I’ve been reading Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum’s Values at Play as I’m exploring the ways in which theory developed through game studies might be applied to music. At the moment my interest is in how games can provide motivation for players as this is not always explicit in music. Of course there is a kind of obvious motivation, that players like to play music because it is an emotionally, physically and socially fulfilling activity. But specifically in indeterminate pieces, where players are faced with choices, it is not always clear why they should do one thing over another. Given a range of possible actions, or a space within which to act, why make particular choices? In games, the motivation is often much clearer. In order to win, or succeed in a way the game defines, certain actions and strategies are encouraged. In indeterminate music, this might be implicitly coded into the rules, or it might be just a sense of choosing results which sound good, or preferable in a way defined by each player. That’s fine of course: music should in some way be engaging. But if we ask players to make choices, there is an opportunity to frame such choices in a way that suggests particular values. In this way, music might become more explicitly representational of these values, allowing players, and hopefully audiences, to gain an awareness or empathy for them.
Flanagan and Nissenbaum suggest a heuristic for games designers that encourages an approach to making games that embed values at all stages of the development process. When I read these texts and substitute ‘music’ for ‘game’, ‘composer’ for ‘designer’, and the direct correlation between ‘players’ of both forms, the parallels are strikingly clear. As one of the contributors, Karen Schrier, notes in her interlude, “Games, and other designed experiences, may provide a necessary window into how other systems, such as cultural or political systems, can also affect how we interact with other people and institutions, or value certain objects, roles, or behaviours differently from others.” These ideas are transferable. Music, like games, can express and communicate values. They also do this implicitly, so it’s important for composers to consider this actively in the ‘design’ choices we make. So how might a rule-based composition look that expresses equality in the context of unemployment for instance? Perhaps some kind of resource management that encourages players to share sounds so that everyone has something to do, perhaps in an environment where this is somehow challenging and the solutions are not clear, or are conflicting. In experiencing these constraints and finding ways to articulate them, players and audiences might come to a different understanding of their impact. Values can be directly encoded in the musical interaction between players, rather than in a representational way.
But I think the main problem with translating game studies theory to music is the role of the players. In games, players are participants and audience. In (much) music, players are participants, but not the (principal) audience. Can watching and listening to people play music communicate the experience of making it, and specifically of making decisions in indeterminate music? There is perhaps a parallel in sport, and increasingly in observing video game play, where we do have a kind of empathy for the players we watch. The notion of ‘kicking every ball’ when watching football represents this relationship. Empathy is clearly possible for non-participants in abstract media, but we need the values we want to present to be clearly defined in order to communicate them experientially.
- Flanagan, Mary, and Helen Fay Nissenbaum. 2014. Values at Play in Digital Games. Cambridge: MIT Press.