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Wreath Lectures

Wreath Lectures 2011: The Gamification Of Music
Robert Barry , December 15th, 2011 08:33

From Bjork to Brian Eno and Sting, 2011 has seen a startling new developments in music technology. Robert Barry looks at the increasing "gamification" of our lives, and music

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Brian Eno is sitting in the Newsnight studio wearing the customary dark tones of the rock elder statesmen, the studio lights are reflecting off the crown of his shiny bald pate like motorway cat's eyes. "This theory about difficult times make for good music," yawns Paxman, his mind drifting back to the Tory conference, the rugby world cup, "do you buy it?"

The new state of perma-recession has seen this question of pop's relation to its infrastructural base acquire a new-found urgency, but tonight, being of a social class rather closer to Paxman than to most wannabe pop stars, Eno rides a tangent away from political economy towards "new forms of art - internet-based, app-based". Here, he tells us, is to be found "the beginning of the future".

Five days later, Björk released her much-hyped new album, Biophilia. Not just a CD with a bunch of songs on it and a nice picture on the cover: Biophilia came packaged with a whole suite of iPad applications, mini-games, and the voice of David Attenborough. The album's reviewers, many of whom gushed out the phrase, "the future of music" like nervous analysands stammering innuendos, had mostly already filed their copy by the time Eno settled into the BBC's black leather easy chair.

The following month, Sting would celebrate his 60th birthday by declaring he would release no more albums - only apps. Around the same time, Britney Spears released an app allowing you to dance along on stage with Britney. Already, back in January, Robbie Williams had accompanied his latest album with an iPhone game which allowed you to race with Robbie across the Mojave desert on a turquoise motorbike, the album's songs serving as soundtrack to the wild boy's ride.

While many of these ideas are hardly revolutionary - Sting's Sting 25 in particular seems scarcely more interactive than the extras menu on a DVD - software like Björk's Virus, in which the user (the word 'audience' seems hardly appropriate) controls a cell attempting to repel the musical virus, offers the chance to manipulate and control, if only to a limited extent, the musical structure and the way one experiences the music itself. The listener becomes less like a passive recipient of a work, more like the player of a video game, choosing their own path through the narrative. The composer becomes "more like a gardener," Eno averred, "assembling sets of musical seeds and watching them develop".

The notion of music as a game has some pretty ancient precedents. The 18th century Musikalisches Würfelspiel, long attributed to Mozart (though never fully authenticated as such), saw two-bar fragments of score assembled for each performance by the throw of a dice. In the 1960s this Venetian caprice was recalled by Polish composer Witold Lutosławski's Jeu Venetiens, which involved the use of chance procedures and certain game-like rules of structural organisation; and John Cage's HPSCHD, in which extracts from the original Würfelspiel along with several other harpsichord solos were fed into a piece of algorithmic software to decide upon their final arrangement.

At the same time, Morton Subotnick, working at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, realised that electronic music offered the chance to break barriers not just between composer and performer but between composer and audience as well. His series of works, Play!, dealt directly - and somewhat jocosely - with performance rituals, culminating in Play! 4, in which four members of the audience are required to take part in a game requiring them to move and sing according to a series of pre-set rules and instructions.

In 1985, Subotnick would begin a residency at M.I.T. at the precise moment that the college was opening its famous Media Lab, to which the composer would later return often as a guest lecturer. In 1994, the year Eran Ergozy and Alex Rigopulos graduated from the Media Lab, Subotnick would become the first major composer to create a work, All My Hummingbirds Have Alibis, specifically for CD-ROM. Shortly afterwards, he would commence work on a number of pieces of interactive music software for children, with names like Making Music, Playing Music, and Hearing Music. Meanwhile, Ergozy and Rigopulos would form the software company Harmonix Music Systems to develop games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

In spite of (largely unsubstantiated) fears that Guitar Hero might discourage children from learning to play 'real' instruments, American theorist and video game designer Ian Bogost has argued that by "simulating the actual performance" of music, such games allow players to unlock "the music's deep structure", even as he acknowledges that parameters like rhythm become mere "side effects" to the goal of winning the game. Bogost is one of the more articulate of a whole raft of critics making the argument for video games as an art form over the last few years.

