Saturday, January 24, 2009

Painting by Numbers

Guitar Hero gets a bad rap. Granted, it's not the game itself that critics carp on. Maybe it's the image of grown men wanking away at it that, for a few of us, epitomizes the emasculating inauthenticity of the times. In a remade Fight Club, Rock Band -- with its interactive light and smoke show peripherals -- would replace the bachelor pad packed with Ikea furniture.

As I once said on a podcast, I feel weird when I watch people play Rock Band or Guitar Hero. I'm reminded of how human music is and what it means for us to make it. I think, this is what happens when a culture decides that music-making is strictly the domain of the specialist and that we should stop performing when it becomes clear that we aren't cut from professional cloth.

This is a relatively recent development in the industrialized world. Throughout history, more people have created music than have consumed it. And while we've recently reversed that equation, cultural prejudice hasn't curbed evolutionary predisposition. So for me, Guitar heroism is sort of like seeing a clawless cat pretend to scratch a post. Or a future in which only porn stars have sex and the rest of us plebes simulate it with reel-feel plastic. But the game isn't to blame.

The fact that Guitar Hero's interface imitates actual guitar playing is important, but I believe that the game, like painting by numbers, is singled out because its source of inspiration amounts to more than mere entertainment. Nobody worries over Wii bowling -- and yet, as a game that adds a dose of lethargy to an already lazy pastime, Nintendo's bestseller can also claim candidacy for sign of the times.

The trouble with cultural criticism of this sort, though, is its tendency to ignore contrary evidence. Guitar Hero is emblematic of an era. So is Myspace and its armies of amateur, attention-seeking troubadours. All of them making music.


Seth said...

The classic argument against such wide-spread - to use your word - dilettantism afforded by the internet through such mediums as blogging for aspiring writers, podcasting for wannabe radio/TV stars or even MySpace as a promotion venue for amateur Fall Out Boys seems silly to me. Granted, not all Guitar Heroes end up picking up a Mexican Strat or Epiphone Les Paul knockoff, but would you chastise a 12-year-old for spending days creating levels in LittleBigPlanet because he dreams of one day being the next - dare I say it for fear of ancillary pretentiousness - Jonathan Blow!?

Ian said...

Great post! I completely agree with you!

Jin said...

I think there is a huge relationship between us, humans, and music. iPod boom aside we could have continued along with our lives without music completely of course ignoring cultural impact which is irrelanvent to our survival, we as a species have no need for music. but yet it has evolved as with us through the ages.

as you said, historically music has had more creators then consumers however i belived there has always been more "performers" then creators

and now the opportunity to be part of the "group" to be able to have some sembalance of musical talent is a huge opportunity for those not musically inclined.

but as you said, "Guitar Hero is emblematic of an era" just as consumerism is the theme of this era.

Anonymous said...

A nice short little bit of writing Shawn. It was sparked by the other essays linked in your twitter, yes?

I liked the bits of wit peppered with colorful metaphor and comparison, but I think that it was only just starting to get into interesting (and less ranty) in the last paragraph.

You bring up both the ideas of specialization and industrialization, but don't, I think, connect them enough. You directly relate the drop in musical creation among the populace at large with cultural morays and, indirectly, the industrialized world. Which is all correct.

However, you don't bring up the facets of life in which the same thing has happened, also relating to culture, specialization, and industrialization.

Your example of the clawless cat reminded me very much of something that I've seen many a time in my time as a contractor's son. Most people not only have no idea how to play instruments, but most people have no idea how ANYTHING works (most people think that if you strip back the sheetrock you'll see circuit boards or some shit).

True, people don't create videogames around building houses (unless you count The Sims) but I think it's important to note the phenomenon outside of the realm of games a bit.

You're a big fan of evolutionary biology, so maybe we could see behavior such as the Guitar Hero sub-culture a side-effect of something else. Or maybe we could speculate, sci-fi style about the what something like this means for our future?

Sorry about the huge post, I was just a bit dissapointed when the post seemed to end right when it should've gotten good. Loved it anyway though. Keep up the great work!

Kevin said...

Shawn, I was preparing an argument against your thoughts that "more people have created music than have consumed it," but I realized that my issue with this is based solely on personal experience that that is not the case. Assuming I'm wrong, could you shed some light on how you came to that conclusion? Is that something discussed in academia, or is that your personal interpretation of music in society?

