Different Routes


Bleep-bleep! Reminiscing about video game music brings to mind the golden age of childhood, helps to treat depression and even saves lives

Nostalgia full of beeping and pixels rules in the world of digital games for adults. The personal and private meanings of gaming have surprised the multidisciplinary team of researchers.

Text: Jantso Jokelin
Images: Viivi Prokofiev

The double jackpot sound of an arcade games machine set next to the magazine shelves of a service station, the cacophonous sound of racing simulators in a dimly-lit arcade, or the immortal theme of the Bubble Bobble computer game you played with your best friend on the desk under his loft bed. Many of us have at least some experience of video game music, if not from recent years, at least from hazy recollections of childhood days.

Diving into these memories may cause an emotional reaction which can be surprisingly strong sometimes. In an instant, game music seems to fill your mind, and in your mind’s eye you see a perfect day from decades ago.

Started at the beginning of 2020, the three-year project Game Music Everyday Memories (GAMEM) explores the experience and meanings of digital games through cherished memories of music. This multidisciplinary research explores the meanings people give to games’ soundscapes and their descriptions of their memories of them. The most startling of these experiences can even be said to have led to life-changing or life-saving moments.

Memories of games live on in our language

The music of computer games has not been studied very much, even in the field of game studies. Memories and their verbalisation adds another dimension to the research.

The researchers in the group – Kai Tuuri, Oskari Koskela, Jukka Vahlo and Heli Tissari –approach the same topic from different perspectives and backgrounds: musicology, folklore studies, game studies and linguistics.

“Despite our different perspectives, we share the view that human cognition or mind is embodied, meaning that we formulate knowledge, observations and language based on sensory experiences. This point of view usually opens up quite well any knots in understanding we may have,” Kai Tuuri explains.

“Our research involves multiple methods, which means that we study experiences of game music by combining qualitative observations and theoretical perspectives with statistical analysis of survey data. In this way, we gain an understanding of how experiences of game music are structured in gaming and beyond into everyday life and its meanings,” Jukka Vahlo continues.

The human mind is notoriously abstract and fickle and defies narrow definitions. The researchers of game music memories are seeking linguistic ways for people to share and understand their bodily and cognitive experiences. In simpler terms, we could talk about self-expression in relation to memories. In addition to games and music, language is at the heart of the research.

“This started as a music project, but what we are actually studying the most is language, players’ stories about their memories, or in other words, how people verbally describe their experiences with game music,” Tuuri says.

Because of this perspective, the team decided to include a linguist in their research. This linguist is Heli Tissari, who specialises in the study of metaphors of emotion. One of the key words in the research project is conceptual metaphor. For example, if love is described as a flaming fire, this is a conceptual metaphor.

“One example from our material could be nostalgia bomb, which was used in some of the stories to describe game music that the person telling the story considered important to them. They drew a parallel between the experience of nostalgia and a bomb exploding,” Tissari says.

“Yet conceptual metaphors are not arbitrary, but instead describe ways in which people understand, for example, an abstract and multidimensional matter such as music,” Oskari Koskela continues.

The data for the study to date consists of responses from two different data acquisitions. One of them involved collecting free-form stories about memories of game music that were especially dear to the person. About 180 respondents answered these questions. The second survey was carried out using a questionnaire which more generally sought answers to the question, what kind of game music makes an impression on people. The researchers received almost 800 responses to this survey. In both datasets, the respondents represented several genders and different gaming backgrounds. The average age of the respondents was around 30 years.

What surprised the researchers the most was how different the responses to the two surveys were. In the survey on the most liked game music, the majority of the games were fairly new: players revealed they had particularly enjoyed the orchestral music of fantasy and sci-fi games such as Skyrim (2011), Nier: Automata (2017) and Final Fantasy VII (1997). In the survey on players’ most significant memories of game music, on the other hand, players primarily cherished decades-old games such as Commando (1985) and Mega Man (1987).

“The moments of gaming experienced early on were highlighted in people’s most beloved game memories. They often created scenarios or stories, for example, about a specific room or place where they had been playing the game. These contained detailed descriptions of how it was raining outside and how they were playing in dad’s study, reliving the moments they played a certain game at a certain age,” Tuuri says.

“Of course, people of different ages have different experiences. It is quite easy to see that the sounds of old equipment in particular are related to the age of the person playing the game.”

