Across the big Pond: North America’s Expansion of Ludomusicology

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.[1] 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.

Excerpt of Winifred Phillips’ keynote at NACVGM 2015

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.

Marty O’Donnell giving his keynote during NACVGM 5 in 2018. (Source: Matthew Thompson)

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.[2] 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.

Some of our North American scholars eating lunch together at AMS San Antonio 2018. (Source: Dana Plank)

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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

Ludo2021 – Now accepting submissions!

Update, 1st March 2021: Registration is now open and submissions will no longer be considered.

delighted to announce that we are now accepting submissions for our 2021 conference. The conference will take place online, on the 23–25 April, 2021. The deadline for proposals is 8th January 2021.

Find out more on our conference page here!

As usual, we welcome proposals on all aspects of sound and music in games. This year, we are particularly interested in papers that support the conference theme of ‘Where in the world is video game music? Geographies, Cultures, and Regions of Game Music’.

Our confirmed keynotes are Prof. Hillegonda Rietveld, Professor of Sonic Culture at London South Bank University and Markus Zierhofer, composer of The Wagadu Chronicles and founder of AudioCreatures.

“To Love and Learn Game Music in the South”

Crest of the Ludomusicology Society of Australia

In this chapter of our ludomusicological journey around the world we hear from Barnabas Smith, the founder and President of the Ludomusicology Society of Australia. Smith prefaces his commentary on the LSA, developments within the Australasian academic community, and game music culture projects with a brief assessment of the reason we are all here – the compositional landscape itself.

Composing for Games

Despite enduring a distinctly strict digital game classification regime for many years – or perhaps because of it – Australia’s most vibrant and successful development models are found in the indie game sector. One of the earliest games to receive industry recognition was The Hobbit, a 1982 game developed for the ZX Spectrum. This recognition has continued through to today, with several recent indie titles receiving notable acclaim. Untitled Goose Game (2019) won Golden Joystick, D.I.C.E.[1] and NAVGTR[2] awards, while Hollow Knight (2017) was added to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in 2019. The scores for these two games were created by Dan Golding (Melbourne) and Chris Larkin (Adelaide) respectively. Both continue to work and live in Australia, as do composers Amy Bastow and Belinda Coomes. Along with Jeff van Dyck (Total War series), Mick Gordon is perhaps the most internationally recognised Australian game composer, known for his signature scores and sound design on titles in the DOOM, Wolfenstein, and Destroy All Humans series.

On the pedagogical side, there now exist a number of game composition, recording, and engineering study opportunities across the tertiary and vocational education sectors. Courses at the University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, Australian National University, James Cook University, and the Queensland University of Technology are enhanced by a regular series of game culture events. Melbourne, in particular, is a national game music industry leader and education hub. Each year the city hosts the Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW), which is the largest games festival in Southeast Asia, and hosts the only PAX festival held outside of the USA. Since 2017, music rights body APRA AMCOS has presented High Score, an event hosted in Melbourne and yoked to the MIGW. Part conference, part showcase, and part Q&A session, High Score offers a superlative opportunity to engage with game composers, producers, and audio designers. International guests such as Neal Acree, Manami Matsumae, and Takahiro Izutani have been featured guests, in addition to some of the aforementioned Australian composers.

Valuable as these events are, they are not structured to foster scholarly endeavours relating to game music. Such early forays can be found in independently published dissertations and occasional computer culture conference programmes. An instructive example is “Game/Music Interaction”, featured in the Eighth Australasian User Interface Conference (2007), and whose second author, Burkhard Wünsche, remains at the University of Auckland. However, it is within the last five to ten years that a corpus of journal articles focusing critically on video game music has emerged.

Academic Research

Articles such as Iain Hart’s 2014 “Meaningful Play” in Musicology Australia and 2015 critique of L.A. Noire’s soundtrack in Screen Sound Journal heralded a more ‘ludomusical’ approach. There followed more articles offering distinctly varied avenues of inquiry, in tandem with a broadening appreciation of the subject matter. In 2017, Jessica Crowe analysed Nintendo Music by Australian composer Matthew Hindson through a postmodernist lens, while the same year saw New Zealand scholar Ivan Mouraviev’s syncretic evaluation of music, narrative, and emotion in Journey published. Sebastian Diaz-Gasca, whose 2013 PhD was concerned with the consumption of video game soundtrack, continued this line in 2018 with “Super Smash Covers! Performance and audience engagement in Australian videogame music cover bands” in Perfect Beat. “From Skyrim to Skellige” saw Musicology Australia once again showcase game music scholarship, and this 2019 evaluation of RPG and fantasy music’s neo-Mediaevalist aesthetic was co-authored by Brendan Lamb and Barnabas Smith.

