The New Playlist For More Productive Work: Video Game Soundtracks

Video-game music is designed to foster achievement and help players get to the next level, and some people find that it activates a similar "in it to win it" mentality while working. We take it for a spin.

How many of us have switched on Pandora's Classical for Work station in our cubicles, hoping that the Mozart effect will kick in, only to nearly nod off? While Debussy might coax some workers into productivity mode, for others it's just boring.

Christofer Karltorp used to listen to classical music in college while studying, and for awhile, it worked. Sonatas don't have distracting lyrics, and seemed to activate the right parts of his brain.

Once he graduated and started Zerply, a sort of LinkedIn for creative talent, he found the ethereal sounds of Bach almost too soothing. His job involves a lot of coding, and he craved something with a continuous beat that could keep him going. He tried the electronic music route, but that didn't have the intended effect. "I could only take so much dubstep and things like that," Karltorp, the CEO of Zerply, told Fast Company. "After awhile, it took me down, rather than kept me up."

About four years ago, Karltorp landed on something that worked: Video game soundtracks. "If you listen to it over and over again, it never gets boring, it continues to pulse," Karltorp explained. He started with recordings from StarCraft, of which he played "insane" amounts of as a teenager. "I started diving in and realizing that there is this whole world of people remixing video game music and that there's this community out there that has discovered the same thing that I have," he said.

Karltorp has found that music from games he used to play as a kid, such as StarCraft, Street Fighter, and Final Fantasy, work best. Because the music is designed to foster achievement and help players get to the next level, it activates a similar "in it to win it" mentality while working, argues Karltorp. At the same time, it's not too disruptive to your concentration. "It's there in the background," said Karltorp. "It doesn't get too intrusive, it keeps you going, and usually stays on a positive tone, too, which I found is important."

Unlike electronic music, Karltorp hasn't gotten sick of the video game music. He has even figured out which tracks work best for certain tasks. For example, if he has a lot of emails to answer, Karltorp puts on the Street Fighter II soundtrack. "I know how long it is," he said. "I listen to it so much, it puts external pressure on me to finish up before the album comes to an end."

Gaming music fits all the metrics for optimum work sounds. Ambient music at a moderate volume improves creativity, according to the Journal of Consumer Research. Most music composed for games, similar to something from an ambient pioneer like Brian Eno, doesn't force itself to the center stage your brain but instead thrums in the background.

All of that, plus Karltorp's endorsement, makes this genre sound pretty appealing as a workday soundtrack. I'm always searching for new work music to replace whatever album I'm currently getting sick of on Spotify, so I headed over to this website that streams video game remixes to try it out while writing this article. I couldn't choose jams from games I had played as a kid, such as Mario Kart or Goldeneye, as Karltorp had recommended. You can do that over at OCRemix.org, but that involves downloading and curation. The Internet radio station spits out endless tunes.

Although I didn't know a lot of the video games, let alone the music, it all sounded familiar and upbeat, even the tunes that started off in children's sing-a-long territory, like the Kirby's Playland theme. I enjoyed working to it, least for a little bit. (I could listen to that Fez soundtrack clip above on repeat for awhile.)

Maybe because I don't have a strong connection to video games, I lost interest and got distracted by other shiny Internet things within a few hours. For Karltorp, whose video-game obsession started in seventh grade with StarCraft, Age of Empires, and Quake 2, nostalgia is part of the appeal. Those at Zerply who have gravitated toward his playlists, he's found, already have some connection to gaming. Most of the people who like it are his friends and geeks, he says: "I guess it is somewhat of an acquired taste."

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10 Comments

  • I completely agree. I spent months trying to find music perfect burying myself in a mountain of emails and XML. Turns out VG soundtracks did the trick. I bounce between Journey, The Elder Scrolls suite, Super Mario Galaxy, and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time; covers from RAC and Video Games Live; and chiptune artists like Infinity Shred (Starscream) and Anamanaguchi. Great article! Excited to jump back into the Starcraft soundtrack!

  • I agree with the workflow here. I do this all the time, listening to movie music or soundtracks from games. Depending on which kind of mood I need for the next chapter in my novels. Really helps!

  • Charlie Bradley III

    I'm a freelance graphic designer that works out of my home-office. I have the soundtracks for Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach that I enjoy listening to during my workday. Also the soundtrack for the movie, Inception. Great stuff!

  • I've been doing this for years at work, and also for studying. This giant playlist is all I have ever needed: vip.aersia.net/vip.swf. There's a huge variety on here and I've discovered many awesome songs I now listen to on a regular basis. If you want to be extra-productive, stick to the instrumental songs and skip anything with lyrics. Oh, and for the 90's kids? Donkey Kong Country OST!

  • Yes, the right music can do the trick. If you haven't done so, give Focus@Will a try. They offer a free and paid service that plays music designed to optimize your focus and minimize distraction. It's been helpful for me and may be worth a try :-)

  • I have gotten thousands of hours of work done while listening to Jim Guthrie's video game and movie soundtracks. Sword & Sworcery and Indie Game: The Movie in particular. Streamable on BandCamp for free!