Last spring, the eminent Chicagoan film critic, Roger Ebert wrote on his blog that computer games were not art and never would be. I imagine that not so many years ago this would have been a relatively non-controversial statement, but last year it erupted into a perfect internet storm with bloggers and tweeters lining up in countless numbers to explain - frequently in block capitals - why Ebert was wrong.

Many of these arguments, and the examples they gave, were remarkably poor; often saying little more than such-and-such a game must be considered a work of art because it has a narrative that could be compared to certain films or a graphic style that could be compared to certain painters. In which case a great many advertisements would also have to be accepted as art (and I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with any definition of art that has to admit most advertising).

But Bogost sought to situate the aesthetics of video games precisely in their own specificity as video games. Such "proceduralist" artgames as Jason Rohrer's Passage and Jonathan Blow's Braid could be construed "natively as art, within the communities of practice and even industry of games, rather than by pledging fealty to the fine art kingdom". In these games, artistic expression arises "from the player's interaction with the games mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects".

I am not so interested in the question of whether or not video games might or not be art. What I am interested in is why, right now, these related notions of video games as art and music as video game are being promoted so aggressively and pervasively, and what this might tell us about the nature of art and music and society at large in the second decade of the twenty-first century. After all, I think it is unlikely that Mozart believed 'his' Musikalisches Würfelspiel as evidence that rolling dice was in itself a form of art. Nor do I believe that when John Zorn, in the 70s and 80s, wrote his own 'game pieces' (group improvisations structured by cue cards, named after sports like hockey, lacrosse, and pool) was suggesting that such games as he took for inspiration were to be themselves considered suitable objects for aesthetic appreciation.

One potential strategy that might be useful for exploring such a question is to take a look at other contemporary practices which seem to share a certain family resemblance with artgames and music apps. For as pop music becomes "gamified", so too, and with almost perfect simultaneity, does commerce.

Over the last five years, and with a particular - you might say exponential - growth over the last two years, this word "gamification" has become a marketing buzzword of extraordinary currency. Referring to the practice of incorporating elements of gameplay into previously very un-game-like activities, gamification has spread like wildfire across the trade press. Marketing researchers like gamification because it makes their participants feel more engaged in their surveys. Advertisers like gamification because it helps consumers feel involved with their brands.

Live Ops. Inc. uses gamification techniques to improve the performance of its call centre workers. By awarding points and virtual "badges" to their employees, totting these up on leader boards which encourage competition between the workers, they have found a marked reduction in call times and an increase in sales performance. As Fortune magazine's tech blog put it, in the same week that Björk released her Biophilia, "gamification is the hot new business concept".

Ian Bogost terms such techniques as those employed by Live Ops. Inc., "exploitationware". He has been touring gamification conferences over the last year giving his "gamification is bullshit" speech. He's keen to emphasise the potential for radical political appropriation of video games' uniquely "persuasive" powers of immersion and identification. But as he recognised in a book from 2007, before the gamification gold rush had really got going, this persuasive power would be just as amenable to the needs of advertisers.

Another area that is seeing a boom in gamification processes is, perhaps unsurprisingly, education. After all, game playing, as a form of structured play, has traditionally had learning as one of its primary goals. One of the leaders in this field is a group from the MIT Media Lab called 'Lifelong Kindergarten', a moniker which disturbingly conjures up images of the paraphilic infantilism of the nappy wearing so-called adult babies. Many school pupils have complained that this form of edutainment is unduly patronising, and that they feel insultingly infantilised by such techniques.

Gamification may be, as Bogost writes on his blog, "a perversion of games" but it is a perversion for which they appear to be peculiarly well suited. Arguably, the nature of games is here perverted rather less than it is in such works as Super Mario Clouds by Brooklyn-based artist Cory Arcangel (a hacked Nintendo cartridge of endlessly scrolling clouds from the backdrop to the popular console game) which remove the gameplay altogether.

I have a feeling that Brian Eno is right. That we will indeed see a deal more "gamified" music over the next few years, of albums packaged and played as if games, offering varying degrees of interactivity. No doubt, each time we will be told that the app in question was organically conceived as a natural extension of the music by the artists themselves and had absolutely nothing to do with the record company marketing department.

