I have a confession to make. I write every one of my passion blog entries while listening to the Sims 2 soundtrack. There’s just something about that odd, upbeat elevator music that manages to help me relax while keeping me focused on writing. Is this just one of my quirks? Or is there something about this particular soundtrack that naturally alters my attitude? Today, we’ll be investigating the various effects of video game music on attitude and the overall gaming experience.
Playing through an intense first-person shooter might feel a bit odd with a playful 8-bit jingle in the background. And conversely, severe, action-oriented combat music does not lend well to 8-bit platformers. This is because, whether we notice it or not, music has a huge effect on the atmosphere in any game. To maintain the immersion that is so important in video games, the music must always match the setting and situation that the player is in.
In the real world, music is a reflection of culture. The same is true in video games. Video game music is often used to reveal truths about societies’ cultures in games. For example, in the Fallout series, the player is aware that the game takes place in the future, but there is an emphasis on 1950s American culture, as demonstrated by popular fashion, decor, and – you guessed it – music. Hearing classic American music juxtaposed against the post-apocalyptic Fallout wasteland goes a long way towards establishing the game’s unsettling atmosphere.
Punishment vs. Reward
Aside from setting the mood, music in video games can also function as a sort of secondary reward system, utilizing operant conditioning to influence the player’s behavior. When you die in a game, a disappointing game-over tune usually plays, while completing a level or objective is usually met with some sort of upbeat, rewarding jingle. Unconsciously, these aural cues reinforce our behavior and encourage us to play “well”.
Additionally, video game music makes gaming more rewarding by contributing to an elevated sense of importance and fulfillment. Take the game Skyrim, for example. Mashing buttons to defeat a frost troll may be absolutely meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but when that epic battle chant is playing, you feel like the fate of the universe rests in your hands.
Say what you will about video games, but gaming is no absent-minded task. Taking out a challenging boss takes focus and patience. Luckily video game music has one more purpose – to help keep the player concentrated on the task at hand. This is one function that heavily impacts the gaming experience but goes unnoticed by most gamers. When designing video game soundtracks, composers create and select songs that engage players. In this way, video game music is uniquely engineered to improve listeners’ focus.
Interestingly, this quality of video game music has allowed it to be used outside of gaming for some surprising practical applications. Although the concept is relatively new, many people believe that video game music can improve productivity, and it is becoming increasingly common for students to listen to game soundtracks while studying or doing homework. As I mentioned earlier, I wholeheartedly support this practice. (Update: I am now listening to the Catherine soundtrack.)
Conclusion – Video Game Music is Powerful
Unlike most songs, which can stand alone as aurally pleasing works of art, the songs used in video games must fulfill a variety of specific functions while still being satisfying to listen to. There is no question that the composition and arrangement video game soundtracks is a difficult task, but a good soundtrack and turn a great game into a masterpiece. With the ability to change the way gamers feel and behave, video game music is a powerful medium.