Ludo17 Conference Report: Highlights and Themes
Ivan Mouraviev  reviews Ludo2017 for us, offering his thoughts on the experience.
Ivan is a student at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, where he specializes in game music. Ludo2017 was his first Ludo conference, where he presented a very well-received paper ‘Textual Play: Music as Performance in the Ludomusicological Discourse’.
Independent scholar Mark Benis, writing in his report for the 2017 North American Conference on Video Game Music, recently remarked that “video games have a way of bringing people together.” Indeed they do. This is how I felt at the sixth annual Ludomusicology conference held over 20-22 April at Bath Spa University. The event was hosted by Professor James Newman and organised by Ludomusicology Research Group members Michiel Kamp, Tim Summers, Mark Sweeney, and Melanie Fritsch.  As a student and newcomer to the world of academic conferences, I did not entirely know what to expect at Ludo17. However, delegates and organisers alike were superbly welcoming. Being at the conference was a fun and intellectually stimulating experience from start to finish. With 40+ attendees across three days, 30 diverse papers were presented that ranged from musicological and music-theoretical investigations of music in video games to studies of game music history, composition, technology, and performance. Indeed, diversity of approach and subject matter was a hallmark of the event. In what follows I report on the conference via a series of personal highlights, summarising what I found to be among the most significant research presentations; I also tease out emerging trends, questions, and possible points of departure for future research. The report is organised loosely around four themes rather than by presentations chronologically. Please forgive my inevitably many omissions.
- Constraints and affordances: game music technology and composition
Blake Troise opened the conference by presenting his research on the technological and creatives affordance of 1-bit music: a sub-category of chiptune based on a single square wave.  As the name of 1-bit suggests, the synthetic process of 1-bit music imposes binary limitations—a square wave can only be produced at either a high or low amplitude (that is, and on or off signal). However, through a live demonstration, Troise showed how sophisticated polyphony, timbral variation, and even supra-binary amplitudes can be achieved with 1-bit chiptune—for example by exploiting the limits of perception (since discrete transients less than 100 milliseconds apart are perceived by the human brain as a single sound), and using techniques like pin-pulse modulation (which can help avoid the mutual cancellation of two overlapping signals).
Composer Ricardo Climent offered a different flavour of research on a similar theme, also on the first day. Climent presented his fascinating use of the freely available game-design software Unreal Engine to unfold musical narratives ludically.  Specifically, this took the form of an interactive work titled s.laag, which serves as a game-level replica of the World’s Fair held in Brussels in 1958; primarily the player-character takes on the role of a bass clarinet to navigate through various mini-games and around architectural icons. Kevin Burke’s presentation was also retrospective but took a different, more analytical approach, examining how composer Hitoshi Sakimoto—of Final Fantasy and Valkyria Chronicles fame—utilised a custom Terpsichorean sound driver in the 1990s to produce musical results that significantly surpassed late-twentieth-century expectations for 16 bit sound synthesis. Come day three, Richard Stevens and Niklos Stavropoulos dealt with video game music from a more explicitly design- and implementation-focussed perspective, presenting some valuable techniques for manipulating and performing pre-composed sound in games (also using, like Climent, Unreal Engine). 
Ultimately it was Kenneth ‘Kenny’ McAlpine, though, the first of Ludo17’s three keynote speakers, who most compellingly synthesised the many diverse strands making up this broad theme of game music technology, composition, and affordances/constraints.  McAlpine showcased some of the research behind his forthcoming Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes (Oxford University Press). He discussed the various affordances of technologies like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and more, presenting a broad range of historical and conceptual themes in a captivatingly personal way. Especially memorable was McAlpine’s emphasis on the idea that the near-total freedom of musical production available to us today, not least through digital audio workstations such as Apple’s Logic Pro, can be “crippling”. The goal of contemporary artistic practice—both within and beyond the realm of video game music—may not so much be a matter of “freedom of choice” as “freedom from choice”.
