Archive by Author | Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

SO! Amplifies: Mega Ran and Sammus, The Rappers With Arm Cannons Tour

sammus

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Throughout the month of March, nerdcore MCs Mega Ran (Raheem Jarbo) and Sammus (Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo) will be embarking on the “Rappers with Arm Cannons” Tour. Both artists independently based their monikers on two of the most notable video game characters to possess arm cannons, (Mega Man and Samus respectively), but they have since collaborated on several songs and a SoundScan charting Castlevania project, as well as sharing the stage at numerous concert venues and conventions, and releasing individual albums and videos that have received international attention and critical acclaim. Now three years later the two teachers-turned-rappers have decided to take their show on the road alongside rapper and sound engineer Storyville (Matthew Weisse), who has recently joined forces with Mega Ran to release their February 2015 albumSoul Veggies.

Final_Poster Tour Dates.

While at first glance the name of the tour appears a bit tongue-in-cheek, it calls necessary attention to the growing presence of Black nerdcore artists like Mega Ran and Sammus who cast their experiences as people of color against the backdrop of nerd and geek culture. In Mega Ran’s case, this has meant writing verses about his struggle to make sense of his Black nerd identity while growing up amongst a very rough crowd in Philadelphia. For Sammus, being a rapper with an arm cannon has largely meant reconciling her ideas about the lack of diverse representations of Black women in notable movies, games, and cartoons among other media forms.

10854890_803295219717698_3293730204513921281_o

Click to “pay what you want” to download the new Sammus X Mega Ran track “Gone” in support of “The Rappers With Arm Cannons” Tour: https://sammusmusic.bandcamp.com/track/gone

Both Mega Ran and Sammus began making beats on the Playstation game MTV Music Generator. Since that time Sammus has brought together the production styles of Kanye West, Daft Punk, Björk and various video game composers to produce beats that are rich with video game synths and uniquely chopped samples. Mega Ran has similarly drawn on his love of hip hop artists, such as Redman, Nas, and Busta Rhymes as well as music from video games such as Mega Man, Final Fantasy VII, and River City Ransom.

On Tuesday, March 10th, the tour stopped at Cornell University’s Just About Music center where SO! Editors J. Stoever And Aaron Trammell sat down with the trio for a very frank and open discussion on how to survive and thrive as independent artists in the new music economy. Here’s a choice sample of that conversation:

The tour began on March 5th in NYC and will continue through March 19th with final stops in Austin, TX at this year’s South-by-South-West (SXSW). For full details on tall of the dates visit http://sammusmusic.com/shows-tour-dates/

Mega Ran on Twitter, Soundcloud, BandcampFacebook, and Megaranmusic.com

Sammus on Soundcloud, BandcampFacebook, and sammusmusic.com.

Storyville on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and Facebook.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games.  In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Making Music at Studio X: The Identity Politics of Community Studios-Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

SO! Amplifies: Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations-Regina Bradley

Love and Hip Hop: (Re)Gendering The Debate Over Hip Hop Studies— Travis Gosa

 

 

SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP

SO! Reads3The recently published Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP (Johns Hopkins Press, 2013) is historian Susan Schmidt Horning’s first book. Veering away from the usual sound recording suspects (like the phonograph), Chasing Sound shows the studio and the audio engineer as central to the cultural and technological changes associated with the production and reproduction of sound.

According to Schmidt Horning, such changes were reflected in the shifting ideal of recorded music as a representation of live performance to the ideal of recorded music as a studio-engineered creation. Using the accounts of those responsible for recording sound, Schmidt Horning constructs a rich narrative that manages to be accessible while still focused on the highly technical work required of studio workers. That said, by focusing so heavily on user practices and anecdotes she misses an opportunity to engage with the theoretical implications of the ways audio engineers imagine and describe the actual space in which they work. Still, I contend that Chasing Sound represents an indispensable and critical approach for historians of sound, one that is unafraid of reconfiguring the central players in a narrative as big as the history of recorded music.

As a contribution to sound studies, Chasing Sound follows in the footsteps of Trevor Pinch’s Analog Days, the first work to explicitly apply Science and Technology Studies (STS) approaches to the history of a musical instrument. For Pinch, a critical understanding of sound requires examining the ways in which society and technology produce historical sites of change and stabilization. This approach focuses on understanding the ways people engage with technologies of sound, in order to interrogate their cultural and historical meanings. A historian of science and technology by training, Schmidt Horning has thus devoted much of her academic career to writing about the production and reproduction of sound through the practices and tacit knowledge of engineers, producers, musicians and technicians at music studios. By following the breadcrumbs dropped by these actors, Chasing Sound reveals the rich history of commercial studios and the cultural ideals cultivated therein.

