What do I hear? What do I hear? You ask yourself repeatedly as you materialize into the battle zone. At first, the only audible sounds are the wind teasing the fabrics of the broken billboards and your heavy boots trampling on the darkened debris. But as you stop by a crossroad, you suddenly hear the ground trembling under the heavy wheels of an approaching enemy truck. Your blood rushes as you quickly ascend to the second floor balcony for a better shooting position. For a split second, everything is quiet as if the world were frozen into a transparent, motionless glass. The moment passes and the clamor of guns blazing, truck engines roaring and buildings collapsing suddenly envelope you in infinite waves, so you pull the trigger and let your gunshots join the battle of loudness. Welcome to the battlefield.

One of the great successes of “Battlefield 4,” a popular First Person Shooter (FPS) game released in 2013, has been its ability to convince gamers via the resounding echo of the modern warfare, that they are there, on the roof of a falling skyscraper, under the sky occupied by the “klee-ewing” sea gulls and beside the tank groaning amidst the melting metals. Although the realistic visual rendering of the game attracts many industry praises, the game’s audio is what truly immerses gamers into its war zones. “Sound in the FPS game is [currently] the only way of inserting real-world causality into the virtuality of the game,” Mark Grimshaw, the author of Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction remarked about the relationship between sound and immersion. The war itself has a voice, a voice for the world to echo and a voice for the reflection of reality that familiarize the people to the constant conflictions in human history. In the end, it depends on the game’s audio effects to personalize the intonation with which the war will speak.

Audio fidelity and the diegetic sounds

If “Battlefield 4” were to eliminate all of its environmental sounds, the game would instantly lose its audio fidelity. The immediacy of war is presented by diegetic sounds, that is, sounds throughout the game that promote deeper connections between the game and the players. Without the bullet cracking, the jets roaring and the soldiers yelling, the overall experience would be severely diminished by the lack of a wartime immersion. Diegetic sounds also help to convey crucial combat information to the players. While player can only see 90 degrees at any time, they can hear sounds coming from nearly everywhere. As the diegetic sounds attract players to trivial sounds like the approaching footsteps and incoming grenades, they create a more readable soundscape that prompts the gamers to interact in a real world manner.

Take the skyscraper in Siege of Shanghai, a popular map offered in “Battlefield 4,” as an example. Players can tear it down in various ways, including shooting at the beams from a helicopter or detonating claymores fixed on the ground level walls. The sound properties, as a result of different methods of destruction, vary largely. When observing the skyscraper’s destruction from above, players experience a time delay as the concrete-smashing sound comes after the actual collapse of the building. The sound at the bottom of the building, however, appears to be more immediate and louder as if the walls are crashing right next to the players. The interactivity enabled by the multi-dimensional audio space not only attracts the players to its sonic accuracy, but also drives them to explore other hearing experience when destroying the concrete behemoth through alternate means.


The power of non-diegetic music

The soundscape in “Battlefield 4” not only illustrates the audio space, delivered almost singlehandedly by diegetic sounds, but also uses the background music to embellish its perceptual reality. The earworm effect rationalizes the need for video games to integrate surreal music elements. In reality, a piece of melody that involuntarily loops in a person’s mind is only imaginary, but the feeling can be so real that he or she embraces it as part of their actual sensation. As Grimshaw indicates,  “for the purposes of immersion, a reduced realism may be all that is required.” To a large extent, aesthetic approaches are employed by the non-diegetic soundtrack to navigate the players through territories of real emotions.

To get a refreshing touch of artistry to the realism of “Battlefield 4,” the composers of the game had to forgo the concept of “classical music for a shooting game” and search for a new musical gesture. With so many maps in “Battlefield 4,” music has to fit in the moods of these diverse locations as well as weave each individual song to a flowing stream of melody. Satisfying both criteria using elusive musical language is not easy; nevertheless the “Battlefield 4” soundtrack succeeds in inducing a mixed feeling of excitement, danger, and unpredictability throughout the gameplay. For instance, the evacuated building construction site in Shanghai has a calm but somewhat chilly musical theme hidden in the blowing wind, while the majestic warship Valkyrie, features a deep undertone revolving around the vessel floor. The tenderness and tension fluctuating between the music notes are so real that they touch the players’ heartstrings.

The battlefield defined by perceptual realism

As “Battlefield 4” uses both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds to immerse the players in its brave new world, the binary choice of “real” or “fake” is replaced by a blurred conjunction of virtual reality. But questions concerning the proper degree of realism of the game’s audio begin to emerge as the soundscape reaches its uncanny valley; how realistically can the sound effects reflect the cruelty of the real war, and how much do the players want to hear?

