Karen Collins reflects on her seminal volume Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design, a little over a decade after its publication.
I felt a sense of trepidation at being asked to revisit my book Game Sound. It's a bit like meeting an old friend after many years and feeling the slight embarrassment of a former life. I wrote Game Sound from 2002 to 2006. It was sent to the publisher, MIT Press, in late 2006 and took a while to work its way through peer reviews and edits, before finally seeing print in 2008. For me at least, 2002 seems like a lifetime ago. Some of my students I teach now were only toddlers then.
Last April, after attending the School of Sound conference in London, I was reflecting back on this path with my friend and voice director Mark Estdale. It went something like this:
I planted a seed, and I was so excited about that seed, I dragged people over to see it. “Look! I planted this seed, and it's going to be a great tree one day!” People looked, and all they saw was a field of mud. They would shrug and wander off. Eventually, after tending that field of mud daily with water and sunshine, a little sprout grew. A few more people came and looked, shrugged, and wandered off. I got exhausted by all the work involved in cultivating that tree. The rings of growth were slow. I eventually wandered off myself. Then, seemingly suddenly, when I wasn't looking, there was a group of people holding fruit and saying “Look, we found this fruit hanging off this tree over there!” and everyone seemed surprised that this tree was there.
Looking back, when I first started research for Game Sound in 2002, it was a very different world in which to write the book. The web was still much in its infancy, and getting information for the research was difficult. There wasn't the fan community online in those days—no collected archives of material, and very little information. There was also no other scholarly writing about game sound available that I could find at the time. Most journals were not yet indexed online, and we had to physically go to a library! There were very few interviews with sound designers or composers online (and certainly no video), and there was no social media to speak of in which to get in touch with people. This was pre-MySpace, never mind Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other ways we use to contact people today. I had to purchase hard copies of games. Fortunately, at that time, people were only too happy to give me their old computers, which were worthless then but have gained value now, and I recall fondly rescuing a collection of thirty-two Commodore 64s from landfill. It strikes me now what a great metaphor that is, trying to rescue it all from the dump.
What job interviews I managed to obtain in those days quickly dissipated when I said I was working on game music. The response of many other scholars at the time to anything related to games was mostly skepticism and disdain. Those who ventured to take a look saw my field of mud, frowned, and shrugged. DiGRA (the Digital Games Research Association) was started in 2003 and I eagerly joined about a year later, but nearly all the members at that time were in Europe and I had no funds to travel.
I was, in other words, fumbling, mostly in the dark, and mostly alone. I learned by playing a lot of games, every day for several years, and beating my head on a handful of technical information and dead programming languages in documents that I barely understood, but were like treasure when I did find them. Mostly, I played and listened, slowly watering my patch of mud, waiting for something to grow.
I was fortunate to land a postdoctoral fellowship at Carleton University in 2005. Paul Théberge could see the seedlings in my patch of mud, and he read drafts of some of the chapters and provided some useful insight. He drove home the importance of picking the right words to define things, and he showed me how to water those seedlings. Equally as important was getting the funding to finally visit the Game Developers Conference in 2006, which was the last time it was held in San Jose—the next year the industry had grown too large for that convention center and moved to San Francisco. It was there at GDC that I met many of the people whose names I had come across on credit screens—Brad Fuller, George Sanger, Chris Grigg, and many others—and I could ask questions that hadn't yet been answered by the few documents I could find. Brad Fuller was especially helpful, kindly commenting on my writing and pointing out my mistakes, with an honest desire to make sure I get it right, for history's sake. There are still mistakes in the book, but they're ones I can live with, given the lack of information available at the time.
I forged friendships with people who were also pretty green in the industry, and who have since grown their own trees, like Damian Kastbauer, DB Cooper, and Mark Estdale. Together in 2006 we formed what we called “Pepper Team,” and they are still the first people I ask when I have a question I can't answer: I like to think each sprinkle of that pepper we named ourselves after was like its own seed. Watching other people go through struggles to water their trees and seeing them succeed is a reward in and of itself.
I feel like the seeds not only grew into trees, and not only did they bear fruit, but they now stand in a strong forest. The study of game sound has spawned conferences and now a formal academic organization and this journal. I no longer get asked, “What's it like to be the only woman here?” at industry events and conferences I go to, which is much to my relief. The industry has grown tremendously—the arrival of the iPhone is not to be underestimated in bringing a massive number of people to playing games and writing music for games (and writing about writing music for games). The number of people attending game audio events has gone from a small, intimate group to more people than I can count and continues to grow each year, in terms of both academic and industry events—dedicated Audio Engineering Society conferences, GameSoundCon, the Ludomusicology conference, and the North American Conference on Video Game Music, for instance.
Game music concerts have sprouted up and revived orchestras worldwide, and games themselves are now becoming a venue to perform live concerts in—such as Marshmello's concert in Fortnite in February 2019, reportedly attended by nearly 11 million people. Music departments are, sometimes reluctantly, acknowledging that games exist and students care about them. While North America still lags behind Europe, more and more game-related courses and programs are starting every year, and I see an increasing number of job ads in academia specifically looking for someone to teach areas of games. I am no longer asked the awkward “You don't play games, do you?” question when I talk about games at academic events.
There are still seeds to be planted. There are patches in our forest that haven't yet been tended: the use of sound in electronic board games, electro-mechanical games, pinball, and many casual games, for instance, has largely been neglected in favor of chiptunes and the triple-A console titles (not to say that they've been ignored completely, but they haven't received the same attention). We've started to create a canon—something I've fought against since the inception. While it can make teaching easier, canonization risks focusing on the “firsts”—the tree roots—without looking at the multitude of fruit that grew from those roots. As any arborist knows, the strongest forests are those with the most diversity.
Today, I can stand back and watch others planting trees. I'm proud of the founders of this journal for all they've accomplished and their own grove in the woods. There is some irony in the organization's URL: SSSMG.org. If you accidentally visit SSSMG.com, you'll come across the South Shore Ship Modellers Guild. If I wasn't using trees as a metaphor, surely I would use ship building, and the rocky waters that await sailors who set out across uncharted seas, who risk it all, not to find treasures, but just for the love of the waves.