Chasing SoundMethodologically, the author draws on a mixed bag of sources, which include oral histories from early recordists, interviews with more contemporary audio engineers, her own ethnomethodogical studio research, trade literature, and archival documents from big studios like EMI. The book proceeds in chronological order, with each chapter laying out changes in the physical and acoustic qualities of commercial studios as they shifted from bare-walled rooms with “the recording horn jutting through a wall at the far end of the room” (9) to multi-track studios complete with “Mission furniture, [and] hand-laid distressed wood floors.” (209) The author plots these changes alongside improvements in the science of acoustics, the importation of techniques and tools from the more well developed medium of radio broadcasting, the consolidation and growth of the recording industry, the rise of independent labels, the emergence of new attitudes and musical tastes, and the professionalization of audio engineering.

Chasing Sound, unlike many other books on the topic, places the studio in relation to a set of changing cultural expectations regarding recorded music. Where recordings were once understood as a reflection of live performance, they later were seen as a signature creation of music studios. Rather than focusing on the phonograph, gramophone, microphone, or magnetic tape, the author argues that the recording studio belongs at the center of recorded music because it was there that the ideal of music as a “technologically mediated art” was first engineered into cultural listening norms. Consequently the audio engineer, or recordist as he (or in rare cases, she) was known prior to the 1930s, must also be understood as central to narratives regarding recorded sound from its inception. In this way, Schmidt Horning aims to recontextualize and centralize the studio and its inhabitants within histories of the production and reproduction of sound.

Because the audio engineer represents an inextricable part of this history, each chapter devotes time to the technologies and practices cultivated by the amateur recordists and trusted professionals responsible for recording sound. Initially such practices formed the basis of their tacit knowledge regarding the proper “staging” of artists in relation to acoustic recording horns among other techniques, but by the 1950s, sound engineers were responsible not just for positioning artists, microphones, and the increasingly important work of “enhancing” recordings during post-production. The book concludes by charting the unfettered rise of independent studios as well as the consequent proliferation of (and backlash to) new sound manipulation technologies in the 1970s.

Throughout the text the author notes the ways in which audio engineers often lamented the increasing technological mediation involved in record production, even as it granted them more creative control and prestige.

vinAd50AudioMafCvrSchmidt Horning’s methodology represents Chasing Sound’s strongest quality. The rich narratives of the audio engineers allow the author to directly connect their technologically and culturally informed ideas about what constitutes good sound to the desires and expectations of listeners. In addition to this work, Schmidt Horning also highlights the ways in which advances in engineering technology did not necessarily overlap neatly with cultural norms. Throughout the text the author notes the ways in which audio engineers often lamented the increasing technological mediation involved in record production, even as it granted them more creative control and prestige. Such examples reveal the tightly knit relationship between ideas of liveness, talent, creativity, and authenticity. Chasing Sound is full of stories that detail the complex material, artistic, and ethical constraints around which recordists and engineers navigated in order to achieve the perfect sound.

The author’s methodological approach certainly helps to structure the narrative, but there are also ways in which it prevents her from digging in to important theoretical discourses regarding the studio. As Eliot Bates notes in his article, “What Studios Do,” the way audio engineers conceive of their workspaces is crucial for making sense of the power relations and social interactions that govern and are governed by studio spaces. Chasing Sound does not pursue these discourses. The author briefly mentions how the metaphor of flight is often used by sound engineers regarding the increasingly complex console controls of the 1950s and 60s but does not provide further elaboration on the implications of such a comparison. Even if the participants in her study did not reflect on their colloquial notes about the studio space, it would have been interesting to see Schmidt Horning consider what these metaphors reveal about the changing roles of the engineer.