Here's one I dreamt up myself. Any ambitious young bands out there, you can have this one for free:

The game environment simulates the environment of a low-paid call centre worker. As you log in, the album tracks are all randomly placed in a 'call queue'. Each song starts very quietly and gradually gets louder and louder, during which time it is your job to 'share' the song with as many of your friends as possible on a variety of social networks. You must do this in as short a time as possible and then skip to the next song.

The cycle of songs never stops, although you are allowed two short breaks - one of fifteen minutes, the other of thirty minutes - at a time to be allocated randomly by the game software. If you are so much as a minute late logging back on after your break, the album and its associated suite of apps immediately deletes itself and you have to repurchase it.

At random intervals, the song you currently have 'on the line' will be interrupted by other tracks by other artists who bear no relation to the artist whose album you have purchased. Likewise, at unpredictable moments, your virtual 'supervisor' will pop up on your screen in order to tell you to spend less time on each track and share more, and will then make unflattering comments about your physical appearance.

Points are awarded for the maximum number of shares completed in the shortest amount of time. There will be regional, national and international leaderboards, and people with the highest scores are awarded badges at given intervals.

Badges must be worn at all times.

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Post-Punk Monk
Dec 15, 2011 2:36pm

Well, that had the feel of a horrifyingly prescient extrapolation of "gamification." A word I hadn't encountered yet, but will be applying to nearly every part of the contemporary landscape, I'm sure. This is just another reason for me to remain as disengaged as possible from my "culture," since I lack the game playing gene. I do not understand the allure of gaming. Playing I understand. I'm an artist. And playing games has a certain instructive quality appropriate for immature individuals. It allows them to model and learn adult behaviors they will need going forward in their lives in a safe environment with no risks.

What I can't understand, is why a mature adult would want to waste time playing games. I grew up with the first video games, and occasionally played the things for the social aspect of it. I would accompany friends of mine in high school 30+ years ago would go to an arcade with a few dollars in our pockets and play video games. I didn't find it interesting and found the expense to be a waste of my time and money; which was better used buying music! Certain other friends became obsessed with these games and dropped countless coins until they could "master" them and play them long enough for the arcade operators to ask them to leave.

I see why Eno would get sucked into this mindset, since it runs parallel to the sort of generative systems art he has always been fascinated by. It is a useful methodology for solving a problem, but it bypasses the resonant functions of art, which is to reflect and inform the audience of the artist's perception of the human condition. I completely understand where Ebert was coming from. Gaming is a pantomime that mimics many of art's structures and functions, but it is incapable of engaging the participant at the level of art. There's enough randomness built into the structure to allow for "preprogrammed randomness;" simulating free will and determinism, but only to the supremely limited level that the game designers plan for.

And you touch on the ultimately insidious side of "enabling technology" such as gaming. It is a neutral but powerful tool to be used willfully by those who wield the power in our society; usually to our detriment. My awareness of this is what has severely curbed my enthusiasm for transformative technologies that have emerged within the last 20 years or so. My cynical nature, fed and nurtured by nearly 50 years of watching and observing how and why things happen to us, has grown to be ultimately distrustful. It disturbs me to seem neophobic, following a youth filled with neophilia, but that's where I find myself.

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Charlie Frame
Dec 15, 2011 3:32pm

Great article. That last part was eerily prescient of this week's episode of Black Mirror.

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Dec 15, 2011 5:42pm

In reply to Post-Punk Monk:

While I'm a bit younger (27) and enjoy gaming, my interest in it has waned. I find your commentary very poignant. In a way, gaming is living an ideal life for people that can't.

Some might see such a statement as preposterous, far-fetched, or even offensive, but it's true. I do think that gaming has its place as a pastime, but it's no replacement for real adventures. It's merely a simulation, designed (largely) to make the user feel accomplished, regardless of who they are.

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Dec 15, 2011 6:22pm

Interesting topic and some great facting: thank you Barry/The Quietus for writing/running this piece.

The case made for the rise of gamification in marketing, education etc. being parallelled in music looks a little creaky to me (one Bjork project, some gab Eno could have dropped any time in the last 30 years, and some weak tie-in gimmicks?). It's not made clear how music *has* been gamified, or how it could/will be.

