a different approach to gaming

The Impact of Music in Video Games

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.

Link Playing Ocarina

Establishing Atmosphere

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.

Skyrim Bard

Improving Performance

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.

4 Responses to “The Impact of Music in Video Games”

  1. def5197

    Not that this is helpful feedback or anything, but I must confess that I wrote my blog while listening to the Team America World Police theme song on loop. Great job, though. Music definitely has a strong impact in games. My friends and I went on a senior road trip and we played Fallout and Skyrim music at certain parts to make it more epic. The soundtracks really define those games.

  2. ayl5429

    This blog does a great job of analyzing the inner mechanics of video game design. Music definitely plays a huge role and like you said, gives more than just “aural cues”. It would be awesome to explore the specifics behind the music. Does the cultural significance of music contribute more to its effect or does the musical elements (major vs minor, tempo, etc.)? I can’t wait to see the new information on this blog!

  3. ajd5921

    I like the topic. It would be interesting to compare to movie soundtracks and other common forms of music in entertainment, since there are differences in the way it has to be written. I like the explanation of the music used as psychological cues as well as ambience. Perhaps you could talk about big names in videogame music like Martin O’Donnel and Michael Salavatori (Halo soundtracks) and how they go about writing music for a particular game, and what kind of respect they get from other music writers.

  4. snw5184

    Like always, I really enjoyed the direction in which you took your topic! The focus on the psychological effects of video game music are very fascinating. By looking at music as a way of creating an environment and reward, punishing, and improving the player, you have gone deep into the importance of music. I also enjoyed how you expanded the analysis of music to look at the applications of the music outside of gaming (i.e. listening to music while studying or doing homework) and your own experience with these outside applications. It would be really interesting to see how music is similarly used in other pieces of work such as movies, commercials, and educational videos too. It would also be interesting to look into the studies that prove these ideas. How do people truly know that music is capable of engaging, improving, rewarding, and punishing? And what is it that makes us respond this way? You are definitely scratching the surface of some very amazing psychological concepts and using video games as a vehicle to understanding them!

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