A game doesn't get as loyal a following as the Guitar Hero series has unless it appeals to people with different tastes. We've tended to think that hardcore gamers and casual players have taken to the game in equal measure -- but, as stated in part two, those labels aren't specific enough for us to embrace. Instead, we'll look at how a Skill Player's approach to the game might differ from that of a Tourist. And we'll speculate as to what each player think he's accomplished afterward.
If you were to look at the screen during a game of Guitar Hero with the sound muted and the player out of sight, you'd see what appears to be a purely skill-based experience. Multi-colored gems stream down the screen in irregular patterns and need to be destroyed as they pass a static point. You'd quickly discern Guitar Hero's precise timing requirements, but from this perspective, it's hardly different from Space Invaders. Even if you weren't acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the guitartroller, you'd guess the game required good hand-eye coordination, as well as manual dexterity. Even more so, you see the goal of the game to be detonating every single one of those gems. You're seeing the game through the point of view of the Skill Player.
Now imagine a different scenario: the sound is on, but your back is to the television and you're watching the Guitar Hero player. Exactly what he's doing when he holds down the buttons and hits the strum bar isn't quite clear, the one thing you can say for sure is that his actions drive the song you're hearing. Now he performs star power. You don't realize it's multiplying his score -- you just see him tilting the guitar like a rock star. The cause and effect relationship that you observe is the guitar controller producing rock and roll music. Things like the high score and the difficulty level are irrelevant here. Now you're looking at the game from the perspective of the Tourist.
It gets tricky when you're the one playing the game. Now, you have to synthesize visual stimuli (the streaming gems), digital manipulation (fret buttons and strum bar), and aural feedback (the song). The distinction between playing as a Skill Player and as a Tourist is harder to define, because their disparate motivations result in interlocked results. For a Skill Player, accurately detonating the gems makes the song sound correct. For a Tourist, playing the song well will naturally result in a good score. These two people may not realize they're playing for different reasons -- even if they're playing cooperatively!
How might we differentiate between Skill Players and Tourists in Guitar Hero? The intention of this piece is to suggest a better framework for talking about games, not to try to pigeonhole gamers, so I offer these suggestions only as a place to start -- to show how people could derive equal enjoyment with entirely different goals in mind. (It's also possible that someone could exhibit traits of both the Skill Player and the Tourist; in fact, I imagine most people do.)
Characteristics of the Skill Player in Guitar Hero:
- Plays on expert difficulty, or strives to
- Activates star power with the select button instead of tilting the controller
- Uses practice mode
- Pursues a five-star ranking in every song, even the terrible ones
- In multiplayer, prefers face-off or pro face-off
- Plays on whatever difficulty they've mastered (this could still be expert)
- Activates star power by tilting the controller
- Learns songs by playing them
- Disproportionately plays the songs they like
- Prefers co-op multiplayer
Defining people simply by these traits may be problematic, because to do so is to attribute motivation to action after the fact. But if you know that you fit more comfortably in one category, you may be able to apply that perspective to other games where the dichotomy is less obvious.
The question now is whether we've taken this to its logical conclusion. I think there's further still to go.
Next: Skill Players: Drilling Down