From catchy soundtracks to startling sound effects, there’s a lot that goes into the sound of video games. Thanks to the nonprofit Urban Arts Partnership, a group of budding young video game designers from some of New York City’s underserved school districts recently got a  priceless lesson in this easy-to-overlook facet of gaming.

A great video game soundtrack is more than just an earworm; It can become a cultural force beyond the confines of the game itself. These days, music streaming services offer playlists and channels devoted entirely to video game music, while live orchestras perform classic themes from games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy to sold out music halls. The sound experience of gaming is so bigger than the music scores. From the roar of a virtual football crowd to scripted dialogue and the rewarding bleeps and bloops of power-ups, there’s a lot of creative energy that goes into the way video games sound.

Greg McAllister would know. The Sonos Sound Experience Manager and recording engineer has worked from some of the most prestigious recording studios in the world, collaborating on projects like recent remixing of The Beatles’ White Album, the soundtracks for Marvel superhero films, and video games like Halo 5: Guardians and The Sims 4.

“It’s crazy seeing how far sound design has come in video games,” says McAllister. “What I think is interesting is that a soundtrack can change and adjust as you move through a game level. These interactive elements make the experience much more fluid.”

Based in London, McAllister works alongside Sonos Sound Experience Leader Giles Martin, fine-tuning the sound of Sonos products with the help of renowned industry sound creators like Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, longtime Kayne West collaborator Noah Goldstein and Adele mixing engineer Tom Elmhirst, to name a few. In his spare time, McAllister also experiments with video game sound design, building prototypes on the Unity gaming platform.  

“The amount of effort going into video games is extraordinary,” he says. “Now game makers book out entire studios and 90-piece orchestras to record the music and it’s just as big of a deal as Hollywood movies.”  

McAllister’s passion for all things sound made him a fitting mentor for students at the School for Interactive Arts, a program of the New York-based nonprofit Urban Arts Partnership and a Sonos Soundwaves partner. The School for Interactive Arts (SIA) teaches high school students the art and science of game development in an immersive after-school program. The students come from Title I public schools, which enroll high numbers of children from low-income families. Game design is currently a $43 billion industry, but suffers from a lack of diversity like much of the technology sector, making SIA a crucial stepping stone for talented, underserved youth.

“Making a game is an amalgam of watching, listening, playing, feeling, talking, and reading–culminating in one experience that you have a say in,” explains Stephen Colon, Director of SIA. “This is powerful for giving students a voice when they are underrepresented in many careers.”

McAllister recently visited SIA’s in-house studio to share insights on sound design, as well as the story of how he became sound engineer after brushing up on physics and some key skills that he found were lacking as he pursued his dream of working in legendary recording spaces like Abbey Road Studios. The students then presented their own work-in-progress video games as McAllister offered pointers on their soundtracks.

“Learning from the kids how they put together games reminded me how it’s exactly the same with building a speaker,” McAllister said. “We have an acoustics team, an industrial design team, an electrical engineering team, a radio frequency team — all working together and making compromises. The teamwork required to provide the best experience is very similar.”

A few days later, the kids were ready to share their games with friends and families at the SIA Arcade, an annual student showcase. The team production manager Darcelis Gutierrez, a high school senior, walked a lively crowd through their development process, explaining how they brought the game from a simple concept to a prototype with a working game level within six months.

Each member of the team, from the creatives to the coders, then explained their role in developing the games. The students didn’t speak like bright-eyed neophytes, but more like seasoned game developers in the throes of a complex project. The students outlined some of the tactical challenges they faced: How could they translate narrative instructions into code? How could they empower the storyboard artists to change the story without having to code again?

The relentless pursuit of excellence at the Arcade led to SIA students winning top design awards in 2017 and 2018, including the National STEM Game Design Challenge and the Games for Changes Student Challenge. SIA served 793 students in 2017-2018 across New York City.

Sprinkled around the Urban Arts Partnership office were video games created by SIA students housed in their own custom arcade cabinets. You could play completed games using an old fashioned coin-op joystick, while games under development sat on laptops next to a rating sheet, where you could leave feedback. Titles ranged from Green Hero, a game to plant trees and turn off electronics to save energy; to Blind Runner, an infinite runner game based on the student’s experience as an immigrant in the country; to Skate & Date, a rhythm and dating roller-derby game that launched a successful Kickstarter last year. Two games, Hisstopia and AVISPO, launched Kickstarters that day.

Sonos also outfitted the office with speakers so that the students and staff could hear their the sound of their creations in room-filling crystal clarity.

“Music production and sound effects play an important role in the games students make,” Director Stephen Colon observed. “Sound is auditory feedback. You engage with the player in a way that you don’t need to say anything to them, because they can feel it through the tempo, the pitch, the reverberations in their stereo system. It’s important for the experience to be immersive and that must mimic the world we live in.”