Anonymous said...

As a lapsed guitar player I found GH and its sequels scratched that musical itch in me. Eventually to the extent of encouraging me to pick the guitar up again and quit GH. I imagine I'm not the only one inspired to either return to or pick up a real instrument because of GH and RB.

Dejital said...

I agree with your second paragraph completely. No more is a child playing a familiar folk tune on a guitar called music. Now, this is all just part of learning to play the instrument. Why is that child not called a musician? Why must professional musicians be the only real musicians by social standards today? I think the success of games like Guitar Hero can be compared to a bandage placed over a wound bleeding of creativity. I think that if fans would realize this, then Guitar Center sales would be even higher than they have become because of games like Guitar Hero.

feitclub said...

Funny, I felt weird the first time I saw my friends playing Rock Band but it had nothing to do with the perception that music creation belongs solely to the professionals. For me, I found Rock Band represented an odd contradiction. It is, of course, an exciting multiplayer game which obviously includes more partygoers in the experience than a Grand Theft Auto would. However, because the game relies on timing and music is so integral to the play experience, it awkwardly dominates the party in a way that single player video games do not.

In years past, my friends and I would often enjoy playing Grand Theft Auto as a group. We could play whatever music we wanted, we could talk about whatever we wanted, and the controller was freely passed around to whoever wanted a turn. But with Rock Band, the game demands much more of a commitment from all parties involved. More controllers means more simultaneous players, but you cannot play other music on the stereo for that would result in a din. You can barely converse with anyone, player or not.

I think the game looks like fun, and as a karaoke fan I am particularly attracted to the singing aspects, but I find its squelching of communication a little creepy.

Mike said...

I think a big part of it has a lot more to do with the utter lack of free time in the modern era (at least in industrial cultures). I don't know if professionals so much discourage it, although the angry fist-shaking they do at Guitar Hero makes me wonder. The fact is, though, people used to have a lot more free time on their hands. The 5-day work week with 1 week of vacation a year is an invention of the modern age.

Add to that the absolute diluge of things with which we can entertain ourselves - books, movies, games - all of which did not use to exist (or in books' case, existed for very few). I bet that has a lot to do with it.

Of course, I'd love to learn an instrument. But if I do that, that means I'm not reading or writing or doing any of the million other things I want to do with my free time.

Anonymous said...


I study music and music history, Shawn is correct.

Historically music was created by every member of a community, it was a part of their standard education and was a central aspect of social interaction.

It applies during the Renaissance where a proper lady would know how to play the harpsichord, and to stone-age societies where song and dance were an intrinsic part of feasting and socializing.

While there have always been professional musicians such as troubadours and the like, music has always been accessible to the whole of society.

It is only since the industrial revolution and the idea of music as an art-form that the separation between creator/performer and audience has become so marked.

If anything I think the increase in games like GH may change this separation, for the better.

Bib said...

Yes, terrific post.

Matt said...

I remember seeing a doco on the "one inch punch" on youtube, it's probably still there, where these martial artists were having a go at fighting games because people get caught up in those, instead of learning real martial arts.

It's much the same as the difference between playing a sport in real life, and then playing a videogame version. There's really no comparison, doing something in real life is almost always better, unless it's incredibly dangerous and likely to kill you (even then it's debatable >_>).

When a game gets to a huge level of abstraction though, there's no point in comparing it to real life anymore. NBA Street looks like a basketball game, but since it's so over the top, it's really got nothing to do with basketball anymore, it's just a videogame (this is not a bad thing). Same deal when you compare Guilty Gear to a pub brawl, there's no point.

Remember that nobody had these problems with Frequency or Amplitude, because the abstraction was so huge. But give the people what is essentially the same thing, and make it resemble a real life activity more closely, and suddenly there's an issue.

I'm undecided on it, but the thing that annoys me the most about Guitar Hero is that it looks like you're playing with children's toys. Didn't have this problem with Guitar Freaks at the arcade.

Hoof said...

Great read. I think if people are using Guitar Hero as a replacement for picking up an actual instrument, that is a sorry situation, but it is also possible it may encourage people to learn an instrument. My 8 year old nephew was/is really into the game, but has also taken up both drums and guitar, so it seems a child at least is able to determine the difference between playing a music game and playing an instrument, and perhaps the former encouraged him to do the later.