Tong Xu, a potential music minor student at Dartmouth, said that he played “war games for the excitement of the battle […], not to relate to the bleakness and terror of living on the brink.” Xu’s words epitomize the wishes of thousands of other FSP players wanting to experience the rousing, masculine atmosphere of battles but not the disturbing reality of the real wars. As much as players enjoy bloody shooting games, they can hardly undergo extreme emotions like the fear for death and the terror of suffering in pain that prevails on battlefronts. Therefore, to avoid dabbing into dreadful sensations that implies the horror of war, “Battlefield 4” audio intentionally chooses not to sound completely real.


But how can “Battlefield 4” instill the essence of realism into its game play with the selectively realistic soundscape? While different theories are offered to analyze the controversy, all can be summed up with a simple, short phrase:

“To define the battlefield.”

This is actually the mainspring of all reality-oriented audios in FPS games. No matter how intricate the audio designs are, they serve to build up a virtual world and draw the players into it. Rather than replicating every realistic detail, the game’s soundscape convinces players that, in another space, at another time, there is a digital universe where normal people can become heroes. Utilizing the fact that people’s reactions to sound are often deeper and stronger than their reactions to the visual, “Battlefield 4” prompts the players to listen to what their eyes fail to see. No longer limited by flat surface of a screen, non-diegetic and diegetic sound effects form a multidimensional continuum of space and time, reasons and emotions to reshape the modern battles. “Battlefield 4” is just a doppelganger of the wars that remind us the constant theme of conflicts in human history. In the end, it is not the rigorous reproduction of the real that becomes important; it is how people understand the battlefield that truly matters.

Maybe the sounds of “Battlefield 4” imply more than a technical pursuit to fascinate video game players; it is also the birth cry of a future generation of entertainment that mirrors the real world but is more artistically enjoyable than everyday life. With the support of highly developed simulation technology, video game audios are now stepping outside box of “bleep-bloop” 8-bits sounds and crossing the blurry boundaries of reality and imagination. “Battlefield 4” is only the starting point, and the future video game industry has the potential to combine real and surreal sounds further into an audio fantasy.

Back when I lived in South Korea, video games were a big part of everyone’s lives even though many parents forbade their children from playing and going to PC bangs—rooms full of high-speed computers accompanied by plush, rolling chairs.  My dad, however, allowed us to play video games and even played with us. In our living room, my dad set up three computers so that he, my brother and I could play together. Despite much effort on my dad’s part to provide us a safe environment in which to play games, thus preventing the need to go to a PC bang, my brother still went with his friends. There was just something about those rooms full of computers that attracted my brother again and again.

Seth Schiesel, a writer for the New York Times introduced South Korea as “a home to world’s most advanced video game culture: where more than 20,000 PC bangs attract more than a million people a day.” Ubiquitous and popular, each PC bang has site licenses for various computer games, which eliminate the need for the players to buy game subscriptions themselves. Charging $1.50 per hour, PC Bangs are incredibly cheap and encourage their customers to stay for hours by offering reduced charges per each additional hour and serving food directly to computer stations. With everything a person could need, PC bangs have become South Korea’s central social hubs. Even couples can be spotted going on dates to PC bangs.

Because groups of friends often play together, heated conversations and intense whispering frequently break out among the background noises of key pressing and mouse clicking. These self-produced sounds provide immediate feedback, making the players become part of the games themselves. Karen Collins, author of “Playing with Sound” believes that these self-produced sounds help “players to become a character, or perhaps more accurately, their character can become a part of their sense of self.” The game’s background music, which seeps in through headphones, is also included in the soundscape of a PC Bang. With this symphony of varying noises, players experience what Collins calls the “envelopment,” which is “a sensation of being inside a physical space” that reduces sense of separation between the player’s game and the real world.

This envelopment becomes even more prominent inside a Korean pro-gaming tournament. With more than 40,000 enthusiastic and emotional fans filling the live audience of the high-profile matches at the World Cyber Games, the players must sit in soundproof cubes to avoid being distracted by the noises of the fans and announcers. Lee Jung Hoon, one of Korea’s most famous e-sports athletes also known as “Marine King,” has even experienced fans walking right up to his playing station, giving a crisp bow and handing over an armful of gifts. After such an overwhelming encounter with a celebrity, fans often turn away and cry. Another instance of extreme gamer fandom occurred when a female fan of CJ Entus, a team that came in second in the 2012 “League of Legends” world championship, followed one of the players for two years taking photos. Ultimately, she sent him an album of all the shots she had taken.