These points aside, Chasing Sound is an important read both for those with a general interest in the history of sound production and reproduction as well as those scholars more specifically invested in understanding the role of recorded sound in society. Since I discussed the book’s limitations in “Making Music in Studio X,” Chasing Sound has become a foundational text in much of my research. Specifically, the author’s claim that the studio is (and has been) a critical site for examining broader industrial, technological, and cultural changes resonates deeply with me because it offers a critical methodology for considering issues of identity and power within studio spaces that are often neglected. In this regard, Chasing Sound is important not just for what it discusses, but also for what it does not. Noting the lack of female and black audio engineers discussed throughout the book, the author laments, “For the first century of sound recording, the field of audio engineering and recording studios in particular comprised a profoundly white male-centered culture that reflected corporate culture at large and technical professions in particular.” (9) The absence of these faces serves to remind us that while successfully “chasing sound” certainly relies on the cultivation of craft skill, and tacit knowledge, it also depends heavily on access.

vinAd50AudioFebCvr

Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution license from Reel2ReelTexas.com

Chasing Sound stands out as the most exhaustive history of audio engineering available. Schmidt Horning’s user-focused narrative successfully ties together changes in studio configurations and audio engineering practices with cultural expectations regarding recorded music. This helps to show how the studio and audio engineer can easily be recognized as central figures in the history of sound reproduction. Chasing Sound’s intervention is necessary as the history of recording is often told through artifacts like the phonograph, microphone, and magnetic tape, not living spaces like the studio and its inhabitants. Schmidt Horning’s dedication to telling these neglected stories is what makes the book come to life. Her research promises to open up new avenues for others interested in these issues. For me, this means pursuing lines of inquiry related to the growing philanthropic interest in the recording studio as a site for engaging and “assisting” low-income communities. In this way Chasing Sound asks us to recognize the recording studio as a critical site for the production and reproduction of our assumptions about what counts as appropriate, good, or real in music and people.

Featured Image: My Recording Studio by Flickr User Fabio Dellutri

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games. In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Making Music at Studio X: The Identity Politics of Community Studios— Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

SO! Reads: Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation— Seth Mulliken

SO! Reads: Isaac Weiner’s Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism— Jordan Musser

Making Music at Studio X: The Identity Politics of Community Studios

What are the social obligations of what I term “community studios”— spaces that exist to provide “at-risk” youth access to free or low-cost music recording equipment, services, and education? This essay reflects the findings of a four month ethnomethodological project, in which I explored the institutional and social affordances of Studio X, a community studio located in a rural college town in upstate New York. Using information from interviews and several hours of observation in the studio, I argue that community studios are subject to unique institutional pressures that emerge from their framing as both professional studios (private enterprises with no restrictions on creative expression) and community centers (shared spaces, which, in this context, are designed to provide oversight and the proper socialization of youth through rules and activities). While tapping into private and philanthropic revenue streams has resulted in the development of some exceptional studio projects, it has also led to a problematic situation where the studio has trouble establishing an independent identity for itself. This essay hopes to offer a critical perspective and, in doing so, offer some suggestions to help community studios deal with these challenges.

Community studios offer a different studio model than the standard professional or DIY models typically discussed in academic literature. While recent work by Eliot Bates and Susan Schmidt Horning has done an excellent job of framing the sociohistorical contexts of commercial music studios, neither adequately addresses the politics of community studios. These politics, however, cannot be taken for granted as they challenge Bates’ contention that studios “isolate studio workers from the outside world, and the world from studio work, while possessing a visual and audible difference from other work environments.” Contentiously, community studios represent a unique set of stakeholders including parents, donors, youth, and community center administrators, amongst others. The community studio is far from isolated, however, and its identity, therefore, is in constant flux.

Studio X was developed in 2006 with funds from a $65,000 grant from the New York State Music Fund, a board created by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors to dispense over $35 million in settlement money from music businesses that profited from “payola” practices. It was conceived as a space where predominantly low-income African American youth would have access to professional recording equipment and training. According to the grant proposal, technical expertise was to be supplemented with classes that contextualized the music within “the socio-political, and social justice significance and origins of hip-hop, reggae, and other forms” in addition to making connections with “jazz, African percussion, and contemporary world music.”

A picture of "Andrew Carnagie's philanthropy." Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

A picture of Andrew Carnagie’s philanthropy. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

Many of Studio X’s goals had been met. On my first day there, I encountered a local singer who spoke with me for over an hour, praising the studio for giving him the opportunity to use a voice he claims to have wasted in jail. Another respondent explained that the studio helped to shed positive light on an area that is often categorized in negative and judgmental terms. He remarked: “More people should know about [the studio]. Show more appreciation. They should come down and see what we’re about down here. It’s not all negative. Good things happen at [Studio X].”

