Something I find ceaselessly fascinating and baffling is the way that video games get criticized no matter what their content. If a game features violent activity that we could never (and, hopefully, would never) enact in real life, it gets criticized for encouraging real-life violence. If a game features non-violent activity that might even be considered worthwhile in real life, it gets criticized for discouraging real-life action. I’ve written a bit about the former here already, so I figure I might as well take a brief moment to comment on the latter, exemplified in criticism of Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
Carrie Brownstein, former guitarist of Sleater-Kinney (a band I happen to enjoy, as well) recently wrote a widely-linked article for Slate on Rock Band, offering a fairly representative example most common criticism of the game:
When I looked carefully, I realized I was having a party where people were sitting around playing video games. And, really, if you are going to play the game with a group of friends for more than a night, shouldn’t you just form a real band? There is something sad about the thought of four teenagers getting Rock Band for Christmas and spending all of their after-school time pretending to know how to play.
This paragraph came, of course, after several paragraphs explaining that she and her friends rather enjoyed playing the game together. Then it was followed by extended consideration of why being in a real band is better.
In other words, like most critics of the game, Carrie offers a condescending evaluation of the game and its players and completely misses the point of the game. This is a testament, I think, to how deeply ingrained we are with certain cultural ideals: Even after playing, enjoying, and thus, at least on some visceral level, understanding this game and its appeal, Carrie still effectively dismisses this activity because playing a gameâ€”presumably to the exclusion of all other activitiesâ€”is “sad.”
As a gamer myselfâ€”not to mention a Guitar Hero and Rock Band ownerâ€”the common criticism of these games seems so obviously misguided as to be puzzling. I can’t speak for all the players I’ve never met, but between me and various other players I do know ofâ€”e.g., my friends, my brother, the bloggers I read, and the random woman I met in The Body Shop who told me that she doesn’t play games but she does like Guitar Hero, and that’s how she got into Freezepop (which was playing on a mix CD in the store)â€”I don’t get the impression that people play this to the exclusion of other, “productive” activities. I don’t get the impression that people actually believe they’re making music, either. I get the impression that people know it’s a game, and it fills a niche in gaming that isn’t being filled by the games that require mastery of imaginary weapons and abstract, multi-button control schemes. And games aren’t necessarily supposed to be productive (though they can be). Traditionally speaking, at least, are supposed to be fun. We play these games because it is fun to pretend to be a rock star, not because we actually want to be a rock star.
Penny Arcade writer Jerry “Tycho” Holkins addresses the usual criticism of such games, but also attempts to redeem their productive value:
Invariably, when reasonable people are discussing Guitar Hero or Rock Band, that forum smart guy oozes in somewhere near the middle of the thread and tells people that they should be playing real instrumentsâ€”presumably, like he does. Put aside that Mozart has missed the point completely (i.e., why don’t you play for the real NFL, etc). The fact of the matter is that he is quite simply wrong.
Once such toy instruments can be harnessed for the actual composition and performance of music, Jerry goes on to suggest, that will be just as valid as any other type of music. That’s a fine point; I’m not sure I agree that that’s likely to be a successful direction for the technology to take, but I can see how one might find it an appealing idea.
Personally, though, I don’t think we should have to “put aside” that the critics have missed the point. I don’t think we should have to justify our interests by suggesting, no, really, something productive could come out of this. And if we did need to do that, we could just point out that some guitar instructors believe these games actually encourage people to learn guitar. My younger brother is an example of one such person who loves Guitar Hero and also got inspired to sign up for guitar lessons after playing the game.
The point here, though, is that neither pursuit necessarily interferes with the otherâ€”and those of us who don’t play the guitar at all likely have other perfectly valid hobbies and productive activities as part of our normal routine. There is a certain value or satisfaction to be found in playing the guitar (or drawing, or singing, or lifting weights), and perhaps another sort of value or satisfaction in playing a video game simulator of being a rock star. Even if you do go start a band, it’s no guarantee you’d ever get to experience anything remotely like being a rock star; jamming on a real guitar is not necessarily an adequate substitute for spending a bit of time pretending.
My friend Jordan had a recent realization about how Rock Band Works, comparing Rock Band to a social role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons:
The experience feels like a simplified role playing game. You and your party members are assuming the roles of musicians. It has classes (drums, mic, guitar, and bass), levels/dungeons (gigs), experience points and gold (fans/stars and cash), inventory management (purchasing outfits and changing your characterâ€™s appearance), NPCs (managers and roadies), death/rebirth (failure and being saved), and even special abilities that are slightly different for the different classes (overdrive modes). When I play Rockband alone, I feel like Iâ€™m sitting at home reading the D&D Player Character guide to learn the mechanics, rather than playing the actual game with friends. Having people in the room with me makes it feel like weâ€™re going on an adventure together.
That similarity between Rock Band and D&D, of course, is right at the root of why people criticize these video games. While the guitar games have certainly found a following among adults, the instruments are still toys, and the medium in question is still the video game, so people will still invariably say condescending things about kids living “sad” lives.
This is how video games currently occupy a precarious space between embarrassingly juvenile and acceptably adult, between geeky-hip and geeky-ridiculous. Rock music is cool, but “let’s play pretend” is not. Video games are finally finding content that reminds adults of how personally valuable it can be to pretend, but adults are not yet ready to let their guard down. Maintaining an appearance of coolness or of sophistication (to oneself or to others) takes a certain amount of commitment. In the adult world, such an appearance seems more immediately and obviously valuable than allowing oneself to pretend. Thus, we adults must either shake our heads in disapproval or shrug our shoulders and admit we are geeks.
That is my brief take on this matter (though perhaps not as brief as I meant it to be). For a more nuanced look at such issues from an ethnomusicological perspective, check out Kiri Miller’s Guitar Hero Research blog.