Memories of music also included humour, onomatopoeic expressions and various attempts to describe the sounds of the games.

“In the C-64 game, the Bruce Lee theme song is very catchy. We used to sing it together many times when the game finally finished loading. The words we used to sing it went something like this: Bah-dee bah-dee bah-dee bah-dee Bruucee Lee. Bruucee Lee. Sha-la la-la lah-lah, sha-la la-la lah-lah shanianiani… and so on. There was an oriental atmosphere around the desk when Ninja, Sumo and Bruce himself appeared on the screen of the portable TV.”

(Male, 43)

The sound was already rewarding in the pioneering game Pong

The prehistory of electronic games started in the game halls known as penny arcades that became popular at the beginning of the 20th century and offered mechanical coin-based games such as Fortuna and pinball. Although the games didn’t have electricity at first, even the most primitive machines were equipped with different kinds of bells and other jingling devices to produce sound.

In short, even the early arcades included the special feature of game music, creating an integral link between sound and action. Sounds served as a kind of reward that the player gained through various actions. At the same time, the listener became an active producer of sound. Sound also became an important element in early video game consoles. Simple beeping sounds were already included in the world’s first commercially significant video game Pong (1972). It is precisely these little sound signals that still seem crucial to the fun and gameplay of this primitive table tennis simulation five decades later. They give the ball weight and the whole game drama.

The sound effects and music of video games cannot be treated as secondary elements in relation to other game mechanics. Sound may support the entire gaming experience and become an integral part of a person’s memories, even more effectively than the game’s visual and technical solutions.

“Game music is perhaps the most significant reason why games have become so dear to me in my life. As dear as lifeless pieces or binary digits can be.”

(Male, 33)

Kai Tuuri talks about synchresis, which is also used in film studies – the harmonious experience resulting from the combination of sound and image. In video games too, sound becomes an integral part of running or flying a spacecraft, for example.

“Sound gives power to the action portrayed. The first video games were so abstract that they didn’t evoke anything very concrete in people’s minds. Although the sounds were primitive, they brought the visual experience closer to the player.”

One of the most memorable gaming experiences for Tuuri himself was the Commodore 64 Zoids (1986) which was “a bad game and almost impossibly difficult.”

“I’m not even sure what happened in it; you had to rely quite a lot on your imagination. But thanks to Rob Hubbard’s bombastic and symphonic music, I wanted to spend time playing it anyway when I was young.”

The researchers of game music also have some very small and modest sounds that they still remember from their own gaming history.

Dungeon Master (1987) didn’t even have music, just sound effects, grunts, death screams and so on. Yet its sounds are perhaps most deeply rooted in my mind from childhood. I didn’t dare to play it myself, but I watched my brother and his friends play it,” says Jukka Vahlo, a game researcher with a folklorist background.

“In the early days of games, I doubt it occurred to anyone to play games without the sound. I remember that we always had the sound on. Things are very different today, especially with mobile games.”

Image: Viivi Prokofjev

Tony Hawk introduced a country kid to skate punk

Over time, the spectrum of game music has grown so diverse that it is impossible to talk about just one genre anymore. Especially the beeping chiptune music from the early 1970s and 80s naturally falls into the category of electronic music, but it has been increasingly accompanied by genres composed for large orchestras and choirs that are not far from classical and film music.

On the other hand, modern games can have music from a medieval instrument ensemble (The Witcher 3), heavy metal guitar (Doom) or country-style harmonica and banjo (Red Dead Redemption II). The Grand Theft Auto action-adventure series of games and the Tony Hawk skateboarding games feature songs by commercial pop, rap and rock artists on their soundtracks.

“The stories we collected mentioned Tony Hawk several times. One person recalled their childhood in the countryside where they couldn’t have come across Californian skate punk anywhere else but in this video game. They learned about the culture of skateboarding through gaming,” Tuuri says.

So far, one of the most important observations the researchers have made is how much variation there is in what music people love and how personal it is to them. In the end, games that garnered the most individual mentions, such as Final Fantasy VII and Skyrim, were relatively rare overall. The majority of all the almost 750 unique game titles were mentioned only once or twice. In addition to popular favourites, some games mentioned included curiosities like the Tikkurila paint manufacturer’s advertising game Painterboy (1986), published on Commodore 64.