Not all was well with Studio X, however, as I learned when I encountered an administration struggling to negotiate the studio’s joint identity as both a community center and a professional studio. At the helm was Eric, an audio engineer by training, and the full-time director of Studio X. Since accepting the position in 2012, he had been crafting the space in the likeness of a professional studio. Free music production and engineering classes ceased and he even began offering private sessions with better equipment at the rate of $25 an hour. Eric justified this decision by explaining that the fee helped to ensure that people actually kept their appointments, and the better equipment yielded superior recordings.  He also insisted that a large percentage of the funds these sessions earned ultimately supported the community center and studio.

Community response was mixed. Many respondents noted that they trusted Eric,  with a few even suggesting that he should charge more. One respondent, a local producer, felt Eric’s pay sessions were a reflection of greater economic trends in cloud music sites, like Soundcloud and Reverbnation, that allow artists to tailor their investment through incrementally priced packages.

A number of community members, however, were deeply disturbed by this change. One local rapper claimed that turning Studio X into a “real studio” had never been a part of its original mission. They were fearful that the space’s shift towards a professional studio in structure implied the troubling imposition of capitalist hierarchies. This contention is echoed by scholars like Louis Meintjes and Tricia Rose, who state that studios and other technologies of musical (re)production are always deeply representative and constitutive of the greater institutional structure of the music industry.

The studio also furthered a number of questionable social policies. Upon the studio entrance was a sign that detailed rules for proper conduct.  Not only did the studio maintain a dress code, but it also censored lyrical content. The sign displayed six rules:

This sign was taped to the door at Studio X.

This sign was taped to the door at Studio X.

When I asked Eric about these rules he indicated that he’d written these rules to avoid running into trouble with parents and with the Executive Director: “I just don’t want to be known as the guy who lets 14 and 15 year olds come and say whatever they want…Usually kids that age don’t have language like that although a few times I had to tell them to use different language or I had to tell them to leave.” Thus, according to Eric, Studio X’s success as a community center meant the censoring many of its patrons. But how did Eric’s decision affect the narratives of the studio’s constituents?

This research suggests that the administrative politics of community studios has deep implications for inclusion and identity of community members. Although it’s easy to dismiss Eric’s decisions to charge for studio space and censor language as racist, the reality is that many members of the community respected his leadership and felt he was guiding Studio X towards a positive direction. Eric’s vision, in other words, worked to produce a culture of ideological support within the community itself.

A screenshot of Avid Protools 11 software.

A screenshot of Avid Protools 11 software.

Even though Studio X represents only one community studio, its identity struggles are certainly worth noting as similar institutions crop up around the world. How can community organizers best create a recording space that is safe, professional, and productive for members of low-income populations?

To start, organizers must recognize how the strings attached to philanthropic grants can lead to poor administrative choices.  The institutional design of community studios mirrors the demands of broader grant-funding institutions, from which community studios derive their primary income. In order to provide community members with tools to produce work that is “competitive,” at least from an audio engineering perspective, community studios must invest in expensive equipment or risk coming across to both community members and potential investors as a poor alternative to daycare.

To adequately support these spaces, administrators and other stakeholders must insist on finding new and creative ways to raise clean money. Beat Making Lab, a community studio initiative that has connected educators and artists with community centers and schools across the globe since 2012, allows supporters to directly contribute and sponsor the purchase of specific equipment and development of projects. Still, it relies on its grant partnership with PBS to reach a larger audience. Similarly, Notes-for-Notes, an organization founded in 2006 toward the development of positive spaces for youth to learn about, create, and record music, receives private funding and sponsorship from celebrities and music production companies among others; it is also the recipient of funds from a number of philanthropic grant institutions.The alternative to these innovative funding tactics is to imagine, construct, and present a studio that is primarily concerned with “positively” shaping the character of young men and women in an effort to appease questionably minded philanthropists, even though this maneuver often compromises the culture, community, and content of the community which the studio itself exists to support.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games.  In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games— Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

Yellow Rain and The Sound of Matter: Kalia Yang’s Sonorous Objection to Radiolab— Justin Eckstein

The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?— Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games

