Music gaming pre-cuts

Here we will try to answer the question: what kind of games are music games?

We will compare music games to related activities and as a frame we'll use a classic Roger Caillois' typology from his Man, Play and Games where he distinguishes: agon - skill, alea - chance, mimicry - make-believe and ilinx - vertigo as four aspects that might be mixed in games. Music games are very diverse themselves, but maybe there are some trends to be discovered? Future developments of this article might tell (it's editable by every member of…).

Game or play

Main purpose of ilinx and mimicry in Caillois' writings was to include children, because in French there is no clear-cut distinction between "play" and "game". Caillois might seem to speak about two different things at the same time, later though mimicry proved useful in regards to RPGs and ilinx, which was present already in sports, could with some extention be applied also to computer games.

Regardless of how far we'd prefer to stretch the concept of ilinx, let's note that music games are a lot about experience. You may experience control or lack of it, the sound itself, interactions and feedback loop etc. This is quite in line with computer games, also in rewarding players with aesthetic phenomena. On the other hand this focus on the performer is what distinguishes music games from usual approach to open composition.

Traces of mimicry, acting something out, are to be found in every musical interpretation, but there are also music games that develop story or theme, bringing them closer to musical theathre. Detailed comparison of that soon in: Musical improv. Practicalities of music game experience also to some extent remind improv as for body movement/position and spatial relations or optionality of audience, nevertheless gaming situation is also quite close to playing board games because of similar props (more on that in: Board Games Mechanics for Music).

Praying to RNG gods

Aleatoricism is a modern composing technique that employs chance. "Alea" means dice, so is every aleatoric piece automatically a game piece? It depends, not only on exact definition you prefer, but also on a process itself. In Caillois' interpretation alea (chance element in games) gains a ritual flavour as the point of gambling seems to be devoting oneself to some kind of higher power. This same helplessness is mockingly showed in computer gaming community by sayings like in this chapter title.

Needless to say, it's all about the stakes. You need to somehow care about the result to have some engaging effect of letting off control (so maybe: aleatoric audition pieces?). But it is claimed (for example in a lecture at Game Developers Conference) that from the perspective of game design the focus should rather be on subjective unpredictability than technical randomness. Regardless if unpredictability comes from dice or other person's choice it always increases skill requirements, as you need to play out a situation unknown in advance to you. This is a bit paradoxical, because most often chance is considered to be opposite of skill.


Games of skill, agon are most often competitive and key feature of this type is 'evening the playing field' - giving fair chances to every player. Single player or cooperative games may belong to this category when the result of the game correlates to participants' skill. Music games might be of both these types and although sometimes don't require a specific musical skill, usually players try to play as skillfully as they can, whatever that relevant skill may be.

Yet, let us claim for now, that although you can easily design certain rules that make a game cooperative or competitive, co-optionality is a natural state of a music game. This feature is not very common, there's probably no co-optional sports and it's very hard to find such board games, but co-optionality happens sometimes among computer games. What allows that? Co-optional computer games are usually real-time (as opposed to turn-based) and arcade-like, i.e. require skill usually both of manual dexterity and quick decision-making. Second key factor would be a very broad description of goals. You know you win when you get to the end of the level. But should it be as fast as possible? Faster than your opponent? This is up to you.

We can see that both qualities apply also to music games. Success of a singular play definitely depends on timing. And there is usually one general and very loosely defined goal of a music game: it is to make good music. But what that means? It's up to you. And from game to game you may find that you sometimes share some of the idea with other participants (form a "coalition") and also that great music comes sometimes from a well played opposition.

Player agendas

This is related to the idea from another book source, Brian Upton's Aesthetic of Play. Author draws from discussions about RPGs and describes three player agendas. These fit surprisingly well to music games as here also every player might focus mostly on one of three: goals, coherence or closure. Easing interactions between gamists, "formalists" and "expressionists" is a task for every gamemaster or collective that deals with music games.

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