[ISEA2011] Paper: Aaron Oldenburg – Ludic Listening: Sound Art in Video Game Design


Digital games have historically been a highly visual medium.  Interactive virtual game worlds regularly immerse players in foreign, uncharted territories.  However, they have so far provided little opportunity for players to explore the world of hearing.

This paper will discuss the history of sonic experimentation in digital game design, including games with blindness as a mechanic, such as Increpare’s Forest and Eddo Stern’s Darkgame, as well as a series of games the author is in the process of creating that directly address ideas in sound art theory.  In his book, Sinister Resonances, David Toop describes hearing as “allow[ing] us constant access to a less stable world, omnidirectional, always in a state of becoming and receding, known and unknown.  This is the world that surrounds us and flows through us, in all its uncertainty.”   These projects focus on the slippery world of audio with the intention of distancing video games from the rational and concrete.  Video games in turn facilitate the exploration of relatively new paths in sound art, in areas such as spatial music composition.

Prior gameplay research has focused on eavesdropping and vicinal noises as a game mechanic.  In the game Escape the Cage, gameplay actively involves the listening player as accidental co-composer with the performing player.  Invisible Landscaping requires players to distinguish sound in noise.  The paper will discuss game designs in progress that base their mechanics on sonic strategies inspired by, for example, Dziga Vertov’s sense of implied sound.  Synesthesia will be explored through audio that attempts to represent other senses.  Game environments will become audio recorders, exploring William S. Burroughs’ engramatic inscribing of sounds in bodies.

Artistic video games are in a sense indebted to sound art, as works like John Cage’s 4’33” helped us see the audience as collaborators and composers.  Therefore, it may be beneficial to return to sound art as one method of expanding the potential of video games.  The goal is to look beyond visual-centric game design, which will give game designers conceptual tools to bypass its expressive limitations.

  • Aaron Oldenburg is a game designer and new media artist whose primary interest is in game rules as an expressive medium. His video and interactive work has exhibited in festivals and galleries in New York, Berlin, São Paulo and Los Angeles, including SIGGRAPH and FILE Electronic Language International Festival. He currently works on physical computing projects, designing new interfaces and electronic sculptures. He teaches game design as an Assistant Professor in University of Baltimore’s Simulation and Digital Entertainment program (USA) and has an MFA from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, USA. In October 2003 he finished two years as an HIV Health Extension Agent for the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa. home.ubalt.edu/aoldenburg

Full text (PDF) p. 1810-1812