Sound and PlayEditor’s Note:  Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s fall forum titled “Sound and Play,” where we ask how sound studies, as a discipline, can help us to think through several canonical perspectives on play. While Johan Huizinga had once argued that play is the primeval foundation from which all culture has sprung, it is important to ask where sound fits into this construction of culture; does it too have the potential to liberate or re-entrench our social worlds? SO!’s new regular contributor Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo notes how audio games, like Papa Sangre, often use sound as a gimmick to engage players, and considers the politics of this feint. For whom are audio games immersive, and how does the experience serve to further marginalize certain people or disadvantaged groups?–AT

Immersion is a problem at the heart of sound studies. As Frances Dyson (2009) suggests in Sounding New Media, “Sound is the immersive medium par excellence. Three dimensional, interactive and synesthetic, perceived in the here and now of an embodied space, sound returns to the listener the very same qualities that media mediates…Sound surrounds” (4). Alternately, in the context of games studies (a field that is increasingly engaged with sound studies), issues of sound and immersion have most recently been addressed in terms of instrumental potentialities, historical developments, and technical constraints. Some notable examples include Sander Huiberts’ (2010) M.A. thesis entitled “Captivating Sound: The Role of Audio Immersion for Computer Games,” in which he details technical and philosophical frames of immersion as they relate to the audio of a variety of computer games, and an article by Aaron Oldenburg (2013) entitled “Sonic Mechanics: Audio as Gameplay,” in which he situates the immersive aspects of audio-gameplay within contemporaneous experimental art movements. This research provokes the question: How do those who develop these games construct the idea of immersion through game design and what does this mean for users who challenge this construct? Specifically I would like to challenge Dyson’s claim that sound really is “the immersive medium par excellence” by considering how the concept of immersion in audio-based gameplay can be tied to privileged notions of character and game development.

psIn order to investigate this problem, I decided to play an audio game and document my daily experiences on a WordPress blog. Based on its simulation of 3D audio Papa Sangre was the first game that came to mind. I also selected the game because of its accessibility; unlike the audio game Deep Sea, which is celebrated for its immersive capacities but is only playable by request at The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, Papa Sangre is purchasable as an app for $2.99 and can be played on an iPhone, iPad or iPod. Papa Sangre helps us to consider new possibilities for what is meant by virtual space and it serves as a useful tool for pushing back against essentialisms of “immersion” when talking sound and virtual space.

Papa Sangre is comprised of 25 levels, the completion of which leads player incrementally closer towards the palace of Papa Sangre, a man who has kidnapped a close friend of the protagonist. The game boasts real time binaural audio, meaning that the game’s diegetic sounds (sounds that the character in the game world can “hear”) pan across the player’s headphones in relation to the movement of the game’s protagonist. The objective of each level is to locate and collect musical notes that are scattered through the game’s many topographies while avoiding any number of enemies and obstacles, of course.

.

A commercial success, Papa Sangre has been named “Game of the Week” by Apple, received a 9/10 rating from IGN, a top review from 148apps, and many positive reviews from fans. Gamezebo concludes an extremely positive review of Papa Sangre by calling it “a completely unique experience. It’s tense and horrifying and never lets you relax. By focusing on one aspect of the game so thoroughly, the developers have managed to create something that does one thing really, really well…Just make sure to play with the lights on.” This commercial attention has yielded academic feedback as well. In a paper entitled “Towards an analysis of Papa Sangre, an audio-only game for the iPhone/iPad,” Andrew Hugill (2012) celebrates games like Papa Sangre for providing “an excellent opportunity for the development of a new framework for electroacoustic music analysis.” Despite such attention–and perhaps because of it–I argue that Papa Sangre deserves a critical second listen.

Between February and April of 2012, I played Papa Sangre several times a day and detailed the auditory environments of the game in my blog posts. However, by the time I reached the final level, I still wasn’t sure how to answer my initial question. Had Papa Sangre really engendered a novel experience or it could simply be thought of as a video game with no video?  I noted in my final post:

I am realizing that what makes the audio gaming experience seem so different from the experience of playing video games is the perception that the virtual space, the game itself, only exists through me. The “space” filled by the levels and characters within the game only exists between my ears after it is projected through the headphones and then I extend this world through my limbs to my extremities, which feeds back into the game through the touch screen interface, moving in a loop like an electric current…Headphones are truly a necessity in order to beat the game, and in putting them on, the user becomes the engine through which the game comes to life…When I play video games, even the ones that utilize a first-person perspective, I feel like the game space exists outside of me, or rather ahead of me, and it is through the controller that I am able to project my limbs forward into the game world, which in turn structures how I orient my body. Video game spaces of course, do not exist outside of me, as I need my eyes and ears to interpret the light waves and sound waves that travel back from the screen, but I suppose what matters here is not what is actually happening, but how what is happening is perceived by the user. Audio games have the potential to engender completely different gaming experiences because they make the user feel like he or she is the platform through which the game-space is actualized.

