… wrote the French poet—and apparently gamer himself, or at least gambler—Paul Verlaine in his Art poétique (1874).
But listening to music while playing?
Or rather, being unable to play without music?
It astounds me.
I know, I know… There are so many sites and services dedicated to offering playlists for various types of games. And it is such a popular topic on gaming forums to try to match tastes in games with tastes in music, sometimes with the same fervor and seriousness as a gourmet chef working on pairing meals and wines.
It just amazes me to no end.
Eating and drinking definitely are, first and foremost, sensory experiences; but tabletop gaming?
I should point out that I am not fond of the storytelling types of games that use, among several other devices, a carefully chosen soundtrack to immerse us in epic, gripping adventures. When I feel like getting carried away,
overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, I’ll consider more readily the home theater, the Cineplex or even the amusement park than the gaming table.
When trying to focus on a game despite a musical background, I feel somewhat besieged. What can I say—I am not endowed with ear-lids; I cannot half-listen to something. Nor can my attention be split; thus the music and the game fight over it as a whole, and it jumps continuously from one to the other. And it gets worn down, the poor thing, as both letting the music in and keeping it out require the same level of conscious effort. The end result is always the same: a spotty gaming experience.
Not that playing a game with a musical background will necessarily be painful—in certain circumstances it can be quite all right—it simply never surpasses silence.
Isn’t music—or at least what passes for it—already soaking up our lives enough as it is? It is over ambient music that we have to raise our voice if we are to try having any kind of conversation in public, “meeting” places such as restaurants, bars and cafes. It is also behind continuous background music in our headphones that we try to isolate ourselves when we work in open offices. And when we do not take our mobile music with us in the car, on the bus, at the gym or the library, we can be sure that music will be surrounding us on the street, in waiting and changing rooms, in public toilets, gas or railway stations, elevators or supermarkets. In short, it seems that not a single one of our waking moments can escape some form of musical background. Doesn’t that make even the shortest gaming session seem like a breath of fresh air, like a rare opportunity to enjoy an oasis of silence?
I’m told by fellow gamers that I pay too much attention to background music; that I should just play without listening to it because it’s just, you know, background music—but then why put any music on at all? Why go out of your way to fill the room you’re in, for hours at a time, with something that you’re supposed to ignore?
There was a time when most movie theaters would hire a pianist to play live during the showing of silent films. Because these films were missing something: the soundtrack they were supposed to come with, that the audience was expecting. Silent films were incomplete. But I’ve never heard of a silent board game. To me the silence in a game is not a void needing to be filled, a gap or an omission. Nothing is missing. On the contrary such silence is full of energy, even tension. It is a feature of the game. It grabs us by the nape of the neck and won’t let go. And the more players there are around the table, the more impressive this silence becomes. Although a long, silent conversation with an old pal over a game, is hard to beat.
What’s more, it seems to me that nothing can reveal a game better than silence. That a game could pass the test of silence is a sure sign that we are made for each other.
Aren’t gaming sessions already punctuated with their own sound effects anyway? Sighs, stirring, shuffling, interjections, narrated bits, banter, murmured taunts; the rolling of dice, the flapping of cards or the tapping of fingers on the table… Isn’t that great? Isn’t that enough? Why drown it all in music?
Maybe many of those who are so uncomfortable in silence simply have not yet been exposed to the right kind of silence? Just as with games, there are different qualities of silences. There are embarrassed and embarrassing silences. Silences that are forbidding, bewildering. Empty or frozen. Heavy and oppressive.
But there are also those silences that appeal to us; inviting, liberating silences. And in a good gaming session, when the right players are sitting around the right game, this is the type of silence that will spring from the game, like the genie of the lamp. That will spread around the table and envelop it. Dense and warm. A great liquor. A thermal spring.
Such gaming silences are so exquisite that it is tempting to believe that they have been crafted, custom-made by the game designer. That they bear his mark.
So I’ll make Valery (Tel Quel, 1943) reply to Verlaine—let’s stay among Pauls, here—when he writes that putting music on a great poem—or, why not, on a great game—is equivalent to lighting a great painting… through stained glass.
A quality game produces a silence of its own.
Why not develop an ear for it.