It can also be considered significant that, for the majority of players, game music was also an experience that was separate from gaming. They might have switched on a game and left it running just so they could listen to the music while doing something else. Some of the biggest enthusiasts ended up learning to play an instrument or even composing their own music thanks to the games.

“People also recorded video game music onto a tape via TV speakers to be able to listen to it later. More than 90 per cent of the survey respondents had also done various activities related to game music outside gaming. This has made the games a part of their everyday lives,” Vahlo says.

Memories brimming with nostalgia

The commercial history of digital games began in the early 1970s. As a form of culture, video games are still so new that even the oldest generations who spent their childhood playing them have barely reached retirement age. At the same time, however, the industry is old enough that it is possible to clearly distinguish different style periods in game history. The model numbers of the consoles alone stir up whole epochs in players’ minds. One person might remember the Atari 2600, another the 8-bit Nintendo and a third the reign of PlayStation 3.

The recollection of game music also reveals a strong division between games from the old days and the ‘modern age’. Both eras were meaningful to players, but especially the games and sounds of the 1980s and 90s represent a lost time many players look back on fondly.

“For me, game music mainly represents nostalgia. I listen to old original game music a lot, but also remixes (e.g. on YouTube). When I listen to, for example, old 8-bit classics, I don’t so much go back to a specific time in the past. Instead, it’s a more general feeling, a return to a familiar and safe childhood, a simpler time without worries. It makes me feel comfortable and safe, but at the same time brings on a euphoric state.”

(Male, 38)

The stories of the survey respondents are brimming with nostalgia, Kai Tuuri explains.

“They have a strong autobiographical emphasis, whether they are short episodic accounts or longer story-based descriptions. They are stories about the people themselves and especially about a kind of golden age.”

In these memories, video game music from past decades represent childhood freedom and adventure. Music carries people to their childhood homes and game arcades, reminding them of a grey day in the stimulating glow of a cathode-ray tube television and a moment of intense concentration together with a sister, brother or friend. While for some people these times involve less than golden memories, such as bullying at school, gaming may have helped them through tough times.

“Later my friends started to ignore me at school because I was different and had developed a physical illness. I didn’t do well at school. I started playing Kingdom Hearts (PlayStation 2). Its story and music helped me understand human psychology and potential reasons for why I was being bullied at school. Kingdom Hearts’ story was about people’s inner darkness that leads to another person’s unhappiness. The music in the Kingdom Hearts game series had such a deep effect on me that I started composing music myself. Games have remained therapeutic for me even in adult life: without video games, I wouldn’t be alive.”

(Female, 30)

Continents lost inside consoles

The word ‘nostalgia’ was coined at the end of the 17th century to refer to a psychophysical disease caused by a feeling of homesickness. Over the centuries, nostalgia began to be understood more as a longing for and dreaming of the past. A person who experiences nostalgia wants to visit the past as if it was a place they can travel to, writes political researcher Antto Vihma in his new non-fiction book Nostalgia – Teoria ja käytäntö (Nostalgia – Theory and Practice, 2021, available in Finnish).

The old meaning of the word as the longing for a physical place may also be useful when talking about memories relating to video games. Digital games and their soundscapes have become symbols not only of the past, but also of entire lost continents. Dusty consoles have digital places hidden inside them, mirages of a kind that can be conjured up with the right command and that are perceived as real at the time of gaming. For today’s generations, they can become something that provides stronger support for the past and memories than, say, physical photo albums did for our grandparents.

“If I remember correctly, the opening scene of the game [Gabriel Knight III], in which this particular piece of music is played, is itself an image of a rainy evening, but I also equate it with rainy nights in real life. I can clearly see in my mind my room at the time (I was still living with my parents), a desk with a gaming computer and monitor, two oddly positioned speakers and rain behind the window. It was the end of the 90s, and I felt like a phase of my life was coming to an end. When I remember that music today (from memory, I don’t play it these days), the images it evokes are as melancholic as the music itself.”

(Male, 41)

Nostalgia is combined with video games not only in people’s memories, but also in the media and games themselves. There are numerous retro-style games, restored versions of old games and spin-off merchandise that draws from game history being released today. Mini versions of consoles like Nintendo, Sega and Commodore 64 are being made for modern TVs; nostalgia capsules of a sort for children from an era of scarce binary digits who are adults now. Mortal Kombat, Doom, Sonic The Hedgehog and many other classic games have also been made into films in recent years.