- Rule-bound musical play
What defines the “game” in “video game”? This was a question addressed by James Saunders, who highlighted Jesper Juul’s work on the topic (2003) as well as Huizinga’s important theorisation of play (1955), to pinpoint some insightful correspondences between rules in games and indeterminate music.  Saunders also noted how the structuring, constraining, and sometimes not immediately perceptible effects of video game rules can (re)present models of social interaction, and facilitate players’ agency by offering both choices and goals for game and music play. Two-way engagement between Twitch streamers and their often expansive audiences was raised as an example of such interaction in the discussion following Saunders’ presentation. Indeed, web audiences can significantly influence—and at times even determine—the structure and content of a streamer’s gameplay. Many streamers also publicly perform their musical taste by playing popular music as a kind of trans-diegetic underscore, that can be structured by audience interaction and be experienced as both external (non-diegetic) and integral (diegetic) to the streamer’s ludic performance. The 2015 article “From Mixtapes to Multiplayers” by Michael Austin (who also presented a fascinating paper on the participatory musical culture of “Automatic Mario Music Videos” on Day 2) certainly comes to mind, for Austin’s examination of how different kinds of social video gaming can serve as gamified “transmutation[s] of the mixtape” and displays of curatorial control.  As the professional players of massive online battle-arena (MOBA) games like Dota 2 continue to attract large streaming audiences, and video games become increasingly formidable icons in popular culture more generally, the realm of game-like musical interactions in virtual spaces seems ripe for further scholarly investigation. How, for example, are streamer-audience musical interactions shaped by the (in)formal rules that moderators enforce on platforms such as Twitch, perhaps contributing in turn to a broader fostering of online community?
On the broader theme of music and rule-bounded play it is hard not to mention the work of Roger Moseley.  On Day 3 Moseley presented a superb keynote that resonated with the approach and several themes within his recently-published and open-access monograph Keys to Play (University of California Press, 2016).  The keynote was titled “Recursive Representations of Musical Recreation”, placing “recursion”—signalling basic repetition and looping, the successive executions that occur in computation, and more specifically a kind of historical ludomusical praxis—in the critical spotlight. One particular argument was for “recreation” as a potentially more critically rewarding notion than “reproduction” when dealing with the recursive nature of ludomusicality, since “reproduction” has been historically more closely associated with a decidedly “serious” “phonograph ideology” rather than intrinsically creative and performative action (an association no doubt spurred by, or at least reflected in, Adorno’s and Walter Benjamin’s famous twentieth-century critiques of commercial culture). The first known use of the term “ludomusicology” can be traced to digital-game researcher and music theorist Guillaume Laroche in 2007; nevertheless, Moseley’s contributions to our understanding of the implications of the term “ludomusicology”—broadly construed as the study of music and play—have been seminal.  This is eminent not only in Keys to Play, but also in the 2013 chapter “Playing Games with Music” which elaborates play theory by Huizinga and Roger Caillois in the context of Guitar Hero after a much-needed historicization of work and play.  Indeed, central to Moseley’s work has been the goal of putting “play on display” in historical terms within a “media archaeology” framework, illuminating the possibility that “notions and terminology associated with digital games are capable of enlightening historical ludomusical praxis, just as the latter informs the former.” 
- Video game music as performance and/or culture
Several papers dealt with video game music and broader notions of culture, performance, or both. Presenting on the first day, Donal Fullam discussed how video game music can be understood as an expression of “algorithmic culture”.  For Fullam this cultural expression is a relatively recent incarnation of a more long-standing impulse, one that “treats music as an algorithmically determined system” and can be traced to the twentieth century avant garde and even further, to the foundations of functional harmony (which in turn represents a more basic tendency to systematise musical sound as a “cultural articulation”). A similar theoretical view of music as performing cultural and aesthetic functions was explored on Day 2 by Edward Spencer. His study investigated the bass-music signification and broader sociopolitical implications of Major League Gaming Montage Parodies, or MLGMPs. These represent a specific music video genre that employs audiovisual memes and “canonic” dubstep tracks by the likes of Skrillex to parody montages of skillful first-person shooter gameplay.  As Spencer convincingly showed through a critique of recent postmodern theory around notions of meaningless in contemporary culture, MLGMPs should not be automatically dismissed simply because they may, at first glance, seem to represent “ultimate” instances of “media convergence and ludic semiotic excess”.