Upon further reflection, however, I recognize that Papa Sangre creates an environment designed to be immersive only to certain kinds of users. A close reading of Papa Sangre reveals bias against both female and disabled players.

Take Papa Sangre’s problematic relationship with blindness. The protagonist is not a visually impaired individual operating in a horrifying new world, but rather a sighted individual who is thrust into a world that is horrifying by virtue of its darkness. The first level of the game is simply entitled “In the Dark.” When the female guide first appears to the protagonist in that same level, she states:

Here you are in the land of the dead, the realm ruled by Papa Sangre…In this underworld it is pitch dark. You cannot see a thing; you can’t even see me, a fluttery watery thing here to help you. But you can listen and move…You must learn how to see with your ears. You will need these powers to save the soul in peril and make your way to the light.

Note the conversation between 3:19 and 3:56.

The game envisions an audience who find blindness to be necessarily terrifying. By equating an inability to see with death and fear, developers are intensifying popular horror genre tropes that diminish the lived experiences of those with visual impairments and unquestioningly present blindness as a problem to overcome. Rather than challenging the relationship between blindness and vulnerability that horror-game developers fetishize, Papa Sangre misses the opportunity to present a visually impaired protagonist who is not crippled by his or her disability.

feet

Disconcertingly, audio games have been tied to game accessibility efforts by developers and players alike for many years. In a 2008 interview Kenji Eno, founder of WARP (a company that specialized in audio games in the late 90s), claimed  his interactions with visually impaired gamers yielded a desire to produce audio games. Similarly forums like audiogames.net showcase users and developers interested in games that cater to gamers with impaired vision.

In terms of its actual game-play, PapaSangre is navigable without visual cues. After playing the game for just two weeks I was able to explore each level with my eyes closed. Still, the ease with which gamers can play the game without looking at the screen does not negate the tension caused by recycled depictions of disability that are in many ways built into storyline’s foundation.

gruntsThe game also fails to engage gender in any complexity. Although the main character’s appearance is never shown, the protagonist is aurally gendered male. Most notable are the deep grunting noises made when he falls to the ground. For me, this acted as a barrier to imagining a fully embodied virtual experience. Those deep grunts revealed many assumptions the designers must have considered about the imagined and perhaps intended audience of the game.  While lack of diversity is certainly an issue at the heart of all entertainment media, Papa Sangre‘s oversight directly contradicts the message of the game, wherein the putative goal is to experience an environment that enhances one’s sense of self within the virtual space.

On October 31st, 2013, Somethin’ Else will release Papa Sangre II. A quick look at the trailer suggests that the developers’ have not changed the formula. The 46-second clip warns that the game is “powered by your fear” after noting, “This Halloween, you are dead.”

.

It appears that an inability to see is still deeply connected with notions of fear and death in the game’s sequel. This does not have to be the case. Why not design a game where impairment is not framed as a hindrance or source of fear? Why not build a game with the option to choose between different sounding voice actors and actresses? Despite its popularity, however, Papa Sangre is by no means representative of general trends across the spectrum of audio-based game design. Oldenburg (2013) points out that over the past decade many independent game developers have been designing experimental “blind games” that eschew themes and representations found in popular video games in favor of the abstract relationships between diegetic sound and in-game movement.

Whether or not they eventually consider the social politics of gaming, Papa Sangre’s developers already send a clear message to all gamers by hardwiring disability and gender into both versions of the game while promoting a limited image of “immersion.” Hopefully as game designers Somethin’ Else grow in popularity and prestige, future developers that use the “Papa Engine” will be more cognizant of the privilege and discrimination embedded in the sonic cues of its framework.  Until then, if you are not a sighted male gamer, you must prepare yourself to be immersed in constant aural cues that this experience, like so many others, was not designed with you in mind.

Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games.  In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship— Melissa Helquist

Playing with Bits, Pieces, and Lightning Bolts: An Interview With Sound Artist Andrea Parkins— Maile Colbert

Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surviellance: Bastion and the Stanley Parable— Aaron Trammell

%d bloggers like this: