A guest contribution by Stefan Greenfield-Casas.
Stefan is a PhD student in music theory & cognition and affiliate of the Interdisciplinary Program in Critical Theory at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the intersection(s) of music, myth, and media, especially through the concertization and “classifying” of video game and film scores. He has presented papers at various conferences, including meetings of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, the Royal Musical Association, Music and the Moving Image, and the North American Conference on Video Game Music.
Here, Stefan is in conversation with the world-ranking gamer Norris Joosakunwijit as Norris competes in a global competitive event in the rhythm game BanG Dream!
Content Warning: This post includes some strong language.
Towards the end of 2019, I was fortunate enough to have an on-and-off informal interview with globally ranked mobile gamer Norris Joosakunwijit over the course of about a week. During this time, he was trying to rank within the top 10 (and eventually top 3) players of the mobile rhythm game BanG Dream! during its “Steadfast Pride Piercing Sunset” event. In the game, players tap the scrolling rhythms of the played song, akin to the mechanics of games such as Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution (an example of Joosakunwijit playing is embedded within the body of the interview). During the week, Joosakunwijit kept me updated on his rank as well as his thoughts on how the event was progressing. Noting that this is (in theory) a so-called “casual” game—a genre in which players can play on-and-off at their leisure across a day—it may surprise some readers how intense the strain was on Joosakunwijit. He took off from work for the week to entirely devote his time to the game, playing around 15 hours a day for the majority of the event.
Joosakunwijit’s weekly Screen Time results during the event.
By the event’s end, however, Joosakunwijit noted that he couldn’t keep up anymore and that he didn’t play at all for the last day of the event in order to recuperate. As shown in his Screen Time capture above, Joosakunwijit played almost 110 hours of BanG Dream! across the week of the event, averaging about 15.4 hours a day on the game. This directly challenges the idea that BanG Dream! is simply a casual game.
To frame this interview, I consider the potential contradictions of casual games and the time (and monetary investment) top players will spend on them. In particular, I extend Aubrey Anable’s writings on the “rhythms” of life that casual games engender to consider what happens in extreme cases that Anable does not take into account—that is, when the games actually disrupt the rhythms of life. Further still, I consider what role a game based around music and rhythm plays in this kind of disruption. In other words, is the fact that BanG Dream! is a rhythm game part of what allows it to take over the rhythms of life?
In Aubrey Anable’s 2018 monograph, Playing with Feelings, she suggests that casual games (and mobile games in particular) provide a punctuating rhythm to our lives, organizing the larger, work-based cycles of the day to include short, quasi-escapist interludes of play. And yet, Joosakunwijit’s experience in ranking among the top players in BanG Dream! demonstrates an extreme which complicates Anable’s rhythmic analysis. With Joosakunwijit and these other top-tiering players, the schema is inverted such that play takes over the majority of their respective lives (at least for a time), and other elements of life instead provide brief moments of time away from the game. This isn’t even necessarily accomplished within the idealized state of what Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi has famously termed “flow,” as Joosakunwijit noted at one point that he was “pretty fucking braindead” most of the time he was playing. This is not to say that I believe Anable’s rhythmic reading is incorrect, but rather that I am pushing her theory to also consider extreme affective states of play—extremes, I might add, which are not at all uncommon in gamer culture.
Indeed, mobile games the world over incite more extremes than might be expected for “casual” and “free to play” games. While this has been covered in detail on the “free to play” side of things in detail (see the links in the previous sentence), less attention has been given to the time and energy players will invest in these “casual” games. Joosakunwijit is a prime example of this. Even though he was able to avoid “whaling” and spending huge amounts of money on the game to rank as well as he did, the level of commitment the game required to rank within the top 3 players was so strenuous that Joosakunwijit physically couldn’t play the final day of the event. In a follow-up conversation, Joosakunwijit noted that by about five days in to the event he was no longer eating full meals and speculated that this was one large part he was physically and mentally unable to play on the last day of the event. What is striking to me is that, even after the event had ended, Joosakunwijit indicated he was considering trying to tier in a forthcoming event as well. This is even after he had stated multiple times across the week that he would never try to tier this high again. This extreme rhythm, then, is pleasurable (or at least worthwhile) in some capacity. Whether or not such an extreme is sustainable and for how long, however, is a different story.
