When we talk about video games, our attention often goes to graphics, gameplay, or story. But there’s another powerful part of the video game experience—music. 2014 5CollDH microgrant recipient Hyeonjin Park (Mount Holyoke College ’15) traveled to the 2nd annual North American Conference on Video Game Music in Fort Worth, Texas, to learn more about sound’s role in how we play games. In her own words:
It was a small audience, but a very interactive one as everyone sat and listened to each research presentation. There were several moments when several members in the audience chuckled due to things such as: the sounds of a marimba echoing with each block that was broken in the game Minecraft, or an old Atari game featuring E.T. and Lil Jon’s music. Several members bobbed their heads along to the various music examples that were played during many presentations, many reminiscing on their experiences when they first heard the music. Some left with a need to revisit a certain green-robed hero who had to save a kingdom. Others had a need to explore a new world that they never had the chance to venture. Everyone, however, left with excitement and newfound knowledge of the field we all wish to contribute to and continue to help expand in studies.
Before I left for Fort Worth, Texas to attend the second annual North American Conference on Video Game Music (to be shortened to VGM Conference for the rest of this reflection), I had many baffled people who asked, “Video game music? You can study that?” Some asked me if I was mistaking a conference for a convention, asking me if I was planning on cosplaying (a Japanese portmanteau of the English words “costume” and “role play”) a video game character. Others have asked me if this conference would be serious discussions about the best soundtrack in video game history, or if we were just going to play video games all weekend.
No one cosplayed, though people did dress in attire that one would normally wear when attending an academic conference. There were some discussions on the side about people’s favorite soundtracks, though no one necessarily breached the topic of the best soundtrack (perhaps for the better). There was some gaming involved in some presentations and we listened to plenty of examples. Of course, like at any academic conference, networking was happening left and right, and we made sure we had each other’s Twitter handles, email addresses, and Steam IDs. However, all of this was not only entertaining, but for academic purposes.
I attended the VGM Conference with hopes of hearing someone talk about a topic related to my own senior thesis: world music in the context of video games. I found myself utterly immersed for two days seeing a more three-dimensional outlook on the academic approach to video game music. With the end of each presentation, I continuously asked myself while in awe, “How has no one ever gone into this field until only recently?” It is somewhat understandable, given how young the video game industry is in comparison to its cousins in the realm of media. However, I was amazed to see the diversity in presentations and approaches to game music. In the end, there was only one presentation that was remotely relevant to my topic, but I found that I left with a sense of understanding of the importance of approaching video game music from various perspectives. It was exciting, but also overwhelming to realize that while little scholarly works have been published, so much could be said in the span of two days.
One significant part of the VGM Conference was the keynote address, given by composer Winifred Phillips. Entitled “The Role of Music in Video Game Immersion,” Phillips explored various topics related to the effects of music on the brain, and how this allows for a more involved gameplay. The following day, there was a Q&A session with her on a number of things such as her own works or her opinions of the video game industry. It was particularly inspiring for me to hear her speak about the representation of women in this field, and brought relief to see everyone in the audience nodding with agreement. I felt a burst of pride as a student of Mount Holyoke, pleased to see a field of scholars who were fully aware of this matter.
Many presentations decided to focus on several games, while others decided to focus on one specific game. Some were not even on any particular games, but instead, aspects of the music such as 8-bit music or even cover/tribute bands. Most interesting to me, however, were the sessions dedicated to pedagogy of game music. Remember how I mentioned E.T. and Lil Jon earlier? This was an actual example of an assignment that one presenter, Neil Lerner, gave at the college he teaches at. He explained what worked and what didn’t work with this assignment, as well as branching further into the subjects of teaching game music in general, especially in situations where music students have become fewer in numbers.
I was surprised to find my hand going up after his presentation, especially upon realizing that his school was facing a similar situation that many other liberal arts colleges were facing. How can we teach this topic when there are not enough music students at these colleges? Why can’t we teach them at universities instead? And his response struck me as one of the most important things I heard all weekend: “Liberal arts institutions should be the incubators of such interdisciplinary pursuits as video game music.”
Perhaps it struck me as important because I understood it on a personal level. Attending a liberal arts institution gave me the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary subjects in intimate settings that allowed for my knowledge and understanding to grow. Had it not been for my liberal arts education, I would not have come across this field let alone be sitting in the audience, listening to the presentations of likeminded individuals who wanted to show the world a treasure trove of music that isn’t just composed of beeps and boops (though those beep boops are also important). This conference was one that I am very glad to have had the opportunity to attend, because it reflected on a growing field, yes, but also on the society that we currently live in and the role that video games play in such a setting, especially with the incorporation of music.