Anderson said...


Tron said...

Why can't we just have fun playing a fucking game?

Jason said...

I seriously have to disagree, vastly. Firstly I don't think there's anything to back-up that music rhythm games have flipped the equation between people consuming and people creating music. That's inherent with the society of today. And with that I'm conceding the point that there ever was a point in history where more people made music than listened to music.

Now Shawn, I should say that since 2006 I've read your work and listened to your podcast and very rarely to I disagree. In fact other than your xenophobia to the music rhythm genre, you were basically my spokesperson.

So I do find it weird that you have such an issue picking up a loosely guitar-shaped plastic console peripheral, and that you say when someone straps that five buttoned, one-stringed guitar over their backs they say "Yep, don't have to learn music now."

There's another word you might be missing in the title of specifically Guitar HERO. Yes there's a guitar. Yes you can find a cheap guitar for the price of the guitar and game bundle, but that doesn't mean you're ability to put some chords together is going to get you famous and to the point of AC/DC-like stardom. Guitar Hero (and Rock Band) simulate (I use it lightly) performing on stage, going around the world and having your fans love or hate you (specifically in Rock Band 2's World Tour mode).

And anyway, there's the reverse effect. Sure its anecdotal evidence, but its worth something. I played Rock Band in January of 2008, I got it for my birthday. At this point I had myself a very cheap guitar but it was basically collecting dust as I had no interest in playing it. About two months later, I had gotten really into the drum portion of Rock Band. I was finishing songs with ease on expert and as a result I enrolled in drum lessons, which I still take, and I have my own drum set, and a quote on quote band, where we jam together sometimes. Its nothing serious, but serious enough for $20 an hour of lessons and a $1200 drum kit I suppose.

So you kind of see I'm not really going in any unified direction, just bringing up the counter arguments you seem to ignore.

So Shawn. Since we could consider you out of the kind of social clique that would play music rhythm games, what do you think about those people one step further, out of the social clique that is gaming in general? You can't see someone viewing a Counter Strike player saying "well why don't you go play paintball or something at least physically athletic?"

Well I would respond that a competitive FPS has traits that aren't apparent in an FPS. And that a video itself can offer its own strategies based on its design. What about flight sims? If you're spending hundreds on a good stick, rudder pedals and a Track IR or triple monitor setups, what's stopping you from getting a pilots license and flying around small planes at low altitude?

I just think you're flat-out wrong when you say GH or RB takes people's interest out of music and into the game. Music is SO huge, there is no way someone can lose interest in music to get into a limited 80 song tracklist in one game. People are still going to listen to music and more and more I see people who like the guitar in these games pick up a real guitar. Or I see younger kids getting interested in some good classic music. Unfortunately the genre doesn't accommodate some of my other favourite music genres (indy hip-hop, and early Bowie-esque bands just don't work in the game), but being a big fan of metal music and hard rock there's definitely fun to be had that doesn't need to replace my time on real drums. And no matter what you think when you see four grown men who think they're rocking out, jerking off your WiiMote as if it was Stalin's cock is always going to be much more hilarious.

Lucas said...

Good article, great analogies.

I think the wii-bowling comparison isn't as fair; I don't think there are people that play it in lieu of actual bowling, though I am probably just being naive.

Broseybrose said...

I agreed with your sentiments the first time you voiced them on the podcast, and even more so today. This is because in the meantime I had the opportunity to be exposed to Guitar Hero World Tour by a fanatic. As a self-taught drummer, guitar player, and much more, my gut reaction to the game/spectacle mirrors the points you bring up.

I dont fault the game, though... I just wish more kids were asking for real instruments. I also think we are moving back to a time where someone who makes music no longer needs to be cut from professional cloth. Well, I hope, at least. The more music being made and the more accessible it is, the better.

Dan said...

I don't know. I played the drums for a few years in middle school and the guitar for a few in high school.

I feel like the Rock Band drums are pretty similar to real drums in that the skills I had and the defeciencies too carry over.

I don't want to spend the time learning the drums and being in a band, but this is still pretty enjoyable.

I've recently been messing around with the Korg-DS 10 a bit and as a simple synthesizer, it's been a fun way to keep making music.

Shawn Elliott said...

@Jason. I'm not arguing that "music rhythm games have flipped the equation between people consuming and people creating music." Rather that they're symptomatic of this reversal. (See Mr Devil's response)

Jason said...

