We are in the University of Jyväskylä’s Educa Building, Room D107. Outside, sleet is falling even though it is already May. Researchers Kai Tuuri and Oskari Koskela sit at a round table. We take a dive into the world of GAMEM through a personal game music memory recounted by the project’s head researcher Kai Tuuri, PhD:
Forbidden Forest (1983) was one of the first games I played where music formed a significant part of the gaming experience. Composed and programmed by Paul Norman, the game’s sound world was something entirely different compared to anything I had previously heard in video games. Not just a collection of random beeps, these sounds were robust and expressive, as if they were played on a real synthesizer. I can still effortlessly recall those enjoyable sounds, and at the same time visualise the game events supported by the music.
The idea of game music research appeared on Kai Tuuri’s radar as early as the 1990s, but at that time it seemed impossible to conduct research of this scope into it. The situation is completely different today: the last decade has seen game music research, or ludomusicology, grow into an important musicology research field. The GAMEM research has particular international significance as there are few existing examples of this type of research. Previous game music research has largely focused on the significance of music as part of the game’s context and gaming experience, as opposed to how game music can have a personal significance outside of gaming.
Research material was collected through memory narratives and questionnaires. The objective of the research was to determine the nature of game music memories, how attachments are formed, and how and why certain game-related musical experiences are cherished.
“In principle, there is no difference between attachment to game music or to music in general – we humans seem to have a tendency to get attached to music”, Tuuri reflects. “What makes game music special is that the active gaming process is an integral part of the musical experience. In video games, music is closely connected to topics such as car racing, exploring, building, or following a cinematic story arc. The memories collected for our study are musical experiences that were mostly mixed with gaming experiences. Significant time is spent with the game through repeated experiences of both the gameplay activity and the music.”
Game – organised play
The project’s “gaming buddies” found each other partly by chance. Kai Tuuri and Oskari Koskela have known each other for a long time through their work at the University of Jyväskylä, and both bring musicological expertise to this project. Jukka Vahlo from the University of Turku found his way into the project through game research networks. Vahlo is a member of the Gamification Group, an international research group that examines the different manifestations and experiences of gamefulness. In GAMEM, Vahlo represents the survey research field through his expertise in quantitative research. Heli Tissari, an expert on English words for emotions and conceptual metaphors connected to emotions, came to the project from the University of Helsinki. In GAMEM, she was responsible for examining the semantic and linguistic metaphors connected to game music memories.
The range of different research perspectives within the group has proved to be a distinct advantage. At the same time, the group is unified in their shared approach towards their research topic.
“In the course of our research process, we identified three distinct research angles which guided our understanding of game music attachment”, Tuuri explains. “Firstly, certain assemblages or game experience types, secondly, the use and role of game music in everyday life, and thirdly, a linguistic approach examining what types of metaphors were used in narratives about game music experiences. Examining game music experiences from the stance of emotion research was another potential research area emerging from the material, however we decided not to focus on it in this study.”
The group received an absolute abundance of free-form narratives about the respondents’ most memorable gaming moments. It came as a surprise to see how many individuals responded and how deep their reflections were. All written contributions came from Finland and the UK. Although it was anticipated that nostalgia and childhood memories would feature when asking about the respondents’ fondest memories, the research team was surprised to discover just how strongly game music seemed to be connected with the individuals’ day-to-day lives, and how keen they were to share this experience.
Although the writing invitation about games was primarily meant to refer to video game memories, the instructions did not specifically ask to define the type of game music in question. In addition to listing some of the earliest video games, many older respondents also mentioned board games, children’s games and singing. Games and playing have always had a significant place in human life and history.
Music encourages to fulfil one’s potential
At this point, Jukka Vahlo and Heli Tissari appear on Tuuri’s computer screen to join the discussion remotely.
Although the use of metaphors was not specifically requested in the questionnaire, it ended up forming an organic part of the research material. Tissari was tasked with identifying all story metaphors, in other words those sections which contained visual perceptions of music.
“Typically, music was perceived as a certain kind of force, or as a vehicle transporting the player towards a certain direction, or as a type of ‘container’ in one’s heart or mind”, Tissari reflects. Some examples:
Music took me back to the carefree life of an eleven-year-old.
Music transported me back in time.
I still get a kick out of game music.
Music is a friend who comforts me.
This piece has become a part of me.
Music is a pearl.
Music encourages me to reach my full potential.
