My son Jim’s favorite game, World of Warcraft, only works on my computer, which usually resides in the kitchen. Inevitably, Jim’s often playing his game while Greta and I are making dinner, and I have to say, the most annoying thing about the game isn’t the violence or the sound effects — it’s the background music. We’re constantly asking him to turn the volume down so we don’t have to listen to that dull, repetitive music.
So don’t gamers find music annoying, too? I know when I’m indulging in my one guilty pleasure — computer golf — the room must be absolutely silent. Music is the worst, because rather than hitting the ball according to the rhythm of the swing, I tend to lapse into the rhythm of the music, and instead of heading straight down the fairway on the Chateau Whistler course, my ball ends up careening off course into a field of neck-high nettles, or ricocheting off a pine tree and into a pristine mountain brook.
Indeed, in at least one instance (a racing game studied by M. Yamada in 2001), researchers found a negative correlation between certain types of music and performance on the game. But in both this case and my anecdotal example of playing video golf, we’re talking about music that’s not specifically designed to accompany a game.
A recent study by Scott Lipscomb and Sean Zehnder addresses that issue. They had volunteers play three different segments from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, either with or without the music that was composed by Howard Shore to accompany the game. A third group listened to the music alone. After each segment, they rated the game/music experience along 21 different dimensions. I’m not going to discuss all their results, but one set of responses was particularly interesting to me:
Ratings were made using a slider on the computer monitor, and then converted into a numerical scale ranging from 0 to 100. Here we see that the level of annoyance depends not only on whether the music was being played along with the game, but also on the particular segment of the game. Each game segment had different music, presumably designed to enhance the experience, but in the “Amon Hen” segment, players found the game more annoying with the music than without, while in the other two segments, the non-musical versions were more annoying. Curiously (and probably coincidentally), the annoyance ratings for the music alone were statistically indistinguishable from annoyance ratings for game played without music.
Overall, many of the user ratings varied significantly depending on whether music was played:
“Simple” ratings decreased from the “game without music” condition to the “music only” condition to the “game with music” condition. Meanwhile, across the same conditions, “colorful” ratings increased. Clearly the impact of music on the gaming experience is complex.
Perhaps the most interesting result of this experiment had to do with the gender of participants. Here are the ratings for “dangerous” charted by gender:
Males rated the game as significantly less “dangerous” when music was not being played compared to when music was played, but women found it equally dangerous in either case. So at least along this dimension, music matters much more for men than for women.
What are your experiences with music and video games? Do they match the results of this study? Let us know in the comments.
Lipscomb, S.D., & Zehnder, S.M. (2004). Immersion in the virtual environment: The effect of a musical score on the video gaming experience.