One could also speak of ‘negative nostalgia’, which focuses on reminiscing about and recapturing bad gaming experiences. For example, the soaring popularity of the Angry Video Game Nerd videos on YouTube indicates that negative game memories can also be treasured simply because people can identify with them.

Today, 30 to 40-year-olds are in a particularly vulnerable position and prone to buy back a fragment of the elation of their youth. Games like Super Mario and Zelda were such intense experiences in our early years that hearing their theme music now may make you cry, as Theatre Director Lauri Maijala says in the podcast Suu puhtaaksi.

Maijala describes games as the greatest art experiences of his life and being absorbed in old game worlds as healthy nostalgia, as ‘soft tissue’ that is worth seeking sometimes in this hard and cruel world.

The only tattoo the theatre director has ever considered taking is a symbol associated with a video game.

“It might be a reminder for me in a distressing moment that says, Lauri, this is a wonderful world where you can control the environment and yourself perfectly,” Maijala says on the podcast.

Image: Viivi Prokofjev

Does game music have a life of its own?

Today, digital games are mainstream in popular culture. Yet their consumption is still characterised by a certain element of privacy and subjectivity. By default, you have to play the game yourself and usually play it a lot to create a close relationship with its world. Each player and each time you play is a little different, and your own actions constantly affect the worlds that you as a player find and the sounds you hear.

It is music that is likely to reveal something more general about the nature of this intimate cult. While you regularly hear popular and classical music being played in department stores, on the radio, in the cinema, in television series, lifts and promotional videos, outside of games you are unlikely to be exposed to game music, which has been equally lovingly composed and interpreted by the musicians.

Today, video game music is often performed by large orchestras in concert halls. These concerts are likely to be attended mostly by listeners who are already dedicated video game players, but at least for those committed to culture, they offer magnificent experiences.

“One of the highlights of my life was the Melodies of Lifestream piano concert in Helsinki in 2016. My friends and I travelled for hours to get there. Nobuo Uematsu’s legendary compositions were interpreted by Ramon van Engelenhoven, a 21-year-old Dutch piano virtuoso. An entire concert dedicated to music from my favourite game! I was thrilled to bits just to sit there, and when the concert started, the emotions that flowed over me just grew. Even though I was into makeup art, I didn’t wear any because I knew I would cry.”

(Other, 23)

Despite the different eras, digital games are still a relatively young phenomenon. Tuuri believes that game music is only just becoming a regular, natural part of popular culture.

“For the first few decades, game music was essentially attached to the devices and ‘distributed’ only by the games. It’s only recently that game music has become a phenomenon separate from gaming. In this separation, the question that provokes discussion is whether it is still the same music when separated from the gaming activity. If you go to a concert to listen to game music, to what extent are you reliving the gaming experience in that moment?”

At the very least, sold-out concerts reflect the rise in the prestige of gaming and game music, as well as the desire to continue the precious gaming experience. Perhaps the doors of video game music are also opening up to a wider audience than ever before.

The quotations about gaming memories in the article come from the material compiled by the working group for their study. Source: Tuuri, Kai (University of Jyväskylä), Koskela, Oskari (University of Jyväskylä), Tissari, Heli (University of Helsinki) & Vahlo, Jukka (University of Jyväskylä): Finnish Memories of Game Music material 2020 [electronic dataset]. Version 1.0 (2021-05-28). Finnish Social Science Data Archive [distributor].

You can follow the progress of the study Game Music Everyday Memories (GAMEM) on the project blog:

Kai Tuuri, PhD, acts as the project’s head researcher and part-time university researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. Tuuri’s contribution to the project is his expertise in researching the experience of listening to music and the human-technology interaction.

Jukka Vahlo, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä. Vahlo’s contribution to the project is the perspective of game experience research and statistical methodological expertise related to surveys.

Heli Tissari, PhD, Docent of English Philology, works as a fixed-term university lecturer at the University of Helsinki. Tissari’s role in the project is especially related to the analysis of English and Finnish conceptual metaphors.

Oskari Koskela, MA, is working on a doctoral thesis in musicology at the University of Jyväskylä. Koskela’s role in the project is focused on the theoretical development of the aesthetic experience of game music.