Rhetoric of music in video games

Well this is just an idea I’ve been toying with; if anyone has any information or ideas on the topic it would be much appreciated.

I was playing the latest Call of Duty game and I had some ideas about the role of music in the online multiplayer matches. Although there are different modes (capture the flag, team deathmatch, etc.), the basic mechanics of all online modes are essentially the same: complete an objective with and for your team, whilst “killing” the players on the opposing team. If you’re unfamiliar with these games, here is a clip. Most modes have time limits, and this is where I think the music of the game goes beyond merely setting the mood and into persuasion.

There is very limited music throughout the match, excepting at the start, or triumphant music when you win, for instance, or little flourishes when you complete an objective (e.g. capturing an enemy flag and returning it to your team’s base). What I’m interested in, however, is what happens during the final minute of a match. If the scores are close, the game informs players as such; however, it is not always through a dialogue box or text, but through music. The music will suddenly “pick up” – an urgent drum beat ensues (I can’t find a clip yet), communicating to players that the game is close.

There are several rhetorics at play here – and indeed, it seems that as a hypermedium, video games are almost always comprised of disparate, often competing rhetorics. The first of course is the rhetoric of “winning”: the score is close, so do what you can to help your team. Easy enough.

A second rhetoric at play is perhaps more interesting. Essentially, the urgent music tells players to throw caution to the wind, to seize the objective without care for the avatar’s well being: it is the team that counts. In effect, then, apart from instilling the militaristic rhetoric of sacrificing oneself for “duty” and “the cause”, the music instructs, or attempts to instruct, players how to play.

For the most part of the game, I am somewhat cautious, and this is for a couple reasons. First, the game keeps track of stats (kill to death ratio, for instance) and for whatever reason, I care that my kills are higher than my deaths (they’re not, by the way). Secondly, in certain modes, when you are killed you are not allowed to rejoin the current round (respawn), or you have to wait an amount of time before you can. This “death state” is not death at all of course: while dead you in fact can observe the actions of your fellow teammates (this “observing” likely warrants critical attention too). Anyway, the point is that I care about my character (or me in the game perhaps), and I want to stay in the game.

When the music gets urgent at the close of the game, however, I rush around frantically, either toward the objective or looking for enemies to kill. As such, while I die more frequently, I also earn more points, either through kills or through capturing an objective (NB: I’d usually rather get kills than points through capturing objectives; it’s just more fun).

In short, the music goes beyond its cinematic purpose (mood, atmosphere, etc.) by providing the user with information designed to influence user input (play). I think another (non video) game which highlights this concept of music as instructive is musical chairs: once you know the rules the only communication is via music. This is an area of video games which is yet to be examined in a detailed manner (that I’m aware of anyway).

Well, this post was much longer than I expected. Here’s a clip from the opening of Call of Duty: World at War. I’m going to discuss its role as a disseminator of propaganda in my next post – only the first 1:30 is relevant for my purposes.

Jason