Reflections on the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music

At the time of writing* I’m sitting in Pittsburgh International Airport, looking out on the snow-covered concrete while I wait for my flight home. I’ve just attended the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music at Youngstown State University. I’m a bit of a nervous traveller sometimes so I’ve given myself a 6hr wait, which is about half way through. But Pittsburgh Airport is large and near-empty; the classical music playing over the PA and the solitude (relative to Sydney or Los Angeles) is calming. And I’ve had a good weekend, and I’m heading home, so I’m feeling pretty good.

The conference—the first of its kind in North America—was full of interesting and varied papers from academics across the US, together with a few from Canada and myself. As I did after the Ludo2013 conference last year in Liverpool, I’m coming away inspired, intimidated, encouraged, daunted and (perhaps least surprisingly) keen to play more games. Among the papers, only a few games were discussed by more than one presenter, which speaks to the diversity of the work going on in this field at the moment. Enoch Jacobus’ and Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey’s papers on BioShock Infinite made me even more keen to get through the first two BioShock games so I can play it. I’ve added the quirky game Catherine to my list of games to buy a PS3 for after Will Gibbons’ paper on its dualities reminded me of its unique weirdness. And the fact that I haven’t played any Zelda or Final Fantasy games is really starting to feel like a hindrance. I think I’ll have to get some kind of AV switch box thing so I can plug my PlayStation and N64 into my HDMI-only monitor. I don’t often miss having a TV, but for things like this it would be rather useful.

The first two papers, by Dana Plank-Blasko and William Ayers, discussed alterations of Bach and Chopin pieces respectively; Dana demonstrating a mistranscription of Bach’s BWV 565 in the NES version of Captain Comic was an excellent way to start the conference. I enjoyed Steven Reale’s paper on Portal and William O’Hara’s paper on Proteus, both games that give exceptional musical experiences and that I’ve a lot of respect for. Nick Exler gave a paper in which he used a Schenkerian analysis of a Zelda melody, and Elizabeth Medina-Gray constructed a method for analysing smoothness in game music transitions, leaving me convinced I need to bulk up my analytical muscles. Matthew Thompson’s paper on his experiences teaching a music appreciation course using video game music was very warmly received, with many welcoming his pedagogical approach and applauding his successes. And I resonated with Peter Shultz’s paper that challenged the adaptive-is-always-better approach to game scores (perhaps unsurprisingly, as I’m an Elder Scrolls fan).

The keynote address came from Karen Collins, who is among the most prolific and inspiring researchers in the field. Her address did raise a lot of questions among those present, both about the future of the field and the nature of what we’re doing. Collins’ response to a question from Steven Reale about the term “ludomusicology” provoked a great deal of discussion for the remainder of the conference. Many agreed with Collins in thinking that the term was virtually indecipherable to most people and was therefore unhelpful. Others believed that the term is useful because it lends legitimacy to the field. A few made the good point that both “ludomusicology” and “video game music studies” can be useful according to who you’re talking to. I think I agree with this last idea. There were three things that convinced undergraduate me it was possible to study video game music:

  1. There were books published on game music (most notably Collins’ Game Sound)
  2. There was an organised group of researchers studying game music (shout out to the Ludomusicology Research Group), and
  3. People had bothered to give a name to the field.

These things indicated that people studying video game music took their research seriously, and that they considered their research field to be a field in its own right, rather than a sub-field or a side project. That kind of thing is invaluable to a young researcher about to invest their future in a field. It gives such a student courage in the face of almost certain opposition and/or apathy (from institutions and fellow students alike). At least, it did for me. And as I watch the term be understood and even used by a growing number of academics at my institution, I’m convinced it’s helping contextualise my work within the respected body of knowledge. That said, it’s still just a Greek word play, and it’s not the hill I’m going to die on.

All told, it was another engaging and inspiring conference—which, for a young academic field, is a huge success. I’m very glad to have been able to attend, and I’m looking forward to the next stages of ludomusicological research in North America and throughout the world. And I’m all the more inspired to start a ludomusicological research group on this side of the world, if only so I can make everyone else spend 20 hours on a plane to get to a conference.

Press coverage of the conference:
YSU YouTube channel:

*Though not at the time of publication — I’ve been back in Australia for about five days. I’m a slow blogger.