Melanie Fritsch presented and applied also on Day 2 a theoretical platform for the analysis of music in video games. principally argue that music in video games may be, but so far largely has not been, studies through the lens of interdisciplinary performance studies—which generally favours an ontology of music that is necessarily behavioural and social.  Fritsch did note, however, that scholars such as Tim Summers, Kiri Miller, and Karen Collins (and, I would add, William Cheng) have started to investigate music in video games beyond the basic paradigm of musicological close reading; both Miller and Cheng have favoured ethnographic paradigms while Summers is broadly interdisciplinary and Collins has tended towards embodied cognition and performance analysis.  Fritsch also introduced the German terms aufführung and leistung for understanding performance in a novel and more multi-dimensional way, with the former referring to presentation, aesthetics, and artistry and the latter encapsulating notions of skillful display, effort, and efficiency. Fritsch’s transnational perspective resonates with Moseley’s valuable historicisation of work and play in that both serve as a reminder that fundamental terms in music scholarship like “performance” and “play” are historically and socially contingent. Indeed, what one group of gamers or scholars regards as “play”, whether ludically or musically or both, may take on dramatically differently meaning across different times, spaces, or sociocultural settings. Or, put differently, the somewhat taken-for-granted idea that both games and music are inherently playful may be more thoroughly examined in a more empirically grounded, historically and socially (and perhaps even politically) specific way.
This last question may apply equally to video game music—that which is produced, performed, and listened to beyond conventional gameplay, such as in the concert hall. Video game music in this sense was explored in a concentrated and lively manner across four back-to-back presentations in Session 7, titled “In Concert”. In the first half of the session, Joana Freitas and Elizabeth Hunt drew attention to how notable organisations like Video Games Live have sought to “gamify” the concert hall in order to achieve “collaborative immersion and experience”.  James S. Tate and Ben Hopgood then dealt more specifically with music associated with Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs) and Final Fantasy respectively; Tate presented convincing evidence for, and hypotheses to explain, the widespread popularity of JRPG soundtracks in concert performance, while Hopgood’s study was more analytical in discussing the easy-to-forget but nevertheless prominent “classical music identifiers” that video game music often carries as part of its dense semiotic baggage.  Though it was only mentioned in passing, an exciting and potentially highly rewarding direction for future research in this area is the ongoing global concert tour of thatgamecompany’s broadly well-received PS3/4 title Journey; the tour features Chicago’s Fifth House ensemble performing the game’s soundtrack in real time in response to the actions of four-to-six players on stage. 
- Learning music through games and vice versa: video game pedagogy
Talks on the role of video games—and principles of play more generally—in education only made up a small portion of Ludo17, however, the quality of research presented and potential for growth on this theme certainly warrants its own sub-heading. On day three Meghan Naxer brought to light the value of video game game principles and practices to be fruitfully manifested in the classroom.  A personal anecdote in this regard was especially revealing: after responding student email queries with indirect suggestions to literature and other resources, Naxer’s students interpreted the interaction as a game-like “side quest” and subsequently became all the more excited to engage in independent study. Jan Torge Claussen next presented his ongoing research with 18 students learning to play guitar through Rocksmith, the decidedly more education-oriented competitor of Guitar Hero and Rock Band.  Claussen’s students have been video recorded and completed journals detailing their experiences with the game; early findings tentatively suggest that Rocksmith may be a useful means to learn how to play guitar through Rocksmith rather than to gain guitar proficiency in general.
In closing, I would like to draw attention to three talks that were especially intellectually stimulating, but do not fall neatly under any of the thematic categories I use above. Firstly, Stephen Tatlow and George Marshall expertly examined complex questions of music and diegesis, through voice communication in the fantasy role-playing game EVE Online and popular music in the racing title Forza respectively.  Implicit in Tatlow’s discussion was the possibility for in-game diegetic voices to function musically, or rather for music to function as a player’s in-game diegetic voice—as music arguably already does in Journey, where the only means of direct communication involves performing short musical pulses in the absence of conventional text- and voice-based chat. Secondly, James Tate discussed the problematic potential of developing a video game music studies canon, an especially important issue that we need not inherit from popular music studies and the Western ‘art’ music realm.  As Tate’s research showed, though, nostalgia is already something of a potent structuring force in steering which titles are most prominent in the game studies discourse. How, going forward, will we negotiate our personal tastes with academic integrity and maintain a field driven by egalitarian values that emphasise the embracing of diversity? Thirdly, Michiel Kamp’s “Ludo-musical Kuleshov?” drew much-needed attention to the importance of understanding the psychology of video game music perception and affect, including how strongly our interpretations of music can be guided by on-screen and vice versa.  Kamp also presented the exciting potential of his ludo-musical (practice-led) research paradigm whereby a relatively simple game design allowed flexible and iterative reformulation of research questions as uncertainties were clarified or new questions arose. In turn this brought to light how empirically-grounded musicological study tends to exist at the broader intersection of the ‘hard’ sciences and the humanities, drawing on the principles and techniques of both.