The question, then, becomes how music specifically affects this experience. In his famed video essay Sans Soleil (1983), director Chris Marker notes that video game music helps contribute to the “score” of Tokyo, perhaps in-part alluding to the city symphonies of earlier in the century. He continues on, suggesting that “By listening to them , you can play them from memory.” This speaks to Joosakunwijit’s experience playing the game, even when he was “braindead.” For Marker, video games and their music are ultimately redemptive, offering “the inseparable philosophy of our time.” He finds this philosophy in the arcade: both with Pac-Man and with the white-collar worker playing an anti-corporate variant of whack-a-mole. And yet, that Marker begins his discussion of video games based on their music, I think, is telling. If, as Anable suggests, casual, mobile games provide moments of reprieve from the capitalist cycle of work (and, I might add, the neoliberal sense of selfhood constituted through rhythms of productivity), then—returning to BanG Dream!—it makes sense that a game fundamentally about (not only) music, but about musical rhythms more specifically, might so thoroughly disrupt the neoliberal work paradigm. This is not to say that other casual games (or any other types of games for that matter!), might not also disrupt systems of work or rhythms of life. But to root this discussion in music and memory, as Marker suggests and as I argue Joosakunwijit demonstrates with his “braindead” virtuosity, rhythm games at some level inherently support, or perhaps even afford such disruptions. For Marker, the locus of his ludomusical philosophy was in the arcade. In the second decade of the 21st century, however, we find this philosophy readily available to us in our pockets.
Joosakunwijit’s (AKA “PKMN Trainer Sayo”) final event ranking.
What follows is an annotated and edited transcription of our conversation:[11/10/2019; 4:53 AM]
I’ve been playing nonstop since 7 PM. Time for sleep.[11/10/2019; 3:19 PM]
I’ve gotta get those numbers up.[11/10/2019; 5:18 PM]
Stefan Greenfield-Casas: You’re catching up!
NJ: Probably not. Their team is better than mine and I don’t think I want to keep doing 15-hour days.
SGC: Yeah, I believe it.[11/11/2019; 7:47 PM]
SGC: Good job![11/10/2019; 9:14 PM]
“I don’t think I want to keep doing 15-hour days lol” –me, yesterday
SGC: I mean it was “only” 14 hours this time.
NJ: Nah, it ended up actually being 17 hours 😅 I’m never fucking doing this again.
SGC: It’s gotta be brutal.
NJ: My sleep schedule is messed up.
SGC: I believe it.
NJ: Aside from that, I’m still getting my meals in and drinking a shit ton of water.
SGC: Good, good.[11/12/2019; 11:05 AM]
SSGC: So how exactly does it work? Do you just spam the same song over and over again? Do you need to whale at all?
NJ: So ideally you wanna play songs that are meta since they earn you the most points. But I’ve been playing with randoms, so getting a meta song depends on what other people pick. But yeah, I just play the same song over and over again, from the time I wake up till the time I sleep. Also, I haven’t had to spend any money since I’m using saved resources/gems from over time.
SGC: Do you even pay attention to it [the music] at this point? Or just do it automatically?
I’m pretty fucking braindead half the time I’m playing.
SGC: I believe it. Do you have background noise on or nah?
NJ: I’ve been watching b99 [Brooklyn Nine-Nine] again. Or I’m on X-box talking to my friends.
SGC: Nice, nice.[11/12/2019; 5:00 PM]
I apparently have a fan 😅
SGC: That’s amazing![11/12/2019; 6:51 PM]
NJ: So I’m pretty sure I’m gonna lose my top 3 spot because this guy is catching up relatively quick. Once he does, I can probably stop doing these 15-hour days and just aim for the top 10 like I wanted.
SGC: I’m still super impressed you kept this up as long as you did.
NJ: Tbh same.[11/13/2019; 10:11 AM]
NJ: This person needs to mind their own business lol.
SGC: What’s “kzn”?
NJ: One of the meta songs. It’s not the best meta [song,] but it’s not the worst.
Also, free advertisement.
NJ: I got the idea from when I played with a random streamer.
SGC: Makes sense.[11/14/2019; 10:11 AM]
SGC: How’s your rank doing, Norris? Are you still doing the 15-hour days?
NJ: Yeah, but I fear once the weekend comes I’ll lose my [spot in the] top 3.
SGC: Weekends always mess rankings up.
NJ: Plus, some of the other top 10 players are playing with each other so their efficiency is better than mine by a long shot. And their teams are better than mine. I low-key want t4 to take t3 from me so I can stop playing and focus on Pokémon [Pokémon: Sword and Shield] when it comes out. Until then, I’m gonna make it a bitch to take t3. I’m also pretty low on resources and don’t know if I should drop 100 [USD] to get more stars.
SGC: I know you hadn’t last I asked, but have you whaled at all yet?
