There’s Nothing Wrong With Pretending to Rock

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 game—presumably to the exclusion of all other activities—is “sad.”

As a gamer myself—not to mention a Guitar Hero and Rock Band owner—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 of—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)—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 instruments—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 other—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 character’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 I’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 we’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.

9 thoughts on “There’s Nothing Wrong With Pretending to Rock

  1. @Church: That would be hilarious. Seriously, let’s just do a find-and-replace for “playing instruments” with “carjacking” and “rocking” with “beating up hookers.”

    It’s true, though. I feel a little depressed that kids are out beating up virtual hookers instead of the real thing.

  2. They had a southpark episode about guitar hero where they cover alot of these issues it was pretty sweet!

  3. Read the below with the understanding that I am operating on about 4 hours sleep and am less then a week away from buying my first house, so I’m in kind of a weird head space. I need to reread your response Jason after I’ve gotten some decent sleep, but I’ll toss out a few thoughts here till then.

    While I get what you’re getting at with these comments, I’m wondering if Carrie’s review is really the best example you want to throw out there. Reading that article, I don’t see someone who is criticizing video games. I see someone who doesn’t really grok video games, and freely admits this, giving her opinion of the game. Take out that one section that you quoted and it is a pretty good example of non-gamers enjoying video games.

    As for that one comment that you quoted, it is probably worth while to remember that we are talking about a woman who came out of the Olympia, WA indie scene. A scene that is notorious for its talent optional approach to music. And where being bored is as good a reason to start a band as any other.

    Finally, in response to your comment about Rock Band and Guitar Hero inspiring people to start making music on their own, I’ll quote Carrie’s last paragraph,

    “These days, it might be easier to exalt the fake than to try to make sense of the genuine. But maybe by pretending to be in a band, there will be those who’ll find the nerve to go beyond the game, and to take the brave leaps required to create something real.”

    Bottom line, when I started reading this, I was all ready to be pissed for Carrie dismissing video games as pointless. After reading it, I’m left wondering why people are annoyed with her.

  4. Great post. I think you’re right on about the in-between space games seem to occupy in our culture. We can play, but we’re supposed to feel guilty about it. My guess is that this perception is out there partly because video games are still such a young form of entertainment. Novels and movies were criticized the same way when they first came along.

    There’s also a generational element. Older generations are always critical of the way younger people behave (only because it’s so different). When you combine a young form of entertainment with the standard generation gap, you’ll get a system that doesn’t quite know whether to embrace the thing or push it aside.

  5. Thanks to everyone for the comments. Responding more specifically to Matt’s:

    First, this did not read like a comment from someone who is going crazy, but in fact made a lot of sense. So, good job there, and good luck with the house. 🙂

    Second, I guess I should qualify my assessment of Carrie’s review. I hope I didn’t paint her as a villain, but I imagine some gamers have done so. Her review is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most uninformed or overly critical take on the game out there. But in some ways, that’s part of why it seemed appropriate to me: Even someone who kind of enjoyed the game and sees some good in it still carries the basic prejudice that gaming is “sad,” for “after-school” time, and “fake.” Probably, as your note about the indie rock scene indicates, her viewpoint has as much or more to do with her feeling that rock truly is heroic and worthwhile as it has to do with her take on games.

    I think that there are both positive and negative assessments about Rock Band itself present in her review, and we could choose to focus on either of those. Her last word, though, gives the game credit not on its own merits, but for potentially driving people to another pursuit. She still labels the game “fake” even after playing it with her friends. She doesn’t understand that playing pretend with your friends isn’t “fake” even if the music you make together is. I don’t think she’s dumb or a bad person or anything like that, but—like you said—she just doesn’t grok video games. The proscription against pretending with your friends is so deeply embedded in our culture that even someone who has enjoyed it herself—no enemy to gamers, just your average indie rock star—still feels the need to measure it against other activities. Her take on games, and not the image of kids playing after school, is what I find sad.

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