Since the late 1980s-early 1990s, video games have become strongly male coded as marketing teams began looking for a specific target audience to help the industry recover after the gaming industry crash of 1983.1 Ideas of greatness in music composition have traditionally been associated with the male gender as well, due to historical systemic issues that have hindered the success (and perception of success)2 of women and gender minorities. With this societal dissuasion coming from both sides, it would be fair to assume that women would be drastically underrepresented as composers of game music. While they are still not equally represented,3 it may be surprising to most people exactly how much of game music history rests on the shoulders of women. In the case of this exhibit, the surprise that may come with learning about these composers comes not from a lack of faith in their abilities, but rather shock at the ways in which they have been, until very recently, hidden.
It is important to note that video game music as a compositional genre was not widely legitimized in the early 80’s.4 According to composer Junko Ozawa, “Regarding video game music at that time, I think that even the video game production companies themselves weren’t very aware of it… Namco was very aware of the importance of video game music – they recruited composers as company employees and composed original melodies, but it was also a time when the machines made by other video game companies were playing ‘ready-made’ songs without any repercussions.”5 It is also important to look at the other reasons for this lack of recognition, whether logistical, such as a prevalent early use of pseudonyms and lack of knowledge among Western audiences about Japanese naming conventions, or societal, such as a general long-standing lack of societal value of women’s work. Based on composer interviews, not all women in game composition have experienced direct sexism related to their work, as Manami Matsumae for example seems to have had a positive experience6 and references the comradery of having other women employed along with her as a barrier to such negative treatment. However, these positive experiences do not erase things like systemic barriers to education and employment for minorities and unfair crediting practices, nor does it erase the stories of women who did go through direct oppressive experiences.7 The comfort felt by some women game composers, and a feeling that they should not try to stand out too much in order to not face social repercussions,8 also serves to hide the issues that do exist and the fact that the mold of a successful artist was not made with women in mind.9
Linda Nochlin’s essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?10 (1971) points out that the issue of women gaining recognition and “reaching greatness” in their fields is not just an issue of participation. Bringing up a long list of women who have done the job before whether painter, composer, or anything else, does not mean that the question is moot; the issue lies in the traditional perception of “greatness” and “genius” as a (cis-white) male trait. This exhibit focuses on representation under the understanding that a feeling that you would have to be “the first” can itself be a form of cultural setback for the future successes of marginalized groups,11 but does not focus on it as a catch all solution. The women highlighted here showcase not just participation in the field, but pioneering of it, and continued success. This exhibit will focus mostly on notable games that people will recognize to showcase how much of these women’s musical work is already well-known and well-loved and could be called some of the “great” works in game composition history, yet the composers do not get the recognition they deserve. And even though much of the past literature referenced here was likely written with cisgender women in mind, in this exhibit we look to inclusively showcase women and gender minority success and representation in games.
As the scholarly field of ludomusicology and public appreciation of game music grows, there is more and more work being done to spread the knowledge of game music history that we already have, as well as excavate new information. Game music makes up some of the most recognizable music of the last few generations and deserves to be studied and respected, as do the composers who have formed it as a genre from the beginning.
Exhibit Curator: Jordan Good (AG24), DEIJ & Collections Resident at Lilly Music Library
Editor: Anna Kijas, Head, Lilly Music Library
With special thanks to the Digital Design Studio and the Tisch Library Director’s Office
- Tracey Lien, “No Girls Allowed,” Polygon, December 2, 2013, https://www.polygon.com/features/2013/12/2/5143856/no-girls-allowed.
- Linda Nochlin, “From 1971: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” ARTnews, May 30, 2015. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/retrospective/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists-4201/.
- Brian Schmidt, “Game Audio Industry Survey 2021,” GameSoundCon, October 18, 2021. https://www.gamesoundcon.com/post/game-audio-industry-survey-2021. The GameSoundCon’s audio industry survey 2021 found that the industry is 84% male (lowest percentage since the survey began in 2014).
- Kenneth B. McAlpine, “Chiptune, Ownership and the Digital Underground;” Junko Ozawa, “Waveform Wizard: An Interview with Composer Junko Ozawa,” in The Cambridge Companion to Video Game Music, eds. Melanie Fritsch and Tim Summers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021): 33-51; 52-58, doi:10.1017/9781108670289.004.
- Ozawa, pp. 52-58.
- Casey Jarman, Interview with Manami Matsumae: “High Scores: Manami Matsumae Moves from ‘Mega Man’ to ‘Three Movements’,” February 7, 2018, https://daily.bandcamp.com/high-scores/high-scores-manami-matsumae-moves-from-mega-man-to-three-movements.
- Charlie Hall, “In a Heartbreaking Letter, Jessica Curry Says Goodbye to The Chinese Room,” Polygon, https://www.polygon.com/2015/10/10/9493789/in-a-heartbreaking-letter-jessica-curry-says-goodbye-to-the-chinese.
- Jennifer Kelly, In Her Own Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States (University of Illinois Press, 2013), http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt2tt9pb.
- Nancy B. Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman, revised edition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001): 216.
Image credit: Matt Makes Games, “Celeste on the summit,” CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celeste_summit.png.