Oh shit, I misinterpreted then. This post should've been longer, suddenly I'm very interested where I read with hostility before. Though from what I know now I still think that's no reason to hate the game.

Shawn Elliott said...

I tried to write a compressed post with implicit commentary. I expect a wide range of reactions and, in this case, am not too concerned about anyone coming to "wrong" conclusions. To unpack it a bit, I think that you're onto something about GH being a special case compared to a Counter-Strike. : )

Ben said...

You and some other people have touched on an idea that was wrapped up succinctly by Scott McCloud in "Understanding Comics". He uses something called the "Big Triangle" to relate the idea of abstractness vs./approaching real likeness. If you haven't read it, essentially, the idea is that the closer a drawing gets to a real likeness of a human being the more rules we impose on it and the more unsettling it can become. No one questions a cartoon like Animaniacs based on physics or what's not possible, but as you move closer to a human approximation, people start nitpicking details in relation to the physical world.

So my argument is thus, that for the "plastic guitar" as emasculation argument, it's only that the guitar controller is an approximation of an actual guitar that people seem to take umbrage with. Other rhythm games like PaRappa the Rappa or Beatmania don't seem to accumulate this amount of criticism. It seems like the input may have something to do with it. This is in line with the Counter Strike/NBA Street argument. Then again, games like Virtua Cop had light guns, but that's simulating a dangerous and perhaps painful activity.

Also, the triangle idea could be applied to the music itself based on unknown/obscure music vs. familiarity. Starting at PaRappa, you have original music for the game itself moving through Beatmania then eventually to Guitar Hero where you know the music almost implicitly. This is from an American perspective, assuming obscurity based on personal interaction.

So it seems with the guitar-approximation and the music itself it's a commodification of the familiar. Though there's no denying a certain advertising aspect to the game, another of many platforms that the music industry has for selling its wares. But, it's an impossible statement to qualify when someone says that Guitar Hero has deterred people from making music. It may have deterred some, but conversely could've attracted others.

I like your painting by numbers argument, it's the strongest idea that because we feel something for the creation when it's used in a certain way we might feel betrayed or that our admiration has been perverted for uses against us. Though, even painting by numbers is a way of practicing an art form and builds actual skill in the form itself, which may then lead to further investigation. Guitar Hero's approximation doesn't really do the same thing, so it doesn't really compare well. The guitar is just a controller in the shape of a guitar, never really approaching true likeness. Not to say that this wouldn't spurn people into playing an actual guitar.

Against MrDeVil's point I would lay down the idea that he only cites upper-class citizens creating music. Usually this is in the form of lessons while growing up. The same could be said of present day piano lessons or other classical instruments. The general populace might have taken part in music, perhaps in song form passed down, but there's always going to be central figures playing the instruments.

Anonymous said...

So people who play these games are posers? I thought they might just be Metalica fans who wanted to play a game with their friends. Do people who dance annoy you too; because they aren't dancing well for the entertainment of others, to music they wrote and with dance moves they created?

Your stance on these games just seems a little "anti" and somewhat childish, to use a strong word.

Didn't you just have a blog post defending your stance from an email you received criticizing your perceived view on RB and GH. The jist of it was that just because you link to it doesn't mean you agree with it, or are making a statement with it. Yet this post seems to have a similar message to the articles you linked.

PS. I think you're really funny, keep podcasting please.

Shawn Elliott said...

@SirSavage: Despite what I wrote about not being concerned about readers coming to the wrong conclusions, I'm definitely not saying what you think I'm saying.

David Carlton said...

We must have different feeds in our subscriptions or something: I don't feel that the plastic instrument genre gets a bad rap at all. There are certainly tons of people in my twitter feed who love Rock Band, for example.

Maybe there's more bad press about the genre than I'm seeing? Or maybe I have mental filters on that cause me to treat people who say "just pick up a guitar already" the same way that I treat people who dismiss video games more broadly? (I largely ignore them, for better or for worse.) Or maybe it's just an idiosyncracy of my twitter/blog subscriptions, with unabashed fans of the genre like Dan Bruno, Mitch Krpata, and Michael Abbott in them?

jer said...

