August 12, 2008

Music in games

Gianna Cassidy looks as the link between music, our emotions and the games that we play at Glasgow Caledonian's eMotions Lab. She believes that everyone has the basic building blocks of musicality, in the same way that we all have the building blocks of other languages, including, of course, our mother tongue.

But how many people, when asked, would call themselves a musician? It's not as easy as it sounds to disentangle the psychology of who we are, the music we listen to, the songs we sing or hum.

Music is inextricably linked to our responses to moments in life, including of course how we interact with a game as its soundtrack weaves its way through the gameplay. When supermarkets pump French music through the sound system, people buy more French wine. When the music is played faster, people move quicker through the store.

Likewise, games are a filter for our musical experience and vice-versa. Music offers a rare position for researchers to look at how the game in its music influences the player's game, rather than looking, as we do traditionally, at how the player interacts with the game. Add that to the amount of time we spend playing games each week, around 12.5 hours, there's a signficant influence on our self through playing games and their music's effect on us.

Game music is best when it's owned by the player
Many games' music is akin to a film track, where the music informs the emotion the game author wants you to feel at any given moment in the game's story. But where we're playing a game whose music has the potential to be interchangeable, as many racer and shoot-em-ups are nowadays, affording the player a choice in which music they hear, we see something rather more interesting. After all, would games not be better if the expert designers had control over what we are hearing?

In an experiment where music was played over the game Project Gotham Racing, most accurate was where participants chose their own musical soundtrack along with the car noises, followed by just the car noises. Low arousal music led to more inaccuracies (sloppy, relaxed driving) while high-arousal music led to the most errors in driving - twice as many as any other type of music. Music makes the heart beat faster, creates more excitement, and a game without music would be like a film without a soundtrack - about 80% less entertaining. But here there's an implication that if it's not the music of preference of the player it can be an unwelcome distraction.

It's an interesting beginning to some thought on how much control over music either player or game designer needs to have in order to make the game successful.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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