September 13th, 2020

Music and games are both unsuitable for carrying messages

A recurring theme in my writing lately has been my loss of faith in humanity's ability to change. Individual people may change under specific circumstances, but humanity as a whole will always collectively be what they are, making decisions selfishly, based on what they feel benefits them personally rather than on reason, logic, or facts. Another area in which I have lost my one-time idealism is in regard to the ability of music to carry a message to people. When I was a teenager and beginning to listen to rock music on the radio, I maintained that the lyrics of a song were more important than the music itself. Obviously the music was also relevant, since if it was only about the lyrics, one could just remove the music entirely and make a poem instead of a song, but I was of the opinion that music should have a meaningful point to it and not just be about entertainment. After all, people already waste too much time on pointless entertainment.

It has only been relatively recently that I've come to better understand how music affects people and appreciate that music is not really a good means through which to convey a particular message to the world. Music is sometimes called "the truest art form" because it is intrinsically the least capable art form of carrying semantic content, and this is good for people who specifically want art to be "pure" (that is, free of didactic intent), but this obviously means that music is limited in its ability to portray specific ideas.

Essentially, there are two main reasons why music is not a good means with which to convey a well-thought-out message. The first is the fundamental limitation of musical form: Music has to sound somehow musical, which constrains how long you can carry on a particular thought. Language and rhetoric, by nature, have some thoughts which take more time to express, and some which take less time to express. Some sentences will be shorter, some sentences will be longer. If you try to express any reasoned argument in the form of poetry or music, the need to make the lines of text of reasonably equal length puts a huge restriction on expression. Music and poetry are popular because they are better at conveying emotions than straight prose, but they are not as good at presenting well-reasoned, rational thoughts or arguments.

The second reason why music is not a good way to broadcast a message, then, is simply because of its highly emotional nature. The reason why music appeals to people is because it triggers and arouses their emotions. People like to feel things; people are essentially machines that are only capable of feeling, and they want to feel constantly. The problem with this is that people also make decisions emotionally, using their irrational, misguided impulses rather than coming to conclusions based on facts and reason. If you try to motivate people toward a particular cause using music, this will only further motivate them to make decisions based on what "feels good" at the time instead of what can sustain humanity into a longer-term future. The last thing the world needs is more people making thoughtless decisions based on arbitrary emotional inclinations rather than reason.

Indeed, it is not really possible to use music to motivate people to do things they didn't already want to do. In the 1950s and 1960s, when rock music became popular, there were concerns about musicians using subliminal messages in their music to manipulate listeners, but in reality, studies have found that it is generally not possible to use hypnosis or subliminal messages to get people to do things which are against their nature. If people are going to do things, they will do them. So music resonates with people when it carries a message with which they already agree; if people hear music which carries a message which they disagree with, they're not going to say "Hey, I heard a song which expressed an idea I don't like, but the music was so good that it convinced me to agree with it!" Instead, they will simply say "I like this music, but I disagree with what the lyrics say". Every individual human being already has their worldview and opinion, and once these are set, they are unlikely to change throughout the individual's life.

The inability of music to communicate messages is demonstrated by the fact that many songs and poems which were intended to convey a specific message have actually been drastically misinterpreted by general audiences, often leading people to understand precisely the opposite of what the writer intended to communicate. The reason why this happens is because people interpret things from their perspective, not from the "intended" perspective of the writer. If you want to send a clear message, you need to write a clear message. The structure of poetry and music lyrics which makes them "beautiful" also makes it impossible to communicate something as clearly and precisely as straight prose text.

If anything, the highly interpretive nature of music and poetry means that these are mostly useful for exploiting people financially. Musicians often capitalize on public sentiment by inserting "popular" messages into their work, taking advantage of current ideas and political trends to win public favor and thus sell more records. I've lost count of how many songs have been fawned over by listeners who said things like "Wow, this song contains a line which, if you interpret it a certain way, could be perceived as making a reference to homosexuality! This song is a milestone for gay rights!" It's so disingenuous that it's kind of sad; musicians can release one song with one line that triggers the public, and people will respond by buying the album with that song, thinking that they're doing so as a political act, when all they're really doing is making the musicians rich for writing one populist song.

Of course, carefully-crafted music and poetry with meaningful, well-phrased messages exist, but they tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If—" is a brilliant description of the model human being (although it describes a "man", the message applies equally regardless of gender), and other examples certainly exist, but I think the point is clear: If you want to express an idea clearly using reason and logic rather than just making something which appeals to people's emotions, generally speaking, straight prose writing is the way to go.

This same principle applies to video games. When I was a child, I was optimistic about the potential for video games to tell stories, because games are interactive and thus allow a far greater level of immersion in the story environment than any previous medium. Rather than readers of books or viewers of films, who experience stories rather passively, a game player takes an active part in the story, and can thus experience what it's like to go through that story and even influence how the story ends. As video games have developed as a medium, however, I've come to realize the fundamental limitations of games. When I was a child, electronics technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is today, and games were severely constrained in terms of how large they could be or how they could present environments to players. People (including myself) were convinced, in those days, that as technology improved and developed, games would only become more immersive and more meaningful.

Today, those limitations have been largely removed as computers have become more powerful, and in the absence of technical constraints, we can clearly see inherent constraints that exist in games as a medium. The problem with games is that they need to be, on some level, a game, and this gameplay often gets in the way of a story more than enhancing it. This is something I have written about previously, and because this is something which I have explained fairly thoroughly in the past, I don't find it necessary to retread this exact same territory again, but suffice it to say that any game will eventually need to decide how much it wants to be a "game" and how much it wants to be a story. In either case, games will inevitably get caught up in their own game mechanisms. Players who want to experience a good story will find that the gameplay gets in the way of the story, and players who want to experience a good game will find that the story gets in the way of the game. In most games which have a story, the story and the game exist heterogenously next to each other: When the game wants to tell a story, it pauses the game to tell part of the story, and when it is done doing so, it switches back to being a game. The experience of being a part of that story is surprisingly rare in games; more often, one has the feeling of being part of a game which is periodically interrupted for the story's sake. Again, there are exceptions, but overall the experience of playing a game is actually a surprisingly poor medium for communicating a "message" to the game-playing audience, because players are more interested in the mechanics of the game than in what the game has to say.

I can only conclude that music and games are both unsuitable for carrying messages. Music and games are effective as entertainment, as a way for people to amuse themselves without having to disturb themselves by thinking about things, but only text (either written or spoken, although written is better) can clearly communicate information, ideas, and viewpoints. Even clearly-written language is subject to (mis)interpretation and confusion, but these problems are inherent to unclearly-written language like poetry and song lyrics. If you want to get your point across, learn to write.