Video Games Killed the Cinema Star: It's Time for a Change in Studies of Music and the Moving Image

By Collins, Karen | Music, Sound and the Moving Image, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Video Games Killed the Cinema Star: It's Time for a Change in Studies of Music and the Moving Image


Collins, Karen, Music, Sound and the Moving Image


'Whether we like it or not, this is the medium of our moment.' 1

Three quarters of U.S. heads of households, the same report tells us, now regularly play video games. The industry is now worth over $7.5 billion in the United States alone: a figure close to that of the film industry ($9B) and increasing every year (Goodale 2005). Particularly remarkable is the widening of the audience for games - the ESA report informs us that nearly one fifth of adults over the age of 50 play games, and 'women over the age of 18 represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (28%) than boys from ages 6 to 17 (21%)'. With such impressive statistics, it is clear that games are now a significant force in our cultural landscape - the 'medium of the moment'. Despite the ubiquity of games now, with very few notable exceptions, there has been but a handful of articles published on games audio (see References, below).

Perhaps worth asking is why, given its importance, games audio has met with such silence in academe. When I first suggested to a colleague that I was going to begin research into this area, I was met with the response, 'Games music? But that's so simple!' It is certainly not surprising to me that it is only now that games audio has reached a 'cinematic' quality that it is gaining some recognition. But despite appearances, even early games audio offers intriguing questions in terms of the production and reception of sound, such as I discovered in a study of the Atari VCS's fascinating approach to tonality (Collins 2006a). The influence of early game audio on other forms of popular music has also been underestimated - the continuing prominence of just one sound, Pacman's 'waca waca' (the sound the character makes when eating) is clear evidence of this. Back in the 1980s, the sound was incorporated into popular songs such as Weird Al Yankovic's 'Pac Man', and Buckner and Garcia's 'Pacman Fever', but has more recently been used by Aphex Twin, Bloodhound Gang, DMX, Lil' Flip and many more. There have even been T-shirts selling on E-Bay which feature the words 'waca waca'.2 Similarly, the Boston Bruins adapted Zombie Nation's hit 'Kernkraft 400' for their 'goal' theme song and it has since found its way into countless mobile phones as a ringtone, but was itself adapted from a theme in a Commodore 64 game, Lazy Jones (Terminal Software 1984). There has also been a growing popularity of 'micromusic', also known as 'chiptunes' - songs based on 8-bit game machine sound. Malcolm McLaren has begun promoting the scene, and Beck released an EP of 8-bit remixes of some of his songs in 2005. Golden Shower won a Brazilian MTV Music Video award for their track 'Video Computer System', all based on Atari VCS sounds and images, and Swedish band Machinae Supremacy has brought 8-bit metal to the masses. For further details of all these tracks see the box below.

Another objection I've encountered in suggesting that others study games sound has been 'I'm too old. I don't play games'. Although recent research by the industry suggests this to be untrue (see above), the impression remains that many adults lack the skill sets to comprehend games or the gaming experience. Certainly, if one is uninterested in games it would be a good reason not to study them, but the excuse often seems not lack of interest, but either an insecurity over 'what will my colleagues think' or the inability to come to grips with the technology. It is time we recognized that games are not just the domain of children, or just for 'play' anymore (and, if they were, they would of course still be worth studying). Certainly, the connotation of the word 'game' suggests a lack of academic rigour, and I am always met with sniggers when I explain what I do to academics or the public. After all, if it is fun, it can't be taken seriously (right?). But surely we should take an interest in something in which people invest so much time, and it is precisely for this reason (not to mention the current military uses of games) that it must be taken seriously. …

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