Gamers Challenge Art to be Multiplayer

Video game success despite financial crisis inspires musicians to play a new tune

“You know the first thing that happens when you turn on a Sega Genesis?” asked Shota Nakama, the guitarist at the Berklee Performance Center’s most recent sold-out concert. And in unison the entire audience, from the two five-year-old boys in the front row to the professorial composers scattered throughout the crowd, enthusiastically responded “Sega!” At once, the immense sound of the Video Game Orchestra filled the intimate venue with the “Sonic the Hedgehog” theme.

The VGO—comprised of a 45-piece classical orchestra, 40-piece choir, and 5-piece rock band—brings together students from Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Boston Conservatory, and New England Conservatory, and it’s just one example of the video game industry’s ability to serve as a forum of creative exploration and interaction for artists. Despite the recent economic downturn, global sales of video games have risen since 2007, reaching $32 billion at the end of the last fiscal year, according to the Berklee College website. While most other art forms struggle to find support from a weary and wary society, more and more artists are looking to the video game industry for lucrative and creative outlets for their work. At nearby Brandeis University, the college’s administrative staff recently announced the closing of its Rose Art Museum and the sale of its 6,000 piece collection. But at Berklee, art more than thrives; it ventures into uncharted grounds, boldly pioneering an unconventional form—the video game.

Students and faculty at Berklee have been sharply attuned to the success of the video game industry. Two years ago, the push began for a new school-wide curriculum that includes composition of video game music. The school has hired more faculty for this purpose and is also working to develop a degree program specific to the genre.

“A few of the students at Berklee formed this group called the Video Game Music Club,” says Michael D. Sweet, a professor in the Film Scoring department who teaches a class on “Interactive Scoring for Games.” “Now it’s over 200 members, and they were really instrumental in pushing the administration. All of my students are super excited. They’re really enthusiastic about learning how to craft music specifically for video games.” Other, more traditional music programs generally only offer one semester classes that serve as basic surveys of video game scoring. Berklee’s curriculum, however, continues to grow with the enthusiastic support of its students, the college, and the public.



BIGGER THAN A BLIP



Composers with training in film scoring who looked to commercial media for career options are now turning to the video game industry. However, the transition between the two is not quite so simple.

“When you’re doing a film, you’re doing a specific scene—for instance, where you know that the girl kisses the guy at 40 seconds and you have to set that point. In a video game someone could take two minutes or five minutes on a given level, and you still have to score for the dramatic arc of the story in real time,” Sweet says. “The player is actually controlling the narrative arc of the story, and as a composer you have to allow the timing to change based on what the player is doing.”

The video game industry, with its ever-expanding budget, has recognized the additional challenges this genre of music poses. As a result, according to Berklee College’s website, composers can receive up to $2,000 for each minute of music they write.

For burgeoning composers interested in commercial music, this generous pay is good news. “There are increasingly less and less film opportunities,” composer and Music concentrator Eric W. Lin ’09 says. “Usually the really big budget studio films are dominated by anywhere between 10 to 30 names.”

Unlike composers of film scores who have achieved respect and status—the first Oscar for Best Original Music Score was given in the 1930s, shortly after the advent of Hollywood’s “Talking Pictures”—video game composers still encounter skepticism about their work. Nakama, founder of the VGO and the first vice-president of the Video Game Music Club at Berklee, says that he created the club to promote video game music as a genre. “Video game music is really underrated still,” Nakama says.

While most people envision video game music as the typified Super Mario Brothers’ theme song of the ’80s, over the past five to 10 years, much of its composition has moved to extremely complex orchestral scoring. It no longer fulfills what Sweet calls the “assumption that video game music is a bunch of blips and boops and beeps.”



THE ART OF VIDEO GAMES



The recent recession has illuminated the degree to which art is dependent on its patrons. Economy is inherently necessary to support the creation of art. Video game music composition, perhaps more than any other genre, struggles with the stigma of being a monetized art form—one which caters exclusively to a client’s vision rather than the artist’s. This deeply engrained Romantic model of the artist and his muse might result in a public reluctance to accept video game music as a worthy pursuit.

“There’s a degree of compromise there, and I think anyone who tells you there is no compromise is lying,” Lin says. “But working within constraints isn’t necessarily a bad thing for an artist. It allows you to grow in ways that otherwise you wouldn’t.”

These restrictions may, in fact, lay the foundation for a new artistic space, says Edward C. Barrett, Senior Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT. In this conceptual arena, artists have the chance to expand the horizons of their current media by focusing different perceptions on their work and utilizing new creative techniques.

“My approach has always been that these are new narrative and rhetorical spaces, and there is no reason why someone who has had the benefit, let’s say, of a Harvard education in the humanities should not find that as a place for expression,” Barrett says. “People can make statements about [this space’s] current incarnation and how it might not live up to some of the other standards, and that’s fine. That’s criticism that one should pay attention to. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not capable of something more.”

There are, undoubtedly, certain aspects of video games that fall short of the orthodox expectation of “art”—it is likely that an LCD screen will never grace the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Nonetheless, the industry has shown signs of growing away from its less favorable stereotypes.

“The boundaries of video games have expanded beyond just the typical hardcore gamer that sits in his basement and plays Halo,” Sweet says. “There are also people in nursing homes playing Wii Fit, sisters playing Nintendogs for Nintendo DS.”

And indeed, musicians are not the only ones benefiting from the opportunities this kind of space can offer.

“The video game industry draws lots of different kinds of students into it,” says Barrett, who teaches a class that explores writing in the new media. One of the focuses of the course includes creating plotlines for video games. “You have students who are interested in the more technical aspects of it, like the programming, and you have students who might be interested in the visual design aspects of it.”

“I think what is especially attractive is the way it supports individual interaction and creative collaboration,” he adds.

Students who have followed the rise of the video game industry have an even simpler answer for its recent success, though.

“Well,” Nakama says, “it is fun.”