William Gibbons responds to Jonathan Godsall's review of Unlimited Replays: Video Games and Classical Music.
Let me begin by expressing my gratitude both to Jonathan Godsall for his thoughtful review of my book Unlimited Replays and to the JSMG editors for inviting me to write this brief response. Amid some very kind words about my book, Godsall—an expert on pre-existing music in film—raises two overarching concerns. First, he suggests some corrections to my treatment of film history and its relationship to video games. Second, he expresses a desire for more “acknowledgement of the range of understandings that individuals surely bring to classical music's interactions with games.” Here I would suggest that, despite being apparently unrelated, both issues emerge like shambling mounds from the same conceptual quagmire: the concept of “the player.”
As Godsall notes, one of my central goals for Unlimited Replays was to create a book that could be understood and enjoyed by a wide range of readers. To that end, I avoided long descriptions of my methodological choices, even when they played a significant role in the final product. “The player” is one of those. Many of the questions at the heart of Unlimited Replays are rooted in player/listener response. How does classical music affect how the player might interpret video games as an experience and a cultural phenomenon? And conversely, how do video games affect how the player might understand classical music and its cultural baggage? These questions assume the existence of a “player”—that is, I am typically concerned less with musical or ludic texts themselves than with how they are being interpreted. But who is this mysterious player? The answer has significant implications. Espen Aarseth, for example, has noted profound methodological divides and terminological confusion between social-science approaches to (real, historical) players and humanistic approaches to (imagined, abstract) players.1
My feet remain planted firmly on humanistic ground, so I then had to choose a type of Model Player (following on “Model Readers” proposed by literary theorists like Umberto Eco).2 I might have chosen a naïve player, who would experience each text in a vacuum, with no intertextual, cultural, or historical context—but since Unlimited Replays is fundamentally concerned with the accrued layers of meaning, that would seem unrewarding. On the other hand, I could have assumed an ideal player, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of all relevant contexts and intertextual references. That type of reader might be appealing in some hermeneutic respects, yet their perfection would complicate my argument that most players rely on culturally prevalent but philosophically dubious understandings of “classical music.”
My solution was to attempt to capture a range of possible player experiences between these two extremes. In some cases, I considered what would happen if a player had no knowledge that a piece of music had a life outside the game they were playing. In other examples, as Godsall notes, I explored how a game might be interpreted if the player instead had my own relatively extensive knowledge of the histories of music and video games (and my willingness to spend hours researching obscure details). Mostly, I aimed somewhere in the middle—yet of course there is an infinite spectrum of unique individual experiences, many of which I could never begin to imagine.
The same issues of interpretation hold true for the points Godsall raises with regards to the uniqueness (or lack thereof) of games as a medium. He is absolutely correct, for instance, that games are not historically unusual in their incorporation of classical music into “lowbrow” media, and I did not intend to imply that such was the case. Yet while some players may be highly versed in cinema's longstanding and complex relationship to classical music, others—the majority, I expect—might be blissfully unaware of, say, the prominence of classical music in B films, or that film was ever perceived as anything but a legitimate art form. Whether a thing is actually new or revolutionary and whether its creators or consumers believe that it is are entirely different things. In other words, to players well versed in media history, the incorporation of classical music into video games might seem, in Godsall's words, “inevitable and almost unremarkable”; to many other players, however, the experience might seem innovative and even culturally transgressive.
The identity of “the player” is a rich and complex topic far beyond my ability to adequately address in this brief response. I am hopeful, however, that this review and response may help other ludomusicologists consider how to engage with this subject in more depth and with more nuance in their scholarship, as we seek to understand the profound impact of music on players of all types.
Espen Aarseth, “I Fought the Law: Transgressive Play and the Implied Player,” in From Literature to Cultural Literacy, ed. Naomi Segal and Daniela Koleva (London: Palgrave, 2014), 180–188.
Eco returns to these ideas repeatedly in his writings, but see especially Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979); and on intertextuality and model readers, see Eco, “Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading,” in On Literature, trans. Martin McLaughlin (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2004), 212–235.