Researching Video Games: An Interview With A Gaming Musicologist

by Ali Rapp on Jul 04, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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.

Tell me about your relationship with OverClocked ReMix specifically, but also the kind of work and the kind of relationships you have built with the video game music remix community.

It's in many ways separate from my academic stuff. I got on OC ReMix, just surfing around in 2002, and I've been there ever since. There are a lot of people in the industry, or who are now working in the games music industry, that got their start at OC ReMix. I'll leave those specific stories for those people to tell on their own, but there are a lot of big names that have come out of that community.

Since they have judging panels for submitted tracks, have you ever been able to be involved with that? When you go to conventions, do you meet up with the OC ReMix people?

I have met almost all of the site staff just by going to conventions. The way the site works is, you submit the track you think is good enough to be put on the website, and if it passes their form rejection stuff – like, a certain amount of quality in terms of, is this acceptable to not instantly reject? – then it goes to this panel of judges, and they'll vote yes or no. Usually, if you get voted no, you're invited to resubmit. There's a whole process involved that I'll let some other people who are actually involved speak about.

How do you think people in academia see games? I can use the example that, for me, I know that the way I play and think about games, which games I get to play, how long I get to play them for, and what games I'm interested in, is all dependent on who I am as an academic. Because I study gender and politics in games, certain games do not interest me, for obvious reasons. How do you see games? How does being an academic frame and color the way you play and engage with games?

People outside of working with games, I think, tend to have this impression that we all have a lot of fun all the time. And that's not what it is. For me, I'm really interested in the implementation of audio. How does a game's sound affect and engage with the gameplay proper? If a game does something really interesting along those lines, then I'll be interested in it for work. For my last project with Bastion, I thought the narration really contributed something that hadn't been done before in terms of engaging the gameplay and the narrative with sound.

For me, a game could have crappy mechanics, but if it says something interesting about gender I will probably play that game or look at that game. As an academic who studies games, the gender part is interesting enough to kind of push aside the mechanics. Do you find that happening with sound and music in games?

I've kind of lucked out in that every game I think has an amazing soundtrack also has decent gameplay. But the example I'll share is, a lot of people were really impressed with Braid's soundtrack. I was having a conversation with a music friend of mine [from OC ReMix], and we were saying that we like the soundtrack to Braid a lot, but we don't know that it fits the game very well. We thought that people were so shocked to hear an orchestral cello soloist in a video game. That's a sound that not a lot of games feature so prominently. So some of the buzz about how great the game sounded might not be because it fit so well with the game specifically, but because it was such a unique sound for a game world to have.

Can you tell readers what they should know about studying games? To be in the games industry, but to be an academic specifically?

I think the most important thing about being an academic is that you have to be willing to read a lot of opinions you don't agree with. We do a lot of reading – both in my work with games and my work in musicology at large – that present opinions about music and sound that I don't like, but I'm always glad to have read them. I think you have to be prepared to do a ton more reading and consumption of other people's media than you do creating your own articles and stuff. One of the pieces of advice I've heard is, if you want to be a game reviewer for Game Informer, read a lot of other people's reviews, because it improves your own writing. And I think reading other people's academic work and being engaged in that way is the same sort of advice I want to pass on to other people.

What kinds of people do you think really thrive in academia and in game studies specifically, and what should they look forward to? I've had tons of people on Twitter, especially after I got the Game Informer internship, say, "I really want to work in games, but I don't know what to do. Can you tell me about some more options?"

You have to be a good reader. Graduate students read more than any non-graduate student can imagine. The workload for what you have to read in terms of page count is unbelievable. So you have to really enjoy engaging with a lot of texts. If you can do that, I think you might be cut out for it.

I was at the film studies conference in New York where we all described ourselves as mavericks, because there's a minority of people who do film, and out of that minority are most of the people who do games. There are a lot more people, in my field for instance, studying Mozart and Bach and Brahms than there are people studying games. So don't be discouraged if, as an undergraduate, you're not being given those opportunities [to study games]. I think part of the undergraduate education is to learn all the fundamentals in whatever subject you're studying, so you can then apply all this history and knowledge our field has accumulated into your own work.

What's your favorite part about being able to study games as an academic?

I love looking at little details of things and saying, this is what made this game. My first project was very much like that. I did a paper on Left 4 Dead's audio cues, and how they would tell you in advance what was coming up. It's almost like you have this radar or sonar, where you hear a small snippet of music and you know what's coming next. Listening to the music actively makes you better at the game. I really got to talk about that in a great deal of depth – more than I have time to say here.

Being able to get really nitpicky about what you talk about specifically and say a great deal about it compared to all this other stuff that came before – that's really fun. In some ways, there aren't game historians, per se. Those of us doing this work are in a way creating this written history of what video games are going to be and what people will remember about them.