Continuing our ludomusicological journey around the world we hear from Hyeonjin Park (@jinsnocture) who is currently a PhD student in musicology at UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. By outlining their own journey into the field of ludomusicology, Park provides an overview on the development and current state of the field in North America.
For more information and the CfP 2021 see the NACVGM webpage.
There is much to be said about the kinds of research being conducted in North America. Before jumping into this, I wanted to start with a personal anecdote. I came across the term “ludomusicology” when I stumbled across this very blog in February 2014. At the time, I actually had no idea that the North American Conference on Video Game Music (NACVGM) held their inaugural conference just one month before at Youngstown State University in Ohio until later in the year. It wasn’t until late 2014 that I realized ludomusicology wasn’t just a European thing when a professor in my undergraduate music department brought up NACVGM. This professor mentioned there would be another conference in January 2015, this time at Texas Christian University. A few other professors encouraged me to go to get a sense of what an academic conference was like. It was also to encourage me to gather more sources for my senior thesis since I complained that I couldn’t find much scholarship to support my research. So, with the help of a small grant, I found myself in Texas, meeting some of the most welcoming scholars who I have the pleasure to call my colleagues now.
I still remember a handful of the papers presented: Enoch Jacobus’ on “Lighter Than Air” from Bioshock Infinite and the influences of Charles Ives; Neil Lerner’s on teaching game music in the classroom; Julianne Grasso’s on performance and play; among others. One that left an impression on me was Karen Cook’s paper on the music from Civilization V. It was by chance that I wrote an entire chapter on that game’s music for my senior thesis, relying heavily on her Civilization IV chapter in Music in Video Games. I also remember the keynote speaker, Winifred Phillips, presenting a composer’s perspective on game music, which made it clear to me that our field can (and should continue to) develop a symbiotic relationship with the industry.
I start with this because, at the time, I didn’t realize I was witnessing the seeds planted the prior year growing to become what is North American research today. Since 2014, NACVGM has held a conference every year. A study group in the American Musicological Society (AMS) was formed in 2015 and they have had a session every year as well. Many of our American colleagues have gone outside of academic spaces and presented at events such as GameSoundCon. An advantage that scholars based in North America have is the ease-of-access to more industry-focused events due to the sheer amount of activity that occurs in the United States alone. By attending these conferences, they give more opportunities for us to form bridges between industry and academia. It shows, too, looking at some of NACVGM’s keynote speakers and presentations.
On the publishing front, some of the most formative works in our field come from North America, most notably Game Sound by Canadian scholar Karen Collins, which was published in 2008. Since then, the number of articles, chapters, and books published by North American-based scholars has grown exponentially. Some include but are not limited to Music in Video Games edited by K.J. Donnelly, William Gibbons, and Neil Lerner (2014); Sound Play by William Cheng (2014); Unlimited Replays by William Gibbons (2018); Playing Along by Kiri Miller (2012); Keys to Play by Roger Moseley (2016); and A Composer’s Guide to Game Music by Winifred Phillips (2014). There are numerous contributions to various academic journals including but not limited to Music and the Moving Image (from Karen Collins and William Gibbons), Ethnomusicology (from Kiri Miller and William Cheng), Bach (from Dana Plank), and The Computer Games Journal (from Peter Smucker). Of course, I can’t forget the number of North American scholars’ contributions to the Journal of Sound and Music in Games (JSMG) since its inaugural issue, published in January 2020.
Despite being from the United States, I had little idea what my North American colleagues were up to between 2015 and 2017 because I was in Europe. I started my graduate studies in the United Kingdom and, inevitably, was more familiar with what was happening on that side of the pond. It wasn’t until 2019 when I attended NACVGM and presented at the Ludomusicology Conference that I realized there were distinct trends in North America that differed from Europe when it came to paper topics, research interests, and even the types of questions asked during Q&A.
The most immediate difference is the significant presence of music theory in North America, which inevitably impacts the kinds of questions and research scholars were interested in. In addition, three particular topics of interest to scholars are transmedia, analyzing performance/performativity in games, and exploring the relationship between Western art music and game music, reflecting the prominence of historical musicology here. One analytical framework that I find has a strong presence here is semiotics, which I would say is a reflection of how music theory and musicology evolved in North America—more specifically, the United States.
These are a few examples that stick out to me when I think of what North American scholars have shown interest, which, while important to have, outweigh the research that has been done on topics such as identity or fandom; or methodologies that use sociocultural or ethnographic frameworks. In other words, there is still a need for more interdisciplinary and methodological approaches. That said, there has been an increasing interest in this realm. One example in recent memory is the NACVGM 2020 conference, which had not one but two panels that focused exclusively on gender/sexuality in game musics and sounds using different frameworks. In addition, the “sounds” in “game music and sounds studies” is becoming more important as more scholars venture into topics on the voice, sound effects, and soundscapes. For example, at the AMS conference in 2019, the Ludomusicology and Ecocriticism Study Groups held a joint session that took an interdisciplinary approach to game sounds with themes on the (post-)apocalypse and environmental catastrophe.
With North American scholars’ numerous contributions to ludomusicology, I would like to finish with a contemplation on what we mean by “North America.” This is an ongoing problem across academia, which is the dominance of Anglo-American, English-written scholarship. I bring this up for North America, though because, when we mention this continent, it really ends up being a shortening of the United States and Canada. Of course, this is not to say that American and Canadian scholars are excluding others from contributing to discourses in game musics and sounds, but we should consider what happens when over twenty independent countries are absent from our definition of North American scholarship. Which raises two questions: Who are our speakers? Who is our audience, really?
There are myriad issues that our field inherited (though every academic field is grappling with them). It would be a herculean task for us to even try and resolve them all. This isn’t to say that we should ignore them. With hope, I would say we are conscious of these issues and show an eagerness to do as much as possible to break patterns found in music studies. As I shared in my anecdote, there is a particular warmth that this field’s scholars (especially here) exude that I have never—and honestly, still haven’t—experienced anywhere else.
 Of course, there was a fair amount of publications by 2014 as I’ll point out later. At the time, though, I was interested in nonwestern music traditions in video games. There was (and frankly, still is) a dearth of scholarship then.
 A notable example is Music Video Games: Performance, Politics, and Play edited by Michael Austin (2016). Most of the contributors were based in North America.