Many of these authors have also been active proponents of sharing game music research within different professional groups. Evidence of this can be found in conference proceedings that see publication, such as a paper on the soundtrack for DOOM (2016) featured in the 2017 Australasian Computer Music Conference. Yet like so many other fields of music research, papers on game music delivered at musicology, music education, popular music, and computer music conferences on both sides of the Tasman Sea have tended to be experienced only by those ‘in the room’, as it were.

Ludomusicology Society of Australia

In response to this need for a single and dedicated group, the LSA was launched in 2017 at the conclusion of the Ludomusicology Easter conference in Bath, UK. Indeed, the LSA’s genesis was inspired by the activities and ethos of the Ludomusicology Research Group. It was founded with the aims of unifying isolated study groups, communicating individual scholars’ research, and connecting academics and enthusiasts within Australasia.

The LSA’s Inaugural Winter Symposium in 2018 provided an opportunity for delegates to share their research through the Society for the first time. This event saw scholars travel from across Australia to congregate in Adelaide, with remote papers also delivered from the UK and US. A panoply of topics ranged from cut-scene narratives and participant agency in music games, to non-Western notation analysis and thematic nostalgia, through to evaluations of fantasy game and RPG scores. Acclaimed composer Neal Acree delivered the event’s keynote presentation and Q&A session, offering insight into his composition process and creative stimuli. The final programme can be viewed and downloaded here.

The roundtable discussion session was a particularly memorable opportunity for delegates to exchange views freely on concepts and challenges associated with ludomusicology. This activity will now be programmed during every LSA conference as a counterpoint to the primary formal paper delivery process. Its recapitulation at LSA Symposium 2019 was similarly positive and informative. Held within the castellated Sydney Conservatorium of Music, this event saw a marked increase in attendee numbers and remote delegate involvement from across Australia and the US. Among the distinguished attendees was Scottish expatriate and field leader Kenny McAlpine, who delivered the symposium’s keynote. This event’s programme can also be viewed and downloaded.

Delegates a the 2019 LSA Symposium

The intention to build on such positive progress remains an exciting priority for the Society. Of course, along with most other groups across the world, the current global health climate and subsequent restrictions of movement and congregation are predominant determining factors.

Next Steps

The future is bright for the LSA and ludomusicology more broadly in the Australasian region, despite the uncertainty of these times. This significant sub-discipline continues to be not only accepted but also embraced by those in established popular music research fields and conventional musicology spheres. This might manifest in a Musicological Society of Australia award, an article in the popular and contemporary music journal Perfect Beat, or a conference hosted by Music EDnet, the premiere music technology education group across Australia and New Zealand.

Moreover, as game music studies undergo natural field maturation, the LSA continues to forge and nurture connections with non-academic game music enthusiasts, professionals, and groups. The Society’s President was featured recently on Game Composure, a podcast run by South Australian musician Angelo Valdivia. Valdivia’s cover outfit 17-Bit Band is also one of many popular groups performing game music live throughout the country. Another of Valdivia’s guests is composer Meena Shamalay who hosts Game Show, a weekly national ABC Classic radio program broadcast out of Melbourne and featuring an extensive game music catalogue.

The LSA is exploring collaboration options with many of these outfits, and exciting Society publication projects will be announced soon. Hosting composers will also always remain part of future conference activities.

As a proud member body of the SSSMG, the LSA aims to continue offering scholars, composers, and enthusiasts from Australia, New Zealand, and across globe, a unifying home for connecting, communicating, and celebrating game music research – that is, AMARE ET COGNOSCERE LUDUM MUSICA AD MERIDIANAM – to love and learn game music in the south.

[1] Design Innovate Communicate Entertain

[2] National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers

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