Music Creation and Gamification

[This post is about the creation of sound and music (and instruments) with, through, and around “gamification”. While numerous other music-adjacent things such as sharing, streaming, promotion and general industry also utilize processes and techniques of gamification, that is a somewhat different topic for another time. This is not a post about playing actual video games on a synthesizer/DSP platform. Also, while I am somewhat familiar with the monome family, I do not know them in depthly, which may make some of this seem rudimentary or even obvious to many of you. I digress!]


Recently, I have been working on a live + recording music project with numerous industrial, noise, and electronic music elements, entirely propagated and navigated through with hardware electronics. Synths, sequencers, drum machines, effects, processors and mixers are all featured heavily. While much of the compositional backbone is automated through sequencing and modulation, successfully performing each ‘track’ requires specific things happening manually at specific times - flipping switches, manually drumming, turning knobs, muting, fading, patching in and out. As this has gone on, I have recently found myself fascinated at how this process of music creation and performance is like actively building a sort of “musical game level” in which there are a series of obstacles and quests which must be achieved to complete the “track” (running a track…?). There is often a need for efficiency and optimization, for systems and configurations (character builds?) to be streamlined, even “maxed out.” The aesthetics, sound design, and melody/harmony together is likened to the world design and lore writ within the very shape of the game. When at last you have relatively mastered the technical quests, it is then time for the final boss - recording the track live with your “personal best.”

Sometimes, even a simple approach to a keyboard or strings can reveal the elements of gameplay - which sequence, which combination of sounds will invoke pleasure, success? Will this be a practice, and shall I “reset” at a certain threshold of errors? Will I feel determination or defeat? Perhaps, with this thought, it’s more like games have gone through a process of musicification. To make music or a game something of a perfectible, beautiful, moving, perhaps repeatable, work of art. The overarching composition of sound and motion image and narrative and gameplay as a sort of post-modern Opera; the act of play an interpretation of the work, or the act of play the experience of the work itself.

On an even more basic level, things such as numbers, patterns, randomness, and manual dexterity are foundational to many sorts of games and processes of musical creation, which are often exacerbated through technology. Arguably, one could consider the systems and processes which underly music-as-a-whole and the systems and processes which underly games-as-a-whole are similar, if not perhaps the same.

There are, of course, other obvious examples of which many of us are already familiar - DSP engines, scripts and algorithms, generative music and sequencers all often invoke many aspects of gameplay and game design. There are specific eurorack modules (Pittsburgh GameSystem, I’m lookin at you) which involve literal games for aiding the process of music creation.

Contrariwise, is the gamification of music creation something to criticize, and in which ways could this gamification be a negative thing? Is the gamification of music creation taking away the depth of the work of art or genuine artistic practice? Have reward and productivity (or even experimental) based goals on musical creation changed, or even corroded what is creative and beautiful in music? Has the importance of fun and play overtaken theory and practice? Or was classical music theory a sort of primordial game itself, spurning both present day music (creation) systems and game design systems?

Anyway, none of this is thesis level, just some of the things I have been considering on the topic recently, and am curious on perspectives, thoughts, and experiences of other musicians and sound creators, programmers, instrument designers, and the generally insightful populace of lines. :slightly_smiling_face: -I


(food for thought/for later: music controllers and game controllers. Interactivity and participation in music / in games. The idea of FUN and how it relates deeply to both games and music creation. Branching paths & alternate endings. Reward systems in music creation. Art/music installations and virtual reality. procedural generation and generative music. remakes, remasters, reinterpretations.)

7 Likes

I meant to somehow include this in the original post, but will just post it here now as an interesting aside.


“… The Inuit have no generic term for “music,” but this does not deter ethnomusicologists and music lovers from their interest in the sound components of these games. It is, no doubt, for this reason that several recordings have, all or in part, featured these vocal games. However, this cultural takeover has created a distortion of the true dimension of these games within Inuit culture: first, because the drum dance remains the predominant musical genre and the vocal games constitute one game among others; and second, because ethnographically speaking, they are first and foremost used as spontaneous or playful practices, with winners and losers. …”

6 Likes

You might be interested in a card game Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt developed together called Oblique Strategies. Also a synth called the dato duo. Syntorial is a synthesis teaching tool that has a very game like structure as well.

For me, playfulness is a very important part of music making. Jamming feels very game like to me (call and response, making sure everyone’s dynamics are on the same page, etc). There can also definitely be a fail state for Jamming depending on who you’re jamming with and what their personal threshold for how much “guitar player with the whole pedalboard lit up feedback loop” sound they can take is. I think the times I feel the playfulness of music the most is when I go to one of the huge drum circles where people are dancing and playing with flow toys in the middle.

