bibliography was originally set up on the Ludomusicology research group website. With the launch of SSSMG as a platform for the game audio research community came the idea of moving the bibliography to this website and to allow members to contribute suggestions. (For the time being, we will continue to maintain a duplicate of the SSSMG bibliography on the old website for accessibility and bookmarks.) Throughout this year, we have been working on a big update to the bibliography for the launch of this website, which has prompted me to make a few observations in the form of this blog post—the first in what we hope will be a series for the society.

Before jumping into a discussion of the bibliography proper and what it may reveal about the field of academic video game audio and music studies, the usual disclaimers are in order. Of course, this bibliography is very much a work in progress. Any conclusions drawn from it in this blog post are subject to change as more entries are added and need to be taken with a pinch of salt. That said, the bibliography does ultimately aim at a complete list of publications on the topic, however impossible that may prove to be. Since the launch of the SSSMG website and the bibliography entry form, we have been getting a steady influx of entry suggestions—including both new and upcoming publications and older ones. While there might still be many ‘unknown unknowns’—particularly in scholarly disciplines further removed from SSSMG members’ areas of expertise—the hope is that as the society’s membership grows and as more scholars and practitioners discover the bibliography, the blanks will gradually be filled in.

Some overviews of the field can be found in the introductions and prefaces to existing monographs and particularly edited collections. Most of these stress academia’s tardiness when it comes to game audio, with different disciplines only turning their attention to the topic in the early 2000s. Ludomusicology: Approaches to Video Game Music (2016) paints with a broad brush, suggesting 2008 as the year the study of video game music really kicked off with Karen Collins’ monograph Game Sound and her edited collection From Pac-Man to Pop Music; Zach Whalen’s earlier articles (2004; 2007) are seen as a kind of prehistory. The Routledge volume Music in Video Games: Studying Play (2014) is less concerned with establishing beginnings and milestones, also mentioning David Bessell’s ‘What’s that Funny Noise?’ (2002), Axel Stockburger’s contribution to the first DiGRA conference in 2003, and Rod Munday’s chapter in the same volume as Zach Whalen’s ‘Case of Silent Hill’ (2007). Equally important is the volume’s mention of Scott Lipscomb and Sean Zehnder’s 2004 experimental study on the presence of soundtracks in video games. From Pac-Man to Pop Music includes a vital selected annotated bibliography by Erica Kudisch, which does not attempt a history of the field, but does include general game studies sources in which audio is discussed, such as Steven L. Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games (Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 2001)—something the SSSMG bibliography mostly omits at this point. Kudisch also mentions Karen Collins’ early work on video game music, going back to 2004.

Chart 1. Number of bibliography entries by year

As Chart 1 shows, the field did only really get off the ground in the early 2000s, with only sporadic publications in the 1980s and 1990s (more on these below). But what is surprising is the number of publications before 2008. Recent years have seen the publication of large numbers of chapters in the various edited volumes dedicated to video game audio, and in more general volumes such as the Oxford Handbooks, which skews the results in Chart 1 somewhat. In Chart 2, edited volumes are taken as a single publication, and 2006-8 surprisingly is shown to be the most prolific period of scholarship on the topic. These years do include a disproportionally large number of entries of conference papers, such as those for DiGRA and Audio Mostly. The bibliography might still be lacking important papers from these conferences in other years, particularly Audio Mostly since its inception in 2006. Even then, this is the period in which scholars such as Mark Grimshaw, Kiri Miller, Kristine Jørgensen, and Fares Kayali and Martin Pichlmair published their first research on the topic, as well as Joanna Demers’ 2006 study of Dance Dance Revolution, which is often omitted from overviews of the field’s history.

Chart 2. Number of bibliography entries by year excluding chapters in edited volumes

The bibliography does contain entries that predate Bessell’s 2002 chapter. Most importantly, there is Matthew Belinkie’s paper ‘Video Game Music: Not Just Kid Stuff,’ hosted by the Video Game Music Archive. It not only includes an overview of the field at the time, but valuable interviews with game composers at a point in history where ‘Redbook audio, more than any other development … attracted new composers to video games.’ Going even further back reveals some of the flaws and inconsistencies that the bibliography currently has. There are a couple of papers for the International Computer Music Conference (Schmidt 1989; Lendino 1998), a paper on interactive music design (Borchers & Mühlhäuser 1998), a general history of game music (Herz 1997), and the very first entry is a manual by Tim Knight on ‘Mastering Sound and Music on the Atari ST’ (1987). No doubt there are other manuals like this one for early consoles, and submissions for entries such as these are wholeheartedly encouraged.