There was a lot of similar talk in the 90s - often incorporating the word 'cyber' - about technology transforming the forms music takes, and how we engage with it. But while the delivery systems have changed significantly, the forms music takes - singles and albums - and the ways we engage with it - live, in a club, on speakers or on headphones - have remained consistent. I can see that dancing games, Rock Band etc. appear to bridge the gap between clubbing/performing and playing games at home. But as you suggest, they don't actually prevent people from going clubbing or playing instruments - I'd add that they haven't changed the *experiences* of going clubbing or playing instruments either.

Developments in computer games, like trends in marketing or education, are just that and no more - they won't have significant effects on music or the ways we engage with it. My feeling is that if I'm too lazy to get into such involved activities as games - as I am, and the internet has made me more so - less committed music fans definitely wouldn't go through all that to get their musical rewards, and those guys are the golden suckers marketing types would need to target to cover their (unattractively high) costs. Whereas if artists made the games they'd be expensive boutique items like Bjork's rather than a common currency like singles or MP3s. Bjork could raise the necessary funds and attention because she sold a lot of records when they were profitable; if someone tried to debut with some great new app music, you'd never hear of them.

Could be talking out my hole, of course, but that's the risk one takes when predicting the future!

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Dec 16, 2011 12:22pm

In reply to Post-Punk Monk:

To each their own on whether gaming is a worthy hobby or not. Frankly I don't think its any less navel gazing than stating that you're into music, developing expertise in something (anything) is the definition of a hobby, all of which are pretty pointless in the grand scheme of things. But I digress.

I don't want to go near the whole 'games are art' debate, mostly because on the whole, games are games first and foremost, and if they're striving to be art to the detriment of being games, then frankly what's the point?

As the unamed commentator below notes, the whole idea of 'gamification' has been around for years, decades even. If anything, we've moved on from gamification to 'app-ifiation' due to the ubiquity of smartphones and the insistence of there being an app for everything, why should music be any different? Again, it's a sales technique, something that 'adds value' (horrible phrase) and no different than multi CD reissues and vinyl only lovingly crafted artisanal sleeves which are a way of ensuring that people buy. The difference perhaps is between the inherent physicality of the limited edition gatefold special edition and the ability to produce inifinite numbers of digital software. All the same, it's a way to get people buying. We live through apps now, music's just getting in on the act .

Coming back to the original premise, I can think of many examples of games over the past ten years using synaesthesia techniques combining music and gaming interfaces. Suggest you all look up Rez and Electroplankton on Wikipedia for an idea where i'm coming from. Eno as usual is ahead of the game, he was creating emergent video game music years ago, just look up his work on the game Spore.

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Dec 17, 2011 12:42am

In reply to James :

"Developing expertise in something (anything) is the definition of a hobby, all of which are pretty pointless in the grand scheme of things". Lovely...its like breathing,yes?

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Jan 5, 2012 7:03am

this is a very interesting and pretty scary article, and though it seems that here in Europe the gamification trend has not yet gained full attention (first time I hear about it), reading this article makes me quite anxious about the future, especially for those workers who will be treated with this kind of "method".

But let's be clear on one specific point : this gamification thing has way more to do with the desperate technocracy in which we live in than with
video games. I mean, okay, the concept of earning points through quickness and being given "badges" ackowledging your skills and superiority over
your peers has been developed in video games, but the idea to apply it to the domain of Work is clearly significative of the current obsession with
immediacy, performance and optimisation of everything (humans too, without remorse)... and this is an idea invented by capitalism, not by video games.

Video games were created for entertainment, and for making money with it, but not to be used as a template for new ways of working. Of course, one must agree that video games got more and more intertwined with marketing and advertising strategies during the last 10 years or so, but this kind of deviation is, once again, more a consequence of capitalism going more and more off its rails and invading every aspect of life, than video games themselves. It's not better or worse than having 80% advertising and 20% movie trailers at movie theaters or seing "product placement" of cellphones, cars and stuffs in films or music videos. In fact, it's the same thing : creators have to compromise with it or they're kicked out of the mainstream of their media, which means less budget, and as far as films and games are concern, this means less creative possibilities. Like almost any other art form in the last 10 years, video games got exploited to the point of becoming a TOOL for marketing and selling stuff.

