W. Cheng, Sound Play

William Cheng's book from 2014 is about games and music. Something for all of us? Let's see. Its full title is Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination and indeed the "video" 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 — all being widely known titles played on a computer. The chapters are not connected to each other, forming a collection of essays.

The book is a good read for anyone interested in video games or music and it is not technical in any of the disciplines. Author's personal impressions and social critique are common. A possible obstacle is the language that sometimes gets a bit flowery and might cause unnecessary trouble even to advanced non-native readers. But maybe such is the role of eloquence in the humanities and the book is 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 music analysis which is 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 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 skill ceiling (preferably which keeps you engaged for a lifetime — which might be interpreted as hard) but also with a minimal entry threshold (so… "easy"?). When designing games we very often purposefully shape this kind of learning curve.

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

Many music games may be successfully performed by non-musicians, but both experts and non-experts in music may have problems with accepting this fact. That might depend on the perspective on what music is and then what is good music. 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 it out.

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