The difference between Charts 1 and 2 shows the enormous impact that the various edited volumes have had recently, starting from From Pac-Man to Pop Music, up to the release of two volumes over this summer, the Ludomusicology Equinox volume and Michael Austin’s Music Video Games, published with Bloomsbury. These volumes have made it possible and even necessary to move beyond general overviews and theories of video game music and/or audio to more specific case studies, experiments, and even sub-fields. K. J. Donnelly’s chapter on Plants vs. Zombies in Music in Video Games and Willem Strank’s study of iMuse in Peter Moormann’s Music and Game (2013), for instance, might have been deemed too niche if they had originally been submitted to more general journals of musicology or music and the moving image.

At the same time, a number of important themes are emerging that can almost be called sub-fields, such as the study of chiptune, and related to that nostalgia for the sounds of older console generations (e.g. Kizzire 2014; Cheng 2014; Lomeland 2014). The study of musical play in games—what might controversially be called ‘ludomusicology proper’—has often centred on the Guitar Hero series (van Elferen 2011; Miller 2009; Moseley 2013), but has been expanded by scholars such as Steven B. Reale (2014) to ask questions of non-music games such as L.A. Noire, and by Andrew Dolphin and Anahid Kassabian and Freya Jarman to relate music games and apps, to toys, to musical instruments; Nicola Dibben and Samantha Blickhan’s studies of Björk’s Biophilia can also be said to fit into this category. Another example is the study of music and sound—and the relationship between these two—in horror games. Silent Hill has been a rewarding case study in this regard, occupying scholars from Zach Whalen (2007) to Guillaume Roux-Girard (2011), William Cheng (2013), and Isabella van Elferen (2016).

These sub-fields (or at least areas of focus) offer a way into a more organised usage of keywords in the bibliography. At the moment, some keywords taken by themselves are too general or too vague (‘technology’ appears 35 times) to be of much use in a search function. Keywords like ‘horror’ (appearing 8 times) offer a much firmer idea of the topics discussed in the texts—although it should be said that the ubiquity of some terms can be explained by the tendency towards general overviews of game music and audio in the early days of the field. There are, for instance, 28 entries with ‘dynamic music’ as a keyword up to 2011, and only 7 since then. Even if we account for the terminology problem (dynamic vs. adaptive vs. interactive audio—this bibliography tries to follow Collins’ 2008 definitions), that is a significant difference. Of course, many of the games discussed in publications since 2011 have dynamic musical soundtracks, and their dynamic features are certainly mentioned in those articles, but more and more often theories of dynamism are taken for granted and not the primary focus of the research. This is a good thing: a set of axioms or at least a common ground is a sign that the field is moving forward.

One final observation is the contribution of the Oxford Handbooks (OH) to the field. Starting with Mark Grimshaw’s 2011 contribution to the OH of Sound Studies, there have been 34 chapters related to video game audio and music in various OHs—including 13 chapters in the OH of Interactive Audio (2014). The OH chapters have been at least as varied in their topics as those in the edited volumes. Moreover, they offer much needed interdisciplinary insights and exposure, often being bookended by studies of quite different media and subjects. Derek Burrill and Melissa Blanco Borelli’s chapter on Dance Central in the OH of Dance and the Popular Screen, for instance, is preceded by chapters on the remediation of hip-hop and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ At the very least, the OHs have offered an antidote to academic insulation and hopefully they have drawn more interest in video game sound and music from scholars in other fields and disciplines.

To reiterate, none of these observations should be taken as statistically significant facts. The bibliography is far from complete, both in terms of entries and their organisation; in fact, I had to make several corrections while drawing up this blog post. Any and all suggestions are more than welcome, and there are still some important questions to be answered. To what extent should the bibliography include texts that don’t focus on video game audio, but do make significant mention of the topic? To what extent should the bibliography include publications in the popular press, and which ones? Right now, we have adopted a ‘the more, the merrier’ stance, but is this wise in the long run? Should we be stricter in the allocation and use of keywords, perhaps through drop-down menus and suggestion boxes instead of blank fields? Hopefully, the flaws and inconsistencies in the current bibliography (although certainly not put there deliberately!) will encourage more interaction, and make for a livelier and more self-knowing field.

Finally, we would like to thank everyone for registering and participating on the site. Within its first month, SSSMG has grown to 90 members, and we look forward to the continued growth and development of the society next year. Everyone is wholeheartedly encouraged to contribute on the forums, to the bibliography or by suggesting blog posts themselves. For now, we wish everyone happy holidays and a wonderful 2017.

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