Yesterday, I talked about how much I hate the commonly expressed opinion that people who enjoy playing music games should learn to play real instruments instead.*
The absurdity of the argument becomes pretty clear if you replace Guitar Hero or Rock Band with something else -- for example, basketball. Say you're playing HORSE with a friend or two at the playground, and some snooty douche comes along and says, "How come you don't play real basketball?"
You would immediately formulate several cogent responses. "Because there aren't enough of us for a game of basketball." "Because we're not in good enough shape for 48 minutes of vigorous athletic activity." "Because we're bad at dribbling, passing, shooting, and keeping score." "Because playing HORSE is fun, you snooty douche."
Of course, no one would ever look down his nose at you for playing HORSE instead of training for a career in the NBA, because these things are all well understood. (It's also unlikely that our fictional person in this scenario would never have played the game or even dribbled a basketball, but that's what happens with critics of music games all the time.)
What's the key here? When you play HORSE, you are not trying to be a "real" basketball player. No one thinks you are. What you're doing is related to basketball, yes, but in the same way that your housecat is related to a cheetah. Although you may even do things like count down "3... 2... 1...!" before launching a 3-point shot and mimicking a buzzer, no one wonders why you aren't trying out for the Lakers. You are adapting your enjoyment of the sport into something that allows you to participate. It doesn't stop you from watching the NBA. Nor does it stop talented athletes from pursuing a career in pro sports.
This is also true of music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. They are an extension of our enjoyment of music, not a replacement. Playing these games shares more in common with singing in the shower and air-guitaring at your desk than it does with mastering the complexities of a musical instrument. One takes rigorous effort and discipline, while the other requires only a commitment to shaking your ass. Most of us never seriously consider dedicating a good portion of our lives to playing music, for any number of reasons. We participate in the music we like by attending concerts, by dancing or singing along, and -- to use a recent, personal example -- by cranking up the volume on the car radio when WZLX is playing a rock block of Dire Straits.**
In other words, there's a relationship between the artist and the listener, one that doesn't really change when the listener happens to be strumming along on a plastic guitar. As when you bop your head or hum, you're engaging with the artist's work when you play a music game. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think that's what the artists actually want. The obvious difference is that the Guitar Hero guitar or the Rock Band drum kit actually does affect the musical output, but there's little room to put your own imprint on it -- barely more than when you adjust the levels on your stereo. You're still consuming that which someone else has produced.
Look, we can't all be content producers. Or, at least, we can't all master the production of everything we happen to enjoy consuming. This has always been the balance. At the risk of oversimplifying it once again, the reason I don't play a real instrument is because I don't want to. I've already decided what I want to dedicate my time and effort to. I could try to be a musician, but I've chosen to be a writer instead. But I still love rock music -- it's occupied a meaningful place in my life for as long as I can remember. I have always sung along. I always will.
*Lest you think I'm just wailing on a straw man here, a recent example of this argument, and the one that has stuck in my craw since I read it weeks ago, comes from Rob Horning at PopMatters.
**We got to move these refrigerators. We got to move these color TVs.