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Researching Video Games: An Interview With A Gaming Musicologist



Ever wondered what it would be like to research games for a living?

My regular full-time job as a graduate student involves studying video games, and I knew even before officially starting my Game Informer internship that I wanted to share just how cool working in game studies is with the GI community. I could think of no better person to ask to share their thoughts on researching games than Ryan Thompson. Ryan is a ludomusicologist, a person who studies audio in video games. He is a graduate student in the Musicology Department at the University of Minnesota, and has completed major research on the music and sound design in Bastion, Left 4 Dead, and other games. Ryan is also an active member of the popular video game music remix site, OverClocked ReMix.

Read my full interview with Ryan below:

Tell me how you came to study video game music, and give us the low-down on what you do.

I started playing video games when I was a kid, like most people in my generation. That was the first step – I had to like games. I started my undergrad as a computer science student, and I quickly found out that wasn't a fit for me. But I've also always been a musician, so I studied music. So that's what I do full-time now: I'm a musicology graduate student. Video games is my research focus. But you have to be a generalist when you're a grad student, so most of my coursework is on things that you would expect from the average musicologist, which is to say, classical music. For my side projects, I try to fit in video games when and where it's appropriate. One example of that is I took this course on digital music culture, specifically looking at the history of cellphone ringtones. It was a pretty sweet course. But there's a certain amount that overlaps with digital entertainment culture, so I was able to write a paper on short snippets of sound affecting gameplay – which is my interest – the limitations of audio affecting gameplay. So I wrote my paper on Left 4 Dead for that class. I'm also a teaching assistant for the History of Rock and Roll [course] for the music department.

So you get to incorporate some of your video game interests into your teaching?

Every once in a while, I get to incorporate some video game stuff into the rock class. We talked about what it's like to have to re-license and negotiate the Beatles when Rock Band Beatles came out, for instance. And I can do whatever I want on Friday(s). I get, like, 35 minutes of a 50 minute class to do whatever I want. And sometimes whatever I want is to play a track from Bastion that fits the style of music we're trying to teach.

What do you like about studying games in academia? Specifically, what kind of benefits do you think people who study games in academia have over people who work in games anywhere else, like developers and journalists?

For people who actually make games – whether you're a designer or a programmer or a graphic artist or whatever – the difference in studying games in this more outside perspective is that, I'm not invested in any one game's success in the way that a developer is invested in their own game's success. So you come to it with more of an impartial eye, I guess. I can look at something and be extremely critical if I need to be. Or I can isolate this one, extremely vital element that really makes the game for me. I have a lot of free reign. In terms of journalists, I'm not writing reviews, so I don't have to give a general overview of a game. If I'm talking about Bastion, I can assume that anyone interested in reading my article is interested enough to go download the trial and play it before they get hold of it. And that's not always the case in games journalism.

What are some cool things you get to do, being in the academy, that those other people might not get to do? Does your department pay for games?

One of my professors suggested to me that I should take video games as a tax write-off, because it becomes a research expense for me. It sounds like I'm joking, but it's actually a legitimate thing. My department kicks in about 1/2 to 2/3 of my travel expenses, which is really nice. I've been to New York a couple times, [and] I presented in Wyoming just a couple months ago.

Tell me about some of the other work you know about in game studies. If people do want to check it out or they want to be a games academic, where do they start?

I think the first thing to note is that there are very, very few big research institutions that have game studies departments. I would say if you want to be a musicologist like I am and study music, do that. If you want to be a film studies person and talk about cinematography, or if you want to be a literature person and talk about story and plot and development – games are approachable from all those angles since they draw from all those different mediums. You don't have to be at DigiPen studying with James Portnow to do this work, even thought he's awesome.

One of the best papers I've read – one of the projects that this guy is working on – his name is William Cheng from Harvard – he wrote a paper on online play environments and interaction, and how there's this simultaneous safety and lack of communication for LGBT people playing first-person-shooters. Because, on some level, they're always in the closet. Every time they enter a new server on Team Fortress 2, if they choose to self-identify who they are in terms of preference or identity or gender, then they're constantly having to identify themselves to new people, or constantly having to not share that part of who they are. That was a really fascinating study. That was one of the best that I've heard of.

What's some of the work that happens at other places? From other people?

My favorite presentation I've seen thus far was this really detailed – maybe too detailed to go into the specifics of how it functions – but there was this music theory, full-blown analysis of the Katamari Damacy score. This guy passed out the hand-transcribed sheet music to all of Katamari Damacy. And he said things like, in measure 3, this chord in the title track matches up with this specific set of chords in the last level's piece. The amount of work and effort and polish that was in that presentation was just phenomenal. That was by Steven Reale from Youngstown, Ohio.

Tell us about some of your all-time-favorite game studies works.

The author that really changed it for me was Karen Collins. She wrote a book called Game Sound. I'm one of a generation of scholars who's just trying to figure out what this field of ludomusicology – musicology that studies games – is. That's a new, emerging thing in the academy. Game Sound really provided this framework that we can draw on and expand from. It provided this grounding that none of us had before. It's a fantastic text.

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