I love Rock Band. Bring it to Grandma's house for Christmas, hook up the PS3 with the never-used-until-now composite cables, and stain at the too-small TV for the 3 scrolling note charts. Try to remember to enable no-fail mode for when the old/young play, fight over who gets to play guitar, and who is stuck with bass. Complain that whoever is playing drums is hitting them way too hard, whoever is singing is really just humming, and "GET OUT OF WAY, I NEED TO SEE THE TV!"

Martin said...

Shawn, I think the only way I'm going to understand your point is if you talk about it on a podcast. I get the sense that when you bring this sort of stuff up in a conversation people give you look of confusion and boredom. Then you explain your point in a bunch of different ways (giving up the conciseness in the process), and everyone gets what you're saying (and also laugh because you somehow work a dick joke into it).

Kevin said...

MrDeVil, thanks for the response, I should go back to school.

Ryan said...

In Nick Carr's article, does he suggest playing Guitar Hero is less authentic than playing real guitar or is his condemnation broader? I hear the "time could be better spent" argument and can't help thinking what he might really be trying to say is that video games are a waste of time. If I can generalize the experience of playing video games, as Nick can do in the experience people have playing Guitar Hero/over real guitar, then I could say playing any video game gives you a video game experience and weighing that against other related activities is worth less. I personal don't feel that is the case, as I enjoy playing video games alongside reading, watching movie, etc.

If everyone who liked to play Guitar Hero or Rockband spent 10% of their time in the day playing the game and 30% playing real guitar, would we still have these value questions? Im afraid I am going to repeat myself so I'll end my thoughts here for now...

Hunter Red said...

The title of your post made me think of this.

Operator-C said...

I know time is a limitation, but I wish you would write more often. :)

Adam Coronado said...

Jesus, Shawn. This is the most thought-provoking video game commentary I've read since...ever?


Jeffrey Grubb said...

God damn, why do humans feel the need to talk about music. There is no more pointless exercise than trying to make a point about music.

I don't ever want to make music. It is something I do not want to do. But that won't stop me from learning an instrument enough to entertain myself. I can play the Saxophone, but only enough to pass the time around a camp fire.

Isn't that just as terrible as playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero with no intention of creating my own music. Why do I have to create in order to be allowed into the little clubs set up by music snobs across the world.

Honestly, snobbery of all kinds is terrible. But music snobbery is right up there with some of the worst.

The idea that one person's way of listening, experiencing, playing, or creating music is the right way or even the preferred way is asinine.

People have been buying music albums by the millions for the past 60 years.

Pretentiousness can kiss my ass.

Shawn Elliott said...

@Jeff Grub: Where's the snobbery? And if talking about music is taboo, you might as well not talk about any human activity at all.

James said...

People enjoy Guitar Hero because to them it's not a fucking case study on evolutionary development.

You don't enjoy Guitar Hero, because you're on a 24/7 mission to prove the theory.

Mack said...

Three thoughts:
1. I must admit I am disapointed that there are poeple who would advocate more (other) people toy with music, only to turn arround and caveat that toys with music (read GH/RB) doesn't count.
2. Sean, you call out the Band Hero games as a sign of the times and allow Nintendo a share in the symptom, but you also provide a brief counter argumet (myspace musicians) to the disengagement these games point to. Question: are these games as you suggest a sign of social lethargy where people would rather use less input (toys) for greater output (bowling, playing music), or are they a sign of heightened interactivity where poeple no longer what to simply press buttons but, if they are going to be play-acting, they feel they might as well put more in to get more out (i.e. narrowing the input/output gap)? Are these two views mutually exclusive?
3. Rock Hero games (RB especially with it's emphasis on play-acting a band member) seem to me to have achived one of the greater feats of (game related) sleight-of-hand in recent years. Here we are focused on the legitemacy(?) of playing versus doing thanks to the uncanny valley between a fisher price drum kit and the real deal. What amazes me more is not the number of people Rock Hero has sucked into musical interest, but rather the number of people these games have hoodwinked into playing the most original RPG in years. RB/GH are not rhythem action games (well, they are) but LARPing games!! And all these people think they're being cool playing at being in the band, when really they're having ablast playing Harmonix's My First Larp!

Jared said...

I very much enjoy reading this sort of discourse. I feel that actions of leisure should be examined as much and as intensely as anything else in life. Gaming... Guitar Hero is arranging the future course of humanity.

