Monday, February 16, 2009

The argument about Guitar Hero that I never want to hear again, part one

If you're interested in certain controversial subjects, you tend to run across the same facile arguments over and over. Among these are:
  • Communism works great -- in theory.
  • Religion is the cause of every major war in human history.
  • Evolution is a theory, not a fact.
All of which are shorthand for: "I don't understand what I'm talking about, and have no real desire to find out, yet I suffer from an uncontrollable compulsion to express an opinion about things." Here's another one I'd like to throw onto the pile:
Instead of playing Guitar Hero/Rock Band, you should learn to play a real instrument.

This more often expressed as a question: "Why don't you learn to play a real instrument?"

Well, why don't we learn to play real instruments? Because playing real instruments is hard. I know. I played the guitar daily for about a three-year period. In that time, I mastered 10 chords or so. You could say I had a repertoire of about a dozen songs, but only if you were being charitable toward me, and uncharitable toward the songs. This was something I put hundreds of hours of my life into, and I never progressed past the "woeful beginner" stage. It's no wonder -- in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites research suggesting that approximately 10,000 hours of practice are necessary to master anything.

That's just one musician! It's even harder to get a whole band together. You need at least three people for a band, preferably four -- even, in the case of the E Street Band, several hundred. We're looking at 30,000 man-hours, minimum, just to get enough musicians together to start a decent band. But it's not enough to find people who are proficient at their instruments. They have to share a musical vision, and have the time and commitment necessary to write songs, practice, play gigs, and so on. When you look at it that way, it's a wonder there are any bands around at all, never mind good ones.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band are hard, too, but much less so, and with a much lower barrier of entry. Almost anyone can instantly get the hang of easy difficulty, and start playing whole songs right away. Even medium difficulty is within the grasp of many first-time players. It takes a while to get good enough to handle expert difficulty, but certainly not 10,000 hours.* Here's the real difference: you don't have to be an expert to play the songs and enjoy the games. If you have four people and the necessary equipment, you can tackle any song in the Rock Band library, regardless of each participant's level of ability. It doesn't really matter whether you're good at it or not. That isn't the case with real instruments, even if you're just noodling around at home.

So there you go. There's your answer. Playing instruments: hard. Playing Guitar Hero: easy.

I suspect that's not satisfying to the critics, and I'll admit that it's not satisfying to me. The reason why that's so is because the premise -- that playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band is a substitute for playing real instruments -- is false. Tomorrow, I'll explain why.

Continue to part two.

*It may very well take 10,000 hours to be able to play everything flawlessly on expert difficulty. God knows I can't do it.


Quinn said...

I like the logic behind the arguments that Wii remote waggling in Manhunt 2 was bad because it trained gamers to be sociopathic murderers, but button-pushing in Guitar Hero et al is bad because it doesn't train us to be rock virtuosos.

Granted, I don't know that one person ever made both arguments, but there's still an interesting double standard at work here.

Anonymous said...

It seems like the "why don't you play a real instrument?" argument usually comes from people who don't enjoy those games.

I don't enjoy playing Madden, but I don't ask those players "why don't you go play NFL football?"

It's crazy to me that people think that such criticism is valid. Even some whose opinions I normally respect.

Mitch Krpata said...

Quinn, that's dead on. It's just like the way games turn people into dead-eyed zombies who never leave the house -- or, wait, are they violent psychopaths?

Coleman, I think you'll enjoy tomorrow's post.

Nels Anderson said...

Heh, I read Outliers about a month ago and thought the same. I'm not that hardcore about RB, but we host Sunday night rock sessions. Still, I'd be shocked if we ever got to 100 hours with the game.

Even if we did, that would be about 1% of the time needed to be decent. So instead of spending that time having a ton of fun with my fiancée and friends, we could have been suffering though the most painful part of musicianship and still have 9,900 hours left to go? Sounds like a great arrangement to me.

Tyler said...

And why play a racing game when you can go learn to drive a real race car? And why play a shooter when you can just join the military?

Mitch Krpata said...

"And why play a shooter when you can just join the military?"

Now that you mention it...

Anonymous said...

Mitch! I am loving this train of thought. I have been recently voyaging down the same line of thinking, though from a slightly different angle.

A little background: I'm a professional musician, and I dearly love video games as well. (I actually have a super-epic new album out, you can hear tracks here, if you're interested.) Ever since discovering Rock Band, I have been fascinated by the confluence between music and interactive entertainment that games like RB and GHWT are signaling. I've been trying to get my head around the implications for some time.

I agree that playing an actual instrument is in no way comparable to playing Guitar Hero. When you really think about it, it is clearly a facile comparison, and one meant to kill any meaningful discussion about the musical implications of music games.

However, there IS something there that is very interesting to me -namely, the way in which GH and Rock Band can bring together musicians and non-musicians in very real musical performance, something I think is both unprecedented and massively exciting.

The thing that set it off for me was a pretty cool occurrence at a party a few months ago. We had set up Rock Band and it was the usual thing, a bunch of people kind of drunkenly playing and singing songs, very fun stuff.

At one point, however, my friend (who is a bad-ass rock singer) and I (who groove quite hard on the drums) jumped into the mix. We took on Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time," and I'm telling you: it was like there was a Boston show in my living room. We absolutely rocked it - our years of practice and performance were really able to come out, not in the precision with which we matched the notes on the screen, but with the rhythms, moves, and audible vocals - in the analog components of the (mostly-digital) game. From the opening riffs to the (usually stupid, but this time awesome) Big Rock Ending, it was a bona-fide performance.

But the best part about it was that the other two people who played bass and guitar were non-musician friends of ours, and it allowed the singer and me (who perform together all the time) to share a moment of genuine performance-bliss with friends with whom we've never shared it before. Everyone in the room was cheering and singing along, and it was honestly like getting to take those friends on stage with us.

It really affected me. These games are the first wave of some sort of great equalizer; a new, awesome way of uniting music creators with music listeners. It will probably always be on "real" musicians to create the source material, but the fact that we're seeing the beginnings of a new interactive medium, somewhere between playing music together and dancing to music together, is very exciting.

And, hell; as technology improves and the line between composition and user-generated content blurs, it should get even cooler!

So, yeah - like I said, my thoughts on the matter are unfinished. Sorry for the long comment, but I really like your blog, and was excited to see you tackle this topic, one in which I am (clearly ;-) very interested.

And again, if anyone's interested, I have a new album out, and I'm very excited about it. Tracks are streaming at


Anonymous said...

"There's your answer. Playing instruments: hard. Playing Guitar Hero: easy."

Mitch, when you suspect that's not a satisfying answer, it's no doubt because that's the real, underlying criticism being leveled at GH/RB by proper musicians: we've shortcut all of the (that is, all of their) work and gