In 2016, Johannes Kreidler examined the compositions signaling your demise in a dizzying array of vintage video games. As even our phones “gamify” pandemics, it seems weirdly relevant.

The conversation came up as Johannes asked what sorts of musical cues should be composed for integration into COVID-19 pandemic notification apps. (The German government this week launched its warning app, intended to use Bluetooth signals to check for proximity to infected people.) That signal’s message may be more like “stay away” or “you might have gotten infected,” but it does beg the question of how mortality fits into our technology.

It’s sometimes been the absence of an understanding of failure, discomfort, and ultimately death that has made platforms like Facebook seem lacking in empathy. Facebook infamously has reminded users of the anniversaries of traumatic events or reviving images of lost loved ones. But there’s a sense sometimes that this platform is conceived in a world that imagines everything in blind optimism. (Since embarrassing cases of that, they have the solution they have to everything – just use AI! Uh… yeah, we’ll see how that works.)

Real human existence is of course full of constant frustration, disappointment, and loss. The challenge of early video games was to convey those failures in short musical cues.

In fact, you might even imagine that what a lot of basic video gameplay is about is replicating that sense of failure and loss in doses. People suggesting games make us immune to violence may be understanding it entirely the wrong way round. We are constantly dealing with our emotional sensitivity to loss and basic failure – even as adults, not only as children. So perhaps we play games as a way to release the fear and tension that is a part of even our most mundane existence.

And just like watching cartoons, when those emotions are made into a tiny, harmless caricature, the results can be – well, funny.

Here’s one short example from Super Mario Bros 2:

But you really get a sense of musical-sonic signifiers when Johannes runs through all of them really fast.

Even the question of which way the melodic gesture goes is non-obvious. Johannes’ name may ring a bell, so to speak – apart from authoring a book on Pure Data, he also imagined what would happen if you turned stock market crashes into melodies. Ah, remember the days when we wanted curves to go up, not down?

Keep watching as he also goes into this question of mortality there, too. But there is something, again, cartoonishly comical about a downward melody as indicating failure.

I suggested Germany’s COVID app might want this sound:

But if this seems a bit insensitive – well, in a way, that’s the entire point.

In worlds of endless numbers and visualizations, human life can become microscopic, abstract. The seriousness of contagion may or may not translate well to a phone – the abstraction of that could itself create fear and mistrust.

The question of how that is represented visually and aurally is a serious one – a life and death one.

Or maybe there’s no way to do that, which is why after hours of news and charts reducing real life and death to empty abstractions, what we really might want to do for relief is play a video game.