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How Surround Sound Affects the Listener

Meadows Professor Mark Kerins on the science and theory of surround sound in games and beyond

by Nick Rallo

Associate Professor of Film Mark Kerins is having an exciting month. After an overseas launch, the Meadows film professor (who has a Ph.D. and M.A. in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern, and teaches production courses at SMU) has his fingers in two new books: Psychology of Music in Multimedia and The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. While it may not exactly be the kind of material you plow through while waiting for a blood workup, it is loaded with real-world goodies for the modern, dude-den gamer.

In both, Kerins addresses experimental theory and the science behind the effects surround sound has on the user. Specifically, Kerins takes a look at the relationship between the gamer’s experience with surround sound in a multiplayer setting, how first-person shooters need multi-channel sound environments, and how increasing noise can negatively affect the gamer.

In the Oxford Handbook, Kerins tackles surround sound gaming—specifically “how surround is used in different game genres and how that affects gameplay.” So, let’s get to it: here are interesting excerpts from the piece.

- Playing a game in surround rather than in stereo significantly improves players’ enjoyment of the experience, suggesting that the type of sound playback used can have as much of an impact on the game-play experience as other facets.

- Although 5.1 sound enhanced player ratings of engagement, realism, and enjoyment, no such differences were found between standard-definition and high-definition play.

- In games, designers often want players to pay specific attention to sounds originating behind them.

- Panning sounds to the surround channels [...] allows designers to intentionally draw a player’s focus to nonvisible elements of the game world; the simple fact that a significant sound comes from the surround channels makes it stick out.

- Someone using only a monophonic or two-channel stereo sound system faces a distinct disadvantage when playing against a competitor equipped with a 5.1 sound system, because the latter player can locate the source of enemy fire in the three-dimensional game world more quickly.

- Somewhat counterintuitively, the busier the sonic environment, the less useful the 5.1 environment becomes to the player.

- In multiplayer gameplay: the advantage of a player with a surround sound system over one without may diminish as more players enter the game.

- Video games are based on the concept that players/audiences can affect both their audiovisual experiences and what actually happens within the game.

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