At that “League of Legends” championship event, countless fans filled the outdoor soccer stadium to watch. Two teams of five players each—Korea’s Samsung White and China’s Star Horn Royal Club—sat in front of computers on the stage while huge screens displayed their actions for the audience. Although inside soundproof booths, players could still make out the sounds of their fans even while wearing ear buds and listening to the game’s background music. Moreover, the self-produced sounds—communications to team members, speedy mouse clicks and quiet squeals of joy—created an atmosphere that extended into the game world. These sounds were heard by everyone via speakers, allowing the fans to experience the same emotions as their idols. These sorts of events have served to legitimize video games throughout their epic rise in popularity, bringing the virtual closer to the real world.

Today, e-sports are recognized and respected by most South Koreans. Professional gamers train vigorously like athletes. Hoon, a member of a top South Korean team, for example, trains for eight to ten hours every day and earns $105,000 annually. Another gamer, Jung Jong-Hyun, earns $250,000 annually. In Korea, these gamers are celebrities. Lim Yo-Hwan, Korea’s most famous gamer, does not go out in public without wearing a disguise. An estimated 10 million South Koreans regularly follow e-sports while some fan clubs of top gamers have more than 700,000 members according to Schiesel’s New York Times piece titled “The Land of the Video Game Geek.”

A CNN survey found that this widespread South Korean obsession stems from a need to relieve stress. In a country where academic and job competition dominate, games are regarded as good, clean fun. For Hoon, “StarCraft” served as an outlet from academic pressure. When he picked up “StarCraft” in first grade, he immediately fell in love with it. As he drifted further into the game, skipping classes to go to PC bangs, his parents became concerned and sent Hoon to the treatment center. When the treatment didn’t work, they threw him out of the house. Hoon took this as an opportunity to enter an e-sports tournament, which he subsequently won. To this day, Hoon has stated that his ultimate goal is to prove “to his parents and to himself that he was not addicted to the video game that had come to dominate his personal and professional life—that he’s a pro, something his mom and dad should be proud of” according to CNN.

In addition to exciting games, government involvement has played a major role in the rise of e-sports and PC bangs. In 1994, the Korean government established the Korean Information Infrastructure (KII) to promote affordable nation-wide telecommunication technology. KII stimulated competition among the telecommunications companies, resulting in the expansion of high speed information and communication networks. With this increase in Internet access, PC bang industry began as “internet cafés”— these very first PC bangs provided café-like environments for people to gather and use online services to check emails and to play simple games. Then, with the onset of the financial crisis in 1997, the South Korean government again focused on Internet infrastructure, pushing to install ultrafast internet connection nationwide. With this intense government push and the release of the game “StarCraft,” the PC Bang industry took off to provide Internet access for the country’s many fans of “StarCraft.” By 2000, a vibrant community of gamers emerged.

The government also created the Korean E-Sports Association (KeSPA) to manage e-sports. KeSPA’s main goal is to make e-sports an official sport in Korea, and it does so through organizing new competitions and teams and regulating television broadcasting of tournaments Today, gaming channels, such as MBC game, GOMtv and Pandora TV are among the most viewed. In addition to government support, big technology companies like Samsung have begun to sponsor gamers by providing dormitory housing for pro-gamers and high-tech computers to help with vigorous training that can last over 12 hours a day.

South Korea’s craze for e-sports goes beyond sheer enthusiasm.  An individual’s needs to release bottled up frustrations, prove themselves and have fun are guaranteed by the games. Moreover, in a country with high-speed Internet connection that allows downloading to happen almost instantaneously and with Wi-Fi wireless hot spots in almost all public spaces, gaming is an accessible and easily part of daily life. The pervasiveness of virtual games in Korea—through the involvement of the government, sponsorship by big companies, and television channels dedicated to viewing game tournaments—blends video games with reality.

The sounds of Korea’s game culture are heard everywhere. The screaming of the frantic fans, the intense whispers, the agitated shouts among the pro gamers and the rapid clicking and pressing all blend together, triggering emotions from players and fans alike. Korea’s unique culture allows collaboration and competition to happen naturally, and the emotions that arise from them are very real. So games, which many may acknowledge as “virtual or unreal” have become a pseudo-reality inside the soundscape of Korea.