Tag Archives: conference

The Finish Line Is Back There a Bit

I submitted my PhD thesis the other day.

This is a rather excellent development.

I think I’m happy with how it turned out. Though, of course, I’m not really willing to re-open it and check just yet. I’ll wait and see what the examiners say, and in the meantime, I will try to recover from the final stretch. I took six weeks off work to finish the thesis—a time period in which I took about three days off thesis work, not including the time I spent preparing and presenting a paper at the Games Research Methods Symposium at Sydney Uni (a really interesting conference, but from a timing perspective it wasn’t my greatest decision). I worked myself beyond exhaustion, lost track of the day several times, and still had to make compromises on several aspects and processes. I had to avoid Twitter to keep my mental health above water. I had to employ several fine-toothed combs, including one to remove spaces around em-dashes (a bad habit), one to ensure the use of Oxford commas (easy things to miss, it turns out), and one to switch out the singular ‘they’ (a good habit, but a PhD thesis isn’t the time to fight that battle). EndNote caused a day of intense frustration when it started changing citations of its own volition. And while most aspects of the formatting style I’d previously used for my honours thesis could be re-used to save trouble, I did have to switch the font in the end. But all told, I think it turned out well.

My initial plan, going into this PhD, was to study the intersection of thematic and gameplay genres. However, I soon found semiotics to be a more interesting and less well-trod path. My thesis ended up being a very substantial development of the work I started in my “Meaningful Play” article: a semiotic framework capable of analysing the initial composition and interactive configuration of game music separately (because there are some quite different processes going on in each). I was quite impressed by the idea of the player’s authorship of their experience—a concept which is not new in studies of games, but which had yet to be fully applied to game music, and which gets really interesting when comparing gameplay to other forms of play. With the exception of some work on Microsoft Flight, all of the analysis and writing I’ve done over the last five and a half years has made it into the thesis in some way. However, there are several avenues of investigation that came up during my study that I didn’t have time or space to pursue. I dropped four potential chapters, and still nearly hit my word limit.

In between afternoon naps, I’ve been trying to think of things to do with my reacquired freedom. I’m presenting a conference paper in December, but I’ve decided not to do any academic work until September to give myself a break. I’ve been reading for leisure again, which is nice. I’ve got time for photography, including astro and analogue. And there’s a mountain of unplayed games in my Steam library to play through. But I’ve also completed my strategy of encouraging thesis progress through self-bribery. I found that I was much more likely to write when I set myself goals with tangible rewards, and for the ultimate reward I decided to aim for a MIDI controller. I’ve been itching to make music, to play some piano, and even to compose. So I’ve bought a device with plenty of scope for productivity and experimentation, and am having quite a lot of fun playing around with music again. I might even try my hand at making some game music—coming at my object of study from the other direction, as it were.

Anyway, thanks for reading up to this point. I plan to keep writing (who knows? I might even do so more frequently), because games and music are excellent things. Somehow, writing my thesis hasn’t crippled my ability to enjoy either. I think that must be some kind of miracle.

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:
Vindy: http://www.vindy.com/news/2014/jan/19/ysu-forum-explores-music-in-video-games/
Wired: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2014/01/game-music/
YSU YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRsLZjIHDmE

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

Reflections on the MSA/NZMS 2013 conference and my own place in the world

I’m in Brisbane at the moment, having attended the joint annual conference of the Musicological Society of Australia together with the New Zealand Musicological Society this week. It’s been an intellectually stimulating week of papers from a truly diverse range of disciplines. As I usually do after a conference, I’m coming away with a head full of ideas and an inexplicable desire to start composing again. But that will definitely have to remain a hobby (at best) for the time being since, as I might mention a bit further down, things been hella busy.