It is an important topic. To embrace or not embrace Guitar Hero is maybe not on the same level as Socrates deciding to speak for the side of Truth instead of the side of Good. Well, I'm just glad it's being evaluated on serious level, entertaining flourishes and all.

Nathan said...

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free." -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I think it is a single symptom of a larger problem. Games are entertainment; they divert our attention. Depending on implementation, they have the potential to confront social issues, become a forum for education, etc. But the vast majority of games simply provide a virtual playground with objectives to keep our minds occupied, not to better oneself or impart [meaningful] skills to the player. This is perfectly fine. We all need recreation.

But when a hollow imitation of skill has as much perceived value as the real thing, then you have a problem. It's like Monopoly money being treated as real money. Money is only valuable because everybody agrees that it has value. If a bunch of people got together and said "Guys, we love this Monopoly money SO MUCH, we're going to use it in our daily lives. From this day forward we will value Monopoly money just as much as we value 'normal' money," it creates an imbalance of currency. What was once valuable has now been cheapened because in the minds of others, the imitation has as much value as the thing it imitates (Perhaps even more). And besides, it's so easy to get a bunch of Monopoly money!
The metaphor is a tad extreme, I know. Granted, (I hope that) nobody buys Guitar Hero and decides that they will value it as much a musician values his/her skills, but over time (and with a lack of moderation, among other things) in someone's mind the hollow imitation of musical skill could begin to hold the same amount of value that a musician would place on his/her musical skills.

Thus, if culture is the sum total of the opinions, ideas, etc. of a group of people at any particular time, does the above situation point to the cheapening of our culture? That's what I wondered.

Adam Coronado said...

Shawn wrote:
"I think, this is what happens when a culture decides that music-making is strictly the domain of the specialist and that we should stop performing when it becomes clear that we aren't cut from professional cloth."

I think you touch on something important regarding Art in general. As a writer of several disciplines, I can't imagine not making my craft my daily bread.

But simultaneously, there's a widely-held notion in the U.S. that "Artistic" people are not like everyone else. I don't buy this. I think that Art is essential to the human condition and the people that don't believe in it are hurting themselves.

Back on the subject at hand, I agree that Guitar Hero/Rock Band both get bad raps. They're really fun games that take multi-player synergy to the next level. I think it matters little that neither game represents actual instrument playing. Video games, no matter the genre, have an obligation to be entertainment before being enlightening.

I just wish more of them were the latter.

Chris said...

I can agree with you that throughout history humans have created more music than consumed. We’ve only recognized certain figures over the centuries that have impacted the development of music and written what are deemed to be “masterpieces” by critics, nobility, or other recognized musicians. But wouldn’t you say that this is how it always has been in human society? The dreaded elitism is inherent. Whoever displays the most talent or creates the “best” is asked to make more. The other humans who are not as talented do not receive the highest attention of the masses. Sure, those deemed as inferior musicians can make music, but their music is not desired on the level of those “better” performers. Look at the music diversity we have today. Small genres like classical, ska, punk, etc., are still able to keep afloat in a society dominated by rap and R&B consumption. It’s like in high school when one is deemed the most popular girl/guy. That person will have the “best” of whatever qualities constitute popularity and receive the most attention of the student body. The people will then search for those similar qualities and some of their own subjectively desired qualities. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any other attractive, interesting, or fun people in the school besides the select few. They simply won’t share the spotlight of getting the most attention from the masses. Therefore, it seems like the equation is proper for a world that holds so many people who have potential. The most skilled/talented will bubble up to the top.

I can also agree that the inspiration source of Guitar Hero and Rock Band are the reason why it receives so much criticism. All the people are discussing is an argument between qualitative/quantitative experiences and the possibility that consumers might not be able to differentiate the two separate acts. Performing music is generally deemed as a qualitative act with intrinsic properties. People can’t really describe what it feels like to perform music live. They can try to explain their feelings and accomplishments through analogies, but that isn’t always clear enough. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are seen as an attempt to define this experience in quantitative, extrinsic terms. This is done through images of crowds dancing, band members moving on stage, sound effects of cheering and chanting (or boo-ing), all accompanied by a high score at the end. Most people realize this is just a game for fun and a simulation of something they may never be able to do. However, there is the assumption that there is a sector of people who are unable recognize the difference. Those people would think they are actually experiencing the qualitative, intrinsic properties from doing something that is quantitative and only has extrinsic value. I liken this to the argument that violent games breed violent people. It doesn’t hold much weight, and only those gamers who are completely out of touch with reality would prove the argument.

