Sunday, November 8, 2009

Taste and Appreciation

Music is important to me. I’ve been playing drums for twelve years, though I only developed a significant interest in music 8 years ago (during my high school years).

It’s easy to settle into a groove and only listen to a certain kind of music that you find comfortable. Most people have their taste set in stone from when they were children. They listen to the music that they are comfortable with. Often this means listening to the music that they’ve heard the most—whether it be through the radio or through their parents—and occasionally adjusting to whatever music happens to be popular (i.e. what music is currently being listened to the most).

In gaming, it’s even easier to settle into the comfortable at the expense of everything else. Games are more expensive, less available, and take longer for developers to make. A $12 album can be made in 6 months. A great game takes upwards of a year and will cost $50 to $65. In this climate, it’s more beneficial for game industry participants to be risk averse and simply produce games that are slight incremental improvements over the last popular game—or even games that are direct clones of whatever is popular. When a player learns how to play a game and finds he likes it, he’ll certainly be interested in playing more of the same. It’s comfortable, just like the pop music from when you were a child. Reliving it makes you feel nostalgic. It’s easy for people to fall into a pattern here and accept what is given and look no further.

The first step towards developing taste is being able to discern one thing from another. This involves paying attention. The majority of those who play games or listen to music do not pay attention to it. The game or song plays its role or fills a gap and for that, the player or listener is grateful. Almost any song or game can come to fill this gap, though. Discerning means that you are sensitive to how different games or songs fill that gap. When you discern, you can pick out things that you like more or less and identify why that is, even if it’s only because you understand that you like certain facets of the experience and dislike others.

Once you learn to discern, you gain interest. You have a vague notion of what you like, so you try to seek out more things that you’ll like. Through this process, you expand your knowledge of the area in question. Someone who likes strategy games might expand backwards in time and play classics like the original Command & Conquer and Total Annihilation. Through indulging your interests, you can further discern. Here your taste takes shape.

Eventually you have learned enough that no longer are your discernments of a “I feel X” nature, they become intellectualized. You gain an understanding of why a song is arranged a certain way. You start picking up on what makes a good level in a shooter. Now you don’t just know what you like by matching up an arbitrary list of preferences against some object you’re listening to or playing, you can make meaningful objective statements about what most people are think are subjective topics. You have gained an understanding of the topic, and through this understanding you’re capable of finding just the right kind of game or song for this point in your life.

At this evolved stage, you can see your own preferences changing and you may even be able to put your finger on why. You arrive at some fundamental ideas about why you love music or gaming. You dig deep and find games and songs that you absolutely love. Your life is enriched by the experience, and you wish everyone could enjoy the object of your evolved taste just as well as you can.

Music has taught me how to expand and develop my tastes. I’ve learned much about how to find new material and give it an honest chance. I’ve learned how to find what should be appreciated, and then how to appreciate and enjoy it. One band in particular that widened my musical horizons through hard listening and close attention is Venetian Snares. VS makes some very intense drill & bass music. It’s hard to listen to at times, it can border on complete chaos. The patterns are complex and the sounds used are unorthodox. It took me many listens to grasp what was going on in this music and gain an appreciation for it. Through learning how to listen to VS I felt I had developed my ability to learn how to enjoy new things by coming at them from different angles.

Through stepping beyond what is comfortable and becoming immersed in the strange and different, we can start small-scale personal transformations that can lead to a significant increase in the amount of enjoyment we derive from life. Developing taste is one of the most important processes a human being can go through. I hope you have experienced what I discuss here. If you haven’t, please go out into the world and find new material that interests you, be it in poetry, music, prose, gaming, horseback riding, or breeding dogs. Don’t just be a consumer, develop an acute taste and gain a deep understanding of a topic—it’ll enrich your life more than I can describe to you even given another ten thousand words.


Anonymous said...

I'd go further than that. Don't stop at computer games. If you want to call yourself any kind of gamer, play card games, board games, RPGs, live action games ... get a sense for what balance and pace, intro and endgame, coop and competitive play can really mean across the board.

Gravity said...

This same refinement of your ability to make distinctions is what allows a good trader on the financial markets to distinguish one market dynamic from another, and make trading decisions.

Tesh said...

I'll second Spinks, noting that my own forays into tabletop war gaming and card gaming have enhanced what sensibilities I bring to the table in digital game design.

I'd extend the notion beyond games as well; those much-vaunted "polymaths" that we laud as great people of history (say, Leonardo DaVinci) had interests in a wide variety of fields. I've seen it myself; I can take my interest in astronomy and math and craft my art in more interesting ways. The more connections you make among topics of interest, the more neural connections you make, and the more capable you are of creativity, retention, synthesis and wisdom.

Wolfshead said...

Music is probably the finest of all art forms. It affects the listener on so many levels both consciously and subconsciously. I agree with what you say about the importance of appreciation.

I have a degree in music production and one of the things I learned to do many years ago is to think critically about music. It's a complex subject which involves a lot of deconstruction. A good musician and music afficiando can hear and appreciate in a piece of music far beyond what the average listener can hear.

Still music affects us all in different ways. No one's interpretation of music is superior to another's. But having this kind of ability is essential in being able to create good music because you gain an understanding of how and why good music works.

One of the keys to critical thinking is having the curiosity to ask "why".

The same skills that you use to appreciate music can be used to appreciate video games. Flow, pacing, contrast, minimalism, tensionk dynamics, tonality, harmony, etc. All of these qualities are interchangable with concepts found in game design as well as in other areas.

I agree with what everyone has said here. The skills you have in other areas can be very beneficial and synergistic to what you are doing in other fields. It's very worthwhile to be a Renaisance man.