One of my favorite musical memories is many years back when my school synth club hosted an event where everyone in the club brought their synthesizers to a specific room, set all of them up with some mixers and PAs and basically left them out for a few days so people could play with them and make music together. Since then I’ve been really interested in trying to create musical experiences where people who might not have a lot of experience with music can come together and experience the pleasure of making music with their friends (basically a glorified drum circle). One of my favorite things to do towards this end is making generative Jam Toys in something like VCVrack that let people musically explore and experience the joy of creating cool sounds and music. I used one of these jam toys to score an interactive theater tarot reading thing, where me and the other actors could musically interpret the tarot card pulled and the scene that accompanied it in the same way a tarot reader would interpret the card. The music would basically end up in a different place after every 15 minute performance(you mentioned the idea of branching paths). For a while now I’ve wanted to make a really massive toy where a whole bunch of people could play it at once.

I’m not sure if any of this would outright qualify as a game, but hopefully you find it helpful.

1 Like

CCRMA (Stanford) has a whole course on the subject of musical games as they relate to neuroplasticity:

I didn’t take the course when I was there, but friends of mine did and it sure did look like fun! Poppy Crum is the instructor, and she is super legit (Chief Scientist at Dolby Labs).

5 Likes

The gamification part that is often overlooked is creativity of limitations. That is where the hardware or software forces you to find out tips and tricks and sometime literally mod the musical instrument or connect it in unexpected ways. One good example is Little Sound Dj (Lsdj), where the limitations of the hardware dictated how the music composition is managed.

1 Like

mmmh. that’s some interesting thoughts, but i can’t brush off the feeling that the idea of gamification leads away from the simple enjoyment of making sounds (for me). this sounds to me like a neoliberal approach of self-optimizing something that is not meant to be optimized but to be enjoyed. take an instrument and make sounds that you enjoy or that mean something to you. that basically sums it up for me, when it comes to making music.

this is not meant to rain on your parade, but to state a different perspective to your idea.

3 Likes

Xenakis has a few musical games in his oeuvre

1 Like

I agree with your sentiment here. I often feel like the concept of gamification exists to “trick” the consumer into believing the task at hand is fun. In some, this may lead to that fun experience continuing in the absence of the game aspect, but in other, I think it leads to the search for the next game. It always struck me as odd to have to attempt to trick someone into enjoying something. I’d say providing low barrier to entry ways to explore it make sense, but I consider this distinct from gamifying.

2 Likes

@ooids I am a little familiar with Oblique Strategies, but have not used it myself, nor thought about it recently - so thanks for the reminder. I can definitely sympathize with drum circle type things being of the most ‘interactive/playlike’ music experiences I have had, and especially good for introducing people to playing instruments. That tarot performance idea is wonderful, I have hardly even considered how improvising within certain parameters in a live performance could be interesting for both the musicians and the audience.

@PaulBatchelor Wow, this is really interesting, I’ll have to look into it more. At a cursory glance, there is (free) access to all the articles in the program here https://ccrma.stanford.edu/courses/257-spring-2020/pages/readings/ (‘PMC text’) Thanks!

@ojn Neat idea, I suppose in a way circuit bending instruments is sort of like glitching a game to skip a part or benefit in some way. Gameshark cheats, like synth presets :stuck_out_tongue:

@yghartsyrt I definitely sympathize, there are few things as great as picking up an instrument and playing! But to clarify, this isn’t some sort of encroaching worldview or life-practice to be - I simply noticed interesting parallels in a singular work and decided to explore. Experiments in thought and processes can lead to new and interesting means of creation and enjoyment, as can restrictions or specific conceptual limitations. Of course, that isn’t for everyone, and I would never imply they are even necessary for making music or playing instruments. I definitely agree that these things can also be used in ways that diminish the creative value of music, that’s part of why I was curious to start the topic :slight_smile: I think in the coming years we will even see more instruments or music-creating/related products which focus even more on game like processes or the exploitational models used in a lot of present day games. I’m just picturing a DAW that includes achievements or mini games and instruments or modules you can unlock… I shudder at the thought. Microtransactional VSTs, anyone? :nauseated_face:

@shreeswifty Someone whose work I have been meaning to check out a lot, and now it comes up again (: thanks for the tip!

4 Likes

Here is another example:

I grew up around people, in a particular music program that skewed towards free-improv jazz. It’s not my jam, personally, but I remember the understanding I developed of these kinds of games gave me an insight into music that was hidden from me.

More on the nose examples, are some video games I love like Rez, Elektroplankton and Journey. I think these music games were not well understood at the time. Provide different approaches, Rez is for example more linear and strategically composed while Elektroplankton more stochastic and open to interpretation

4 Likes

I hope it might be of help, as there is a page, http://musicgames.wikidot.com where many composers/game designers added some of their intersectional creations (I put some of mine there too). There are also two journals “Synzine Magazine” and “Improvised Music - Open Scores” where the topic is explored. These are all on the line of non-digital music games, closer maybe to board game design.

I unfortunately have to agree with what was said above, so long long time ago (sorry), that the term gamification has a bit of a bad rep in some circles, especially if you consider it in the online software context and “the way it’s most often done”. There was a funny term to flip the rhetoric around it: “exploitationware”. :wink:

I remember really enjoying SynthPond. It was inspired by Electroplankton.

Unfortunately it stopped being supported somewhere along the line, but I wish there were more apps like it.

1 Like