Video Games’ First-Ever Grammy Winner Talks About ‘Civilization’ and Music

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Thanks to Tears for Fears, we know that everybody wants to rule the world. And the long-running Civilization strategy game franchise lets you do exactly that. But what good is global domination without a great soundtrack?

The 2005 hit Civilization IV got “Baba Yetu,” as its rousing, anthemic theme song, courtesy of composer Christopher Tin. Tin originally wrote the orchestral track for the game and included it on his 2009 release Calling All Dawns. That CD won two Grammy Awards, including one for “Baba Yetu,” making it the first piece of music composed for video games ever to win the recording industry’s highest honor.

As Civilization gets ready to move to Facebook in the form of Civ World Tin talks about what it feels like to be a Grammy winner and the special challenges video game music needs to rise to.

How did you feel when you first heard about the Grammy nomination for “Baba Yetu”? Did you ever think you would win?

In a strange way, getting the nomination for the Arrangement Grammy was a bigger surprise than actually getting the win. In the nominations round, you’re competing against literally hundreds of songs across all genres. I was frankly stunned that I got into the top five in a category that traditionally favors jazz artists. Once you’re in the top five, though, you’ve got a one-in-five chance, so your odds are much higher. As far as the Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album, that too was a surprise, but less so than the Arrangement Grammy, simply because it was a smaller category.

When were you approached about contributing music to Civilization IV? Were you a Civ fan before this?

I’ve been a Civ fan since the original Civilization, and so when I got the job to write for it, I was thrilled. It was, in fact, my first ever video game job. I got it because I ran into my old roommate Soren Johnson at our five-year Stanford reunion—he told me he was a video game designer, and was designing Civilization IV, and brought me on board.

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The Grammy organization’s changed the classification of some of its categories to include music originally composed for video games. Many people see this as a consequence of your win. What do you think about the category changes?

While I’d love to take credit for the Recording Academy adding ‘Video Games’ to its category names, the truth is that those sorts of decisions take years to make, and that was probably well in the works before I won. However, the timing was certainly convenient for a great news story.

I think it’s a great step forward for the video game industry as a whole to get acknowledged alongside film and TV as a dominant visual medium.  And likewise, hopefully the renamed categories will encourage more Academy voters to consider voting for the handful of video game scores that are submitted every year. (It’s a bit of a misconception that video games were excluded from the Grammys until now—they’ve always been submitted, but in far fewer numbers than film and TV scores.) I think the biggest step forward for the gaming industry, however, would be if a video game score were to win a non-visual media category like Best Instrumental Composition, or a video game song to win Song Of The Year.  Maybe the fact that ‘Baba Yetu’ won an Arrangement Grammy will help pave that path.

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