NJ: Luckily no. But I’m pretty sure I’m guaranteed top 10 which was my original goal, so I’ll be happy with whatever the end results are.
SGC: That’s awesome. Gratz!
NJ: Wait, never mind. I’m only 2 mil[lion] points above t10 and the weekend is approaching and these people might go nuts because Roselia fans are wild lol. I should’ve picked a band with the least amount of fans.
SGC: It wouldn’t have been as satisfying though.
NJ: Nah, it would’ve just been as satisfying, especially knowing that I got the same rank with less effort.
SGC: Fair, fair.[11/15/2019; 11:14 AM]
NJ: Wow. How dare they call me a whale?
SGC: RIP.[11/15/2019; 3:11 PM]
NJ: My lead has increased by a lot but weekend is approaching so anything can happen. I did make a new friend though which is pretty cool.
SGC: Very nice! How’d they find you? (Or you them?)
NJ: His Twitter handle is in his Bandori profile. I looked him up and he was talking about how he was struggling to stay above t10. I messaged him offering to form a small party since it would benefit the both of us. We might try to get this third guy to join since he was also a solo player. I’m honestly surprised us three solos made it this far. [pause] Damn it. Now I gotta worry about [one of these players] taking my t3.[11/16/2019; 9:06 AM]
NJ: Random, but don’t ever drink energy drinks.
SGC: They’re awful. Haven’t had one in years.
NJ: I had one yesterday when tiering and the aftereffects were horrible. But then again maybe it’s because my current state of body shouldn’t be drinking them lol.
SGC: Yeah, wouldn’t surprise me!
Only two and a half more days left to go. Maybe tonight or even tomorrow in the evening the rankings should be set in stone.
SGC: Ridiculous. What’s your name about? “New Staff”?
NJ: So when I was playing with randoms as “PKMN Trainer Sayo” [his previous name], people would troll me because they knew I was [in the top 10]. They would pick hella non-meta songs that are long and earn no points. Or they would just leave because they didn’t want to lose. So I changed it to “new staff” because that’s the name the game gives you when you first start to play.
SGC: Ahhh, clever clever.
NJ: But it doesn’t matter now because I’m playing with a clan now.[11/17/2019; 1:33 AM]
NJ: This new t4 is annoying.[11/17/2019; 8:46 AM]
SGC: ?[11/17/2019; 10:37 AM]
NJ: The dude below me [t4] keeps playing and earning points even though I can out-pace him. But if I stop then I give him a slight chance to catch up to me. Normally I could’ve stopped playing [this event] because people understand their limits. But this person’s not listening to their limits
SGC: I see, I see.[At this point I formally asked Joosakunwijit if I could use our conversation thus far and following for research, as well as ask him if he can somehow record himself playing the song he’s been playing.] [11/17/2019; 12:14]
NJ: Yeah, I can do that for you.
NJ: Surprisingly, that video is the ideal perfect run when soloing.
SGC: How so?
NJ: The song selection and my song actually getting picked.
SGC: Ah, right right. So everyone chooses a song they want to do and then it chooses one of those randomly?
NJ: Yeah, but if someone picks “random” then it chooses one of the other songs. Like the song I play is 1:35 long. Actually, 1:32 is the actual length.
SGC: So it makes it worth playing, pointwise, as opposed to other songs?
NJ: Yeah. That and some songs give better scores for whatever reason. If I play any other song, it adds either a second or up to even a minute.
SGC: Point efficiency at its finest then.
NJ: Maybe wait to write the paper when I’m confirmed top 3 lol. Unless you just want a POV from top 10. Like right now sucks because everyone keeps choosing the new song that just came out. It’s a 1:57 [long] song and I get about 400 points less than I normally would [playing a meta song].
SGC: I’m surprised they released a new song during the event? Or is it technically the event song?
NJ: It’s just a new song. This game is just doing what JP [the Japanese server/version of the game] does but with a one-year delay.
SGC: Gotcha.[11/17/2019; 9:02 PM]
NJ: I think I might give up on t3. My body is too exhausted and I’m only up by 900k.
SGC: How many hours are left?
NJ: About 24 hours.
SGC: Ganbatte! You’ve kept up the 15-hour days?
NJ: Apparently I’ve been doing 16-hour days.
SGC: That’s real rough.
NJ: Being up by 900k is only like 8 hours of straight playing too.
SGC: “Only.” That’s still a ton in my book. I’ve never been that high late in an event. Even when I was in the top 3k or so, I could usually play for maybe 1-2 hours and jump anywhere from 500-1000 people in rank. The top is terrifying though.