However, the articles Shawn linked in his previous blog entry are more about the possible consumer criticisms that Guitar Hero/Rock Band place on society, and they are interesting concerns about how technology may be changing us in adverse ways.

Shotgun VS Shogun said...

Explanations of Guitar Hero and Rock Band are simple.

They're as simple as this axiom:

We would love to view ourselves as whatever we most desire.

As kids we believe we could be novelists, rock stars, or, as youngsters, astronauts. The damaging truth is -- and not to bare my soul too large here -- that we, the masses, will never get to taste that. You Shawn, within your own niche, have.

I could kill to do what you have done.

I don't mean to say that you're unappreciative. But to work for EGM, 1up, and GFW, and then go on to work under someone like Ken Levine, well, it's a vocational ecstasy that most EVERYONE will never feel, regardless of their calling. Its a fulfillment that 90% of the world will never experience.

I think that you should be the most empathetic of what a dream is and how unattainable it can seem, and, by extension, what Guitar Hero and Rock Band offer to the average interested person.

You are the guitar hero that transcended. A guy who played the game, learned the rules, and had it all happen. You're the meeting of the dumb fortuity: of talent, skill and luck - to be clear skill, talent, and luck is that order. But, at the end, luck is the most important where it concerns becoming a "rock star."

There are 6.5 billion people on this planet and only 2,000 (liberally, maybe) get to be games journalists. Other unattainable goals like novelist, astronaut, or President of these United States carry us away based on our own interests.

Most people aren't that. It's a sad fact of reality that most people, regardless of skill, talent, or luck will never be that.

I've earned it, as well as thousands of others, with regards to my capability and my committal. Our capacity to write, or play, or to simply actualize our dreams hasn't met our own serendipity. (Though we hope; we're still waiting on that record company call).

It's a frustrating fact, but it's simple. Imagine yourself not being picked up by Ziff-Davis. Imagine about how your life would have turned out. Seriously think about it... let your brows furrow austerely, and realize the battalion that we as creative people have set out against.

You would have never even had a chance to interact with 2K Boston without your journalism career. The message would have never made its way down the wire.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band, though sad recreations, are a fun time that I, and most of the creative people I know, have to exorcise my own frustration. That isn't to say that the general market has anything to do with this, rather the NPD's of Guitar Hero and Rock Band betray a systemic sense of vocational malaise that most people don't even have the vocabulary to express. People hate their jobs. It's the same with Wii Sports. Fun times are fun times.

In this world, people aren't doing what they want. It's sacrilege to deny them of the explosive fulfillment that most everyone needs. I really think that Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and karaoke in general prey upon and fulfill that need.

I don't think Guitar Hero or Rock Band are that much different than karaoke or American Idol auditions.

Most people just want to attain some kind of accolade in their life. And most people won't.

In that sense, in a 6.5 billion person world, there isn't room for that to happen to everyone.

But there is room for everyone if we can simulate it... Right or wrong. I empathize with the poor writer, the WOW fanatic, and the kid who still wants to be a rock star or an astronaut.

I cannot empathize with myself... I want to be a writer, and for me Guitar Hero is an extension of that. It's wish fulfillment.

belgerog said...

I can't imagine someone plays Guitar Hero because they actually feel like musicians. I think the game is very much like any other game that requires precise timing for success.

The enjoyement when playing guitar hero derives from pretty much the same thing as pac man and tetris: getting better and better scores each time. So I think that the importance of the " fact that Guitar Hero's interface imitates actual guitar playing" is small.

To corroborate your MySpace argument, youtube has also been a place were a lot of people show their musical talents, and they are quite famous for it, you just have to look at the blindfolded pianist.

Brian Block said...

Whoops, posted this in the wrong comments section...

When I hear family, friends, or co-workers make comments in the vein of "play a real instrument", I always bring up the same thing: people playing DDR never believed they were actually dancing. Even the "feel like a rockstar" argument is a bit of a stretch. Rock Band's is a rhythm game! Yes, a rhythm game with wacky peripherals, but a rhythm game nonetheless.

