W. Cheng, Sound Play

William Cheng's book from 2014 is about games and music. Something for all of us? Its full title is Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination and indeed video ("computer") part takes a lot of the contents with five chapters revolving around Fallout, Final Fantasy, Silent Hill, The Lord of the Rings Online and Team Fortress. It can be considered as a collection of essays.

The book is a good read for anyone interested in video games or music and its approach it's not very technical in any of the disciplines but leaves lot of opportunity for author's personal impressions and social critique. What I would point to as a possible obstacle is language that sometimes gets a bit flowery and might cause unnecessary trouble even to advanced non-native readers. But in humanities eloquence might be considered almost as important as content, so the book is probably just the way it should be to serve its purpose.

Nevertheless, at Games for Music digital games are not the primary focus, so why talking about Sound Play? Let's turn our attention to two sections, one from the Introduction and another from the chapter about LOTRO.

Seeking similarities

First section of interest is a broad take on relations between music and games. The author stresses the similarities mostly by showing the importance of interactivity in ensemble performance.

Performance, collaboration, and competition are vital in musical and gaming cultures alike. For every sublime rendition of a Beethoven symphony at Carnegie Hall, one could find an expertly orchestrated clan of warriors raiding a dragon's lair in World of Warcraft.

Interesting idea referred in the book is the method of analysing music focused on interactions between instruments. The term 'ludomusicology' is mentioned that would fit to such research, but it was claimed lately by just the studies in the spirit of Sound Play focusing on music in video games. That general and theoretical line of thought centers around the music itself and actually seems to have a lot of potential for music games of our kind.

Democratizing music

The second passage of our focus is in the chapter titled "Role-Playing Toward a Virtual Musical Democracy". In the context of an MMORPG we get general remarks about social circumstances of games and music and their accessibility. Presence of digital aspect is here strong both for games (computer games) and for music (sampling, computer usage…). Questions asked in the chapter are for example: should turntable be classified as "easier" than violin? There are similar assessment problems in games where it is considered ideal to have a high skillcap (preferably which keeps you engaged for a lifetime - which might be interpreted as hard) but also with a minimal entry treshold (so… "easy"?). When designing games we very often purposefully shape the experience just for that effect.

Technology is not the only important factor of the "democratizing" process. Such a seeming "equity" between musicians and non-musicians is easy to find in the field of experimental music. This was historically brought up by Cornellius Cardew in his Scratch Orchestra manifest and the topic is also extensively explored by Christian Wolff.

Many music games can be successfully performed by non-musicians, but agreeing to that may be problemating both for experts in music and to non-experts as well. Usual strategy is: first widen your horizon about what music is, then check out to what extent and in which fields you can actively participate in it yourself as a peer. There is a lot of content related to the topic of "musical democracy" in Sound Play. So even if the book directly refers to virtual communities, if you are interested in that line of thought, check the it out.

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