According to Tissari and Tuuri, metaphor examinations were especially intriguing in this research project, compared to some of the previous examples of metaphor examination. In this case, the metaphors were directly related to a memory of a game music experience, rather than a direct experience of a piece of music. Hence there was a certain degree or removal when examining the role of game music in one’s own life and personal history.
“There are many different types of games which come with very different uses of music”, Koskela says. “Some games are centred around relaxed building activities, whereas others feature grand dramatic events which gradually build an exhilarating sense of suspense before the final battle. In any case, music is tightly bonded and attached to the function of the game itself.”
Playing video games is often considered a lonely and static activity, an idea which the GAMEM researchers are quick to dispute. The gaming world is a strong social phenomenon. This can be seen in the collection of game music memories, which often feature playing together, either with family or friends. Even when gaming alone, online games can create connections to the other side of the world. Not all memories were from a gamer’s perspective – some were written by people like mothers or spouses who shared the active gamer’s day-to-day life.
Aggressive fighting, serene exploration, energetic bouncing, or sentimental storytelling?
Although the concrete actions in game play might be limited to pushing buttons, the game itself may feel extremely physical and palpable, reaching deep down into strong inner experiences.
Vahlo describes the embodied aspect of playing through gaming activities. The collected material was used to identify different experimental configurations, so called assemblages, that game music triggers. Instead of referring to player types, these assemblages and the different forms of activities refer to game experience types, four of which were identified from the material. These four activities which consistently intermingle with game music favourites include aggressive fighting, serene exploration, energetic bouncing, and sentimental storytelling.
“There is a lot going on with individuals when they are in a gaming environment, and the four specified activity types help researchers to understand the different phenomena taking place within gamers”, Vahlo reflects. “Games can motivate players to seek beauty and new ideas, or a game challenge won through a battle may contribute to building one’s identity or to feeling empowered in everyday life. The unhurried state of exploring a game environment may transfer experiences of freedom and independence into one’s day-to-day life as well.”
In everyday life, game music can provide aesthetic pleasure and a way to influence one’s mood and feelings. It motivates, relaxes and energises. Game music has also been intentionally used to trigger a memory, in order to access a familiar experience from one’s childhood or youth. This experience, strongly connected to remembering, is described as a memory-connection.
“One of our UK participants got a Skyrim game from his grandfather for Christmas when he was young. He only played the game when visiting his grandparents, and the memory-connection between the game and his grandfather was strong”, Tuuri says.
Game music is also used to build social connections. Spouses may have shared interests or jokes related to certain game music pieces, strengthening their mutual relationship. And then there are social events, such as game music concerts, where people get together to hear familiar game music pieces performed live.
A few universal game music favourites were identified through the research, such as Final Fantasy or Super Mario, but most of the material consisted of a wide scattering of personal preferences. Attachment to game music was an individual process, not formed through popular playlists.
“The game music community is still in the process of establishing a social mechanism, which includes a shared opinion of what is good and what is bad”, Tuuri reflects. “I myself represent the older generation of gamers and pick my personal favourites within my own gaming history selection. A shared opinion requires that other people have had a similar gaming experience.”
Game music is often compared to film music and its function. The two genres share the paratextuality surrounding them. There are materials created by fans, communities, groups, an entire culture. Both genres also display a real musical diversity – anything goes, from folk music and classical to techno.
“Game music can also contribute to a wider appreciation of music”, Koskela points out. “Through game music, many players have discovered electronic music, classical music or underground rock genres that they may not otherwise be exposed to.”
The GAMEM group has uncovered an important point through their research: the significance of game music outside the gaming situation itself. There are still very few existing examples of this form of research, even internationally. Tuuri hopes that the GAMEM research will encourage other musicologists to widen their research fields, to examine how people experience music and what significance music can have on a larger scale.
“Our research results support the fact that game music culture has proved itself to be a large global musical phenomenon”, Tuuri states. “A couple of years ago, the gaming industry surpassed film industry in terms of its market size. It makes total sense, given how many games are constantly being created and played, and how almost all of them include music. Game music has genuinely become a central part of people’s lives. It increasingly continues to trigger collisions and encounters between people and music”, Tuuri concludes, and continues by offering one more personal gaming memory:
In the late 2000s, I bought a pink PlayStation 2 console for the family. In the years that followed, my two daughters and I took it out frequently to play “the princess game”, Disney Princess: Enchanted Journey (2007), which was both children's absolute favourite. Through these gaming sessions, certain tunes were forever etched into my mind: tunes that invite players into an adventure, seamlessly blending in with the world of the game. They now remind me of those warm, shared memories of spending time together with my children when they were still young.
Featured photo: Elina Lajunen
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham