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How games are changing popular music

The Grand Theft Auto School of Music

Gaming maker Rockstar Games has become a major maker of international music tastes. Nowhere is this more evident than with the long running Grand Theft Auto series, with its unique in-game radio stations that, according to Rolling Stone’s Brian Crescente “packed with 240 fully licensed songs and pre-recorded on-air talent, had become nearly as important as the game itself.”

In the five years since launch, GTA V and GTA Online gamers have listened to more than an estimated 75 billion minutes of music from the game’s 18 radio stations, according to Rockstar’s own analysis provided to Rolling Stone. Taking place inside the game’s bars and now in player-run clubs, the music is produced by its four well-known DJs, including the Black Madonna. And dance music, in particular, plays an important part of Rockstar Games’ own culture.

The story relates how games want to recreate real life groove and experiences. In the GTA expansion “After Hours” you can purchase your own night club and hire DJs to keep the place packed. Rockstar wanted to recreate the DJs themselves in the game, “injecting not just their music, but their personalities into it the virtual world.” DJ superstar Black Madonna was whisked off in secret for major motion sensored DJ sets, to be relived in the game.

Changing how we listen. The Black Madonna has thrown an exclusive DJ session in GTA, motion sensors and all.

Says Ivan Pavlovich, director of music at Rockstar Games, about using music to help players connect to moments in the game:

Whether it’s Table Tennis or Red Dead Redemption, the experience is something that connects the gamer to those songs,. It’s the same way you hear a song for the first at a high school dance or make out with some girl with music playing in the background. It forms a long-lasting connection with that music.

When It All Started

In a 2015 article, Hua Hsu pays tribute to Koji KOnda, the Japanese maestro behind the Super Mario Bros. sound track. He went to gaming arcades because he heard the music of the future. The article introduces readers to a world of visionary musicians “producing beloved masterpieces in almost total obscurity”:

Could it be that the largely unknown Kondo, Nintendo’s first dedicated sound designer, was one of the great innovative forces of our time?

Computer game music had been handled by programmers , mostly for logistical reasons.

The move to home consoles had freed video gaming from the initial, “hailing” approach to sound. Games were becoming a more private, immersive experience, and Kondo wanted to think about sound in a more experiential way. […]He ultimately decided that the music would ideally emphasize “the experience that the player is having,” underscoring the player’s sense of participation and interaction, the thrill of spending hundreds of hours of life perfecting hand-eye coördination.

As a result of  Super Mario, during which graphics and audio were developed in tandem, “games became more of an all-sensory experience.” And gaming studios began to hire musicians. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gaming = Cultured Kids

And now, if you need an argument apt to work with high-brow parents, James Williams, managing director at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, has said that computer games are an important  “access point” for youngsters to experience classical music for the first time, according to The Telegraph and several other outlets. Even more than experiencing a real concert. Said Williams:

It is encouraging to hear that there are platforms and opportunities for young people to engage with orchestral music, albeit in different mediums.  It is about sparking their interest. What we are finding is once we have lit that fire there is a real desire to carry that journey on and explore.If [computer games] are the trigger and the catalyst that can only be a really positive thing.

Give the kids gaming before high culture gets them. It turns out gaming is a fine introduction for kids to the finer points of music. (Manuel Nägeli/Unsplash)

The Greatest Video Game Music Ever?

We had to ask. And Techquila hads to answer, ranking the best from early legends Tetris and Super Mario Bros. through to newer canons such as Halo and GTA.