Finally, it is worth highlighting the concert curated by Professor James Saunders (with thanks to Alex Glyde-Bates) held at the end of day two. Performed works included the playful and aesthetically engaging, as was the case with Troise’s chiptune piece “FAMIFOOD” and Clement’s live play-through of s.laag. More overtly unconventional and thought-provoking compositions by Louis d’Heudieres and Ben Jameson explored, by ludic means, the ontological boundaries of “authentic” live performance—through a rule-based approach and Guitar Hero respectively.  Jameson’s piece in particular stood out, as a novel, compositional and performative elaboration of the seminal Guitar Hero research carried out by Kiri Miller. I believe our broad and fast-growing field of video game music studies should continue to feature and therefore encourage more work in this vein of artistic practice as research, which includes the studies by Clement and Kamp mentioned above; it is an emerging paradigm that has long been accepted in the visual and dramatic arts as a valid means of producing knowledge but remains relatively under-theorised and under-developed in music. 
In summary, Ludo17 was diverse, fun, and intellectually stimulating; it featured student and early-career researchers alongside established scholars; and it did what arguably most ‘good’ scholarship should do: open up, rather than close off, new and exciting lines of inquiry. To the curious reader I highly recommend visiting the #Ludo2017 twitter feed as well as the booklet of abstracts, for a more comprehensive look into the diversity of research that was presented beyond what I have been able to discuss here. I very much look forward to next year’s conference and wish to thank the organisers for organising a fantastic event.
- Ivan Mouraviev, BMus/BSc in musicology and biological sciences; currently undertaking a BMus (hons) in musicology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
- For the organisers’ biographies please see http://www.ludomusicology.org/about/.
- Blake Troise, University of Southampton.
- laag was composed especially for Dutch bass clarinettist Marij Van Gorkom, as part of the http://dutch-UK.network project started in 2015. For more information see www.game-audio.org.
- Richard Stevens, Leeds Beckett University; Nikos Stavropoulos, Leeds Beckett University. Stevens has co-authored with David Raybould the monograph Game Audio Implementation: A Practical Guide Using the Unreal Engine (Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 2015).
- Kenneth McAlpine, University of Abertay, Dundee.
- James Saunders, Professor of Music, Bath Spa University.
- Austin, “From mixtapes to multiplayers: sharing musical taste through video games,” The Soundtrack 8/1–2 (2015), 77–88.
- Roger Moseley, Assistant Professor in Musicology, Cornell University.
- Keys to Play is freely accessible at http://www.luminosoa.org/site/books/10.1525/luminos.16/.
- See Tasneem Karbani, “Summer research project was music to student’s ears,” folio, University of Alberta, published 7 September 2007, accessed 23 May 2017, https://sites.ualberta.ca/~publicas/folio/45/01/04.html.
- In Nicholas Cook and Richard Pettengill (eds), Taking it to the Bridge: Music as Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 279–318.
- Keys to Play, 7.
- Donal Fullam, PhD Candidate, University College Dublin.
- Edward Spencer, DPhil Music student, University of Oxford.
- Melanie Fritsch M.A., PhD Candidate, University of Bayreuth.
- See, for example: Miller, Playing Along (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012; chapter four of Cheng, Sound Play (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014); and Tim Summers, “Communication for Play,” in Understanding Video Game Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 116–142.
- Joana Freitas, MMus, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa; Elizabeth Hunt, University of Liverpool.
- James S. Tate, PhD Candidate in Musicology at Durham University; Ben Hopgood, Musicology at University of Goldsmiths.
- A recent review with Fifth House performers by CBC news is particularly illustrative of the unique challenges and interactive components of Journey: Live. See http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/canada/calgary/journey-game-soundtrack-live-1.4100542.
- Meghan Naxer, Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Kent State University.
- Jan Torge Claussen, PhD Candidate, University of Hildesheim.
- Stephen Tatlow, MMus Royal Holloway; George Marshall musicology University of Hull.
- James Tate, BMus University of Surrey.
- Michiel Kamp, Junior Assistant Professor in Musicology, University of Utrecht.
- Louis d’Heudieres, Bath Spa University; Ben Jameson, composition PhD Candidate, University of Southampton.
- For an up-to-date account of artistic practice as research in music in both theoretical and practical terms, see: Mine Dogantan-Dack (ed.), “Introduction,” in Artistic Practice as Research in Music: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2015).