But my point is not to accuse capitalism of debasing art, or of debasing anything, any cause, any idea, any innovation, any project, to make money (I estimate this is well known and admitted). My point is that video games are and have always been art. And that's quite alarming to see that this concept of gamification (so perverse and infantilizing that it is) is kind of substantiating the idea that video games cannot be art, that's it's only an imitation of art.

Here the writer asks "why these related notions of video games as art and music as video game are being promoted so aggressively and pervasively", well let me provide my own humble clue for answering that question. It is not only because video games are indeed art, but most specifically because video games creators need that recognition as artists, otherwise they're condamned to be executants of the marketing and finance guys, and they'll never have the legitimacy to really work the way they want. Many people have felt the urgency to promote video games as an art because it cannot be denied any longer, it's making more money that cinema, so unfortunately it now attracts a lot of people who are neither video game-players nor conceptors or producers. And if we don't want it to turn as hollow as the film industry (at least hollywood) did, for quite the same reasons - and the bad news is that it's nearly already got that bad - we have to talk about it as an art, and have the same passionnate relationship to it as we do with cinema, when a movie gets censored, or when it's unfairly dismissed because it doesn't fit the current trend, etc...

I won't enter the debate of "can video games really be art", because it belongs to the 90's, if not before. I can easily imagine, the video game community being what it was (still very teenage-like in spirit, and massively active on forums and internet), that their reaction to an article saying that "video games are not art and will never be" must be overreactive, immature and unconvincing. But using the statement of a FILM critic - however eminent - on such an issue is not very serious either. Let's ask Bogost what he thinks of cinema as an art or not, then. We could
easily find reasons why many film critics display contempt about video games (as said above, it's gotten bigger than cinema, it has used a lot of it's mechanisms since the mid-90's, etc...), but I don't think Ebert's extremist statement is worth digressing. Cinema may be older than video games, it doesn't make it more artistic, for example. Bogost's ideas are more interesting, even if Guitar Hero is not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of "video games as an art"... I don't agree with his idea that gamers are being creative just by playing, this only apply to a handful of games that most of the time consists of "making your own video game", to my opinion. But he's right to emphasize on the interactive aspect, which is the core of what the video-game media is all about, as well as the only way to explain to over-conservative minds why video games are not merely an imitation of films, painting or architecture.

I'm surprised to hear that kind of opinion from an english website, really. Even though France has long been one of the most conservative countries on this kind of topic, there recently was a large exhibition on video games history at the Grand Palais, which is one of the 3 most prestigious museums in France with the Louvre and Quai d'Orsay. And I think it's a good thing. This kind of exploitation (by the minister of culture, this time) has good consequences and can open new ways to this media, other than creating apps for everything, which is the same idea as adding little games like tetris t to cellphones... It's a gadget and will never be satisfying as an art form... I don't believe that "everyone will one day be an artist" thanks to applications (unless they have the scope of a real music instrument, or a camera, but then it's not a game anymore...), but I think that video game is an art form and it has to be defended as such. Otherwise it's gonna turn to be a product, just like music was thought of in the 90's. I may be young but I hate short memories and I distinctly remember starting downloading music because I felt robbed and targeted each time I endeavored to buy a cd. Some stuff was ridiculously expensive, some stuff was just not sold where I lived, because commercial crap was all it was about. Look where things are now. So let's not think exactly what the marketing guys wants us to think (with cynicism and ignorance)... let's not be dismissive of a whole media which is as diverse as movies and pop music can be.

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Jan 5, 2012 9:33am

A very interesting article, but i feel it misses the point. Releasing music alongside some silly app/games is just a fad. The gamification of music is that music becomes the game! look at RJDJ for iPhone, Sound Shapes for ps VITA and the legendary Children of Eden for Xbox 360 (for just a few of the bigger named music games) in these games the player makes choices which directly affect the music that is being heard (this is the main aim of the games), allowing the player to consciously or sub-consciously compose within set limitations that are provided by the musical programmers. The days of linear music are slowly grinding to a halt, composers are going to turn into game programmers, creating a musical world which the player can explore, rather than giving them a file and saying, listen to what i did.
or thats my opinion.

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