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.