I mentioned a diverse range of disciplines, and I wasn’t kidding. Highlights included a set of papers suggesting that certain composers should be considered as modernists, a paper on “the cup game” and its role in high school musical culture, a paper on the metal scene and underground sub-scene of Adelaide, a paper on remodernism in the work of a Georgian composer, a paper denouncing the labelling of Reich’s “Different Trains” as documentary, a paper on the inaccuracies (and otherwise) of an amateur scribe, a paper on child soldier musicians in Australia and England, and another set of papers on creativity in the recording/producing processes. My favourite thing about conferences like this is that your mind is stretched in so many different directions. Quite beyond just being interesting, it helps me think about my own work in new ways.

Also thought-provoking was the discussion around music and musicology’s place in Australian university culture and the nation’s culture at large. What I heard, and what resonated with me, was that there’s a certain sense of entitlement among musical practitioners, educators and theorists regarding access to the public purse which stands in direct opposition to the uniquely anti-intellectual, anti-academic rhetoric and mentality found in Australia. The call was to be responsible and to be able to justify your place—this is something I struggle with frequently, and I suspect that’s because I don’t fully expect people would accept my justification, even if I had a good argument prepared. I think I can justify my research to someone who’s sold on the notion that the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms is beneficial to society, but people (and even universities) these days don’t seem to buy that without significant discounts. But quite apart from my puny little PhD, I find it disturbing that music itself is falling under the same ire. I guess when Spotify etc. let you access music ad nauseum, musical practitioners seem as abstract and irrelevant as a cow does to a supermarket-bought scotch fillet. Super sad.

The presentation of my own paper on L.A. Noire‘s place in the noir tradition went well. I had a chance in the week leading up to the conference to re-do some of the video examples, and I think it paid off. Removing the part where I crash a car into a power pole certainly made me look more professional. The questions I received afterwards were helpful, as always—I often feel as though I learn more from the questions than I impart in the presentation. But it’s particularly good to have had another chance to discuss ludomusicology on the national stage. I’m slowly getting more of an idea of who’s interested in this field in Australia, and while numbers are small I’m hopeful that talking and presenting can help change that.

My big stack of work at the moment is finishing off the article version of this paper and sending that off for publication (hopefully). I aim to get that finished ASAP so I can start working on EVE Online and its multiple musical experiences, which I’m quite excited to do. Things are busy, but they’re moving forward.

Globetrotting and Agri-mining

Nearly a month ago now, I got on a plane and went to England. My destination was the Ludomusicology 2013 conference at the University of Liverpool, run by the Ludomusicology Research Group. The conference spanned two days and featured papers on everything from case studies of game music, to generative music practices and technology, to the intersection of ludomusicology and gender studies. The field, though still young, is definitely maturing. It maintains its strong links to the industry and its heavily interdisciplinary character, but it is wrestling with many complex philosophical and cultural ideas and is beginning to resolve itself as an independent discipline. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of it.

Having the opportunity to gather and share ideas with others working in my field has provoked me to engage more fervently with my own studies. There just aren’t as many opportunities for that in Australia yet, though I’m even more determined to change that than I was before. (If you or someone you know studies video game music academically in Australia or New Zealand, we should talk!) Nevertheless, I’m trying to tackle my own little task with alacrity. The next month contains an article deadline and another international conference, so I’m keeping myself rather busy. I’m a little ragged around the edges, and I feel like I’ve got so little time for gaming, but it is good to be getting into the swing of things.

I must confess, however, that my academic fervour fails dismally from time to time, and the culprit is usually Minecraft. I’ve recently learned how to farm and traverse oceans in my single player game, and have been building roads stretching for miles with my wife in our multi-player world. The farming experience has made me wonder what right a mining game has to be so damn cute. It’s not just that the baby animals are adorable, either. So many of the game’s mechanics—from crafting a sword from sticks and stones, to the way fish fly out of the water into your hands when you’re fishing—are done so simply that even when completely functional they’re playful. And when you’ve spent hours being distracted by Minecraft, it’s impossible to be angry at it for being so addictive because you’d feel like a big old meanie. Sneaky, sneaky game.