The Quietus DECEMBER 15, 2011 - by Robert Barry


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

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 sixtieth 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 eighteenth 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! No. 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 socalled 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.