This may be extremely reductive, but the appeal of any good rhythm game is translating a visual pattern into fluid motions. The reward comes from actually experiencing improvement. When you are able to turn your mind off and let your body take over - when you actually get into the rhythm - it feels like quite a victory to correctly hit a string of notes...whether it's in Rock Band, Gitaroo Man, Elite Beat Agents, or, yes, even DDR :P

Ryan said...

As long as music games don't lead to too much of this:

That's not only some kind of paradox but it;s definitely not what "music" should be. Paint By Numbers indeed.

Blake On 2 Wheels said...


I have no constructive comments/criticisms to add to your argument; however, I did want to mention a "small world" scenario that just occurred.

I just saw you, dude. Walking down the damned street. I wanted to wave or nod my head in recognition, but it would've been awkward to the maximum potential.

I used to crack up listening to you guys on the GFW podcast and I had heard you were moving to Boston to work for 2k. Then, months later I see a lanky Shawn Elliot walking down a icy street in Quincy.

Anyways, no need to respond.. I just thought it was fascinating to quasi-bump into you like that. (Well, not literally.. considering it would have been horrific due to my driving a minivan at the time.) With that said, a belated welcome to the neighborhood is in order.


Shawn Elliott said...

Say Hi if you see me again, Blake. I'm sure I looked retarded inching along the ice rink.

Kevin Elgar said...

I don't agree Guitar Hero/Rock Band are not great games; they're fun social games to play. Really, what makes Battlefield so much different (it's basically "BattleHero")?

The more important issue here however is the how Guitar Hero may affect the quality of media and gaming. Well said, Shawn.

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Jeremy Steven said...

Sorry, coming to this a bit late. Great discussion. It's always interesting to think about how games relate to the greater world.

I play guitar. To play like Eddie Van Halen requires six hours a day of practice. Few have that time. But you can pick up RB or GH and in a few hours "master" what took the original artists years of training to attain and months to write for a given piece. With RB/GH you're pretending to play (role-playing), where as actual musicians are creating music and playing for a living. It's completely different.

I have a question: did you feel this way about Call Of Duty or Company of Heroes? Did you think people shouldn't play these games but instead buy a rifle and go to the range or sign up for ROTC in college or join the army to fight in Afghanistan? Should people put down the controller and enroll in a martial arts school for several years instead of playing Dead or Alive or Street Fighter? Should I find 21 like minded people and organize a football game instead of playing the latest version of Madden? Honestly, I fail to see the difference between these games and GH/RB. There are games that simulate professions: martial artist, special forces soldier, pro football player, pro musician. To learn these professions requires years and talent, but one can "simulate" them for a few hours and return to one's normal life in a game. Isn't that what it's all about? A few minutes or hours of escape? Doesn't RB/GH provide that just like any other game?

To be honest, I can't stand to watch anyone play any game. It sickens me to watch how entranced they become and disconnected from the rest of the world. I have yet to reconcile this with my own playing. However, the more I think about this the less I play recently, so there may be something going on in my head. And, I always play at night after my family has gone to bed, since I'm alone and there is no need to communicate with anyone.

One thing would be interesting to know: using the general population as a control group, what is the difference in percentage between those who play GH/RB and start actual music lessons for, let's say 3 months vs. those in the general population? Is it more or less? Does GH/RB inspire people into actually starting musical training, or does it dissuade them? I think this knowledge would shed a lot of light on this question.

Oh, and one more thing. You said Walmart is full of the most disgusting people. You also said you went on vacation to Hawaii (with Hans?). Q: Have you ever been to Walmart in Hawaii? B/C it is full of the most beautiful women...

Peter G said...

After watching "Super-size Me", I really felt like eating a Big Mac... not out of spite... just because I felt like it...

Reading your post makes me want to play GH!

Good analogies and well-written post!

Peter, Denmark

Hockey said...

Guitar Heroism isn't much different than practicing drumming on a pad. You aren't making music, but you are on a musical treadmill of sorts.

But there's a distinct joy in practice and mastery, even if the end result isn't true music making. A person who practices but doesn't care to perform isn't like a clawless cat, they have just isolated the elements of music that matter to them.

Imagine the legions of shitty teenaged guitar fans from the 70s who never attained technical mastery because they wanted to be artists instead of technicians (and failed to be either). It seems to me that Guitar Hero, in its small way, is at least moving those types towards tangible gains in rhythm and pattern recognition. Closer than they ever got by putting on Led Zeppelin albums and playing along badly.

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