NJ: I say only because it’s not impossible to do, especially since they seem to earn more points than me.
SGC: Do they have a better team?
NJ: They’re just in a tier lobby.[11/18/2019; 12:21 AM]
NJ: Yeah, he managed to get 300k points in 2 hours. It’s GG for me.[11/18/2019; 7:53 AM]
SGC: How’s it going? Where do the rankings stand?[11/18/2019; 9:10 AM]
NJ: I’ve stopped playing so I’ll either end in 4th or 5th.
SGC: Wait you’re done playing?[11/18/2019; 10:55 AM]
NJ: Yeah, my body is just way too exhausted and I’m down 400k. My goal of getting top 10 was met, going for t3 was just for the hell of it.
SGC: Gratz. That’s a ton.
NJ: This will definitely be my last attempt at a top 10 title unless they make another tsugusayo event. Then I’ll be going through this hell all over again. But I know what to expect and how to do things better. I could do that Re:Zero event but that will probably be a bloodbath.
SGC: Regardless, I’m still impressed you did as well as you did. And yeah, I imagine collab[oration]s are especially bad in terms of ranking.[11/20/2019; 11:30 AM]
SGC: What’d you end up ranking? t4?
NJ: Yeah, I ended up 4th. My body couldn’t do the last day stretch. It was physically and mentally shutting down on me.
SGC: I believe it.
NJ: I actually lost about 10 pounds too.
SGC: How’d you lose that much weight?? Were you not eating? Or was it stress-based?
NJ: I was eating little meals. There might have been a small amount of stress but nothing too big tbh. I think I was intaking only 600 calories a day.
SGC: 600 is nothing.
NJ: Yeah, you don’t get much calories from tuna/crackers and beef jerky lol. But the protein is there. I’m also lowkey thinking about [trying to rank] again when that Re:Zero collab comes out. 👀
SGC: You’re a glutton for punishment…[End interview]
 Part of BanG Dream!’s novelty as a rhythm game lies in its corpus: anime cover songs.
 Aubrey Anable, Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Ch. 3 (71-102). Anable complicates this idea, arguing that we partake in these games partially to have mastery over the schedule within the game itself and thus suggesting they work as a kind of proxy for our everyday working lives.
 I’ve also discussed the “free to play” (and “pay to do better than others”) element of mobile games elsewhere. See Stefan Greenfield-Casas, “Between Worlds: Musical Allegory in Final Fantasy X” (MM Report, The University of Texas at Austin, 2017), 33-34.
 As our conversation took place over the course of a week, I try the best I can to note when new sets of messages were sent. Timestamps are written in the MM/DD/YYYY format and are noted in CST (the time zone in which Joosakunwijit was playing).
 Whale in its adjectival form (“to whale”) means to spend a vast amount of money on something. Originally used in casinos to designate big-spenders, it has been taken up by mobile game players as a way of noting when players spend vast amounts of money on a game, generally in order to rank in an event (as is the case for Joosakunwijit here), or to try and pull a choice card or item from a randomized in-game gacha machine. See n16 below.
 Random players across the global server of the game.
 Here, Joosakunwijit notes his strategy of saving materials and items that allow him to play for longer than the allotted time normally would allow.
 As is apparent in the embedded video below, even though Joosakunwijit is “braindead” for most of the day and attending to other things as well, he still makes perfect or almost perfect runs of the songs he plays.
 Here, Joosakunwijit used his platform as a top 10 player to advertise one of his friend’s Twitch channels by changing his username and in-game message to direct attention to her channel.
 Teams here refers to the virtual band members players collect (in the form of virtual cards) in order to boost their scores per the effect of each respective card’s ability.
 This is the first point in the conversation Joosakunwijit mentions that the event is starting to physically affect him.
 頑張って. A Japanese term meaning “do your best” or “good luck.”
 I should note that my experience is relegated to other mobile games, most prominently in the now defunct Ayakashi: Ghost Guild and Kingdom Hearts Union χ [Cross].
 GG as an abbreviation for “good game.”
 Tsugusayo relates to a coupling of two of the characters within the game: Hazawa “Tsugu” Tsugumi (the keyboardist of the in-game band Afterglow) and Hikawa Sayo (the guitarist of the in-game band Roselia). Joosakunwijit’s original in-game name, “PKMN Trainer Sayo,” is in reference to the latter.
 Re:Zero is a popular novel series originally released in 2012 with an anime adaptation that was released in 2016. In the context of this upcoming event, the BanG Dream! characters are dressed in the attire of some of the characters from Re:Zero.