Music Gaming - theory bit (Caillois)

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

We will compare music games to related activities and, inspired by Roger Caillois' typology, we'll try to show to what extent music games are games of skill (Callois': agon), chance (alea), make-believe (mimicry) or vertigo (ilinx). Roger Caillois in his Man, Play and Games distinguished these four aspects that might be mixed in games and play activities in different ratios. Music games are very diverse themselves, but maybe there are some trends to be discovered? Co-edit this article and let's find the answer together. It's a wiki!

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". For this distinction he also devised ludus (rule-based) or paidia (experiential) activities which may cross with previous four categories, but with agon being overally the most rule-based and ilinx the least. In general Caillois might seem to speak about two different things (plays and games) at the same time, later though mimicry proved useful in regards to Role Playing Games and ilinx, which was present already in (rule-based) 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. Open composition is a technique of leaving many arrangement decisions to the performer, but usually it's aim is to improve the experience of an audience not that of a performer.

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 theatre. Here an article on Improvisational Theatre might be of inspiration, and some music games are even straight adaptation from that field. Practicalities of music game experience also to some extent remind improv as for body movement/position and spatial relations or optionality of an audience itself, nevertheless gaming situation is also quite close to playing board games because of similar props (more on that in: Board Game 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 preferred definition of music game and aleatoricism, 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. In gambling the stakes are monetary and in computer games it's most often the considerable amount of time you invested in the game so far (so maybe: aleatoric audition pieces would fit?). 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. In the whole "games universe" co-optionality is not a common feature, 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 and more on this interesting relation you can find in the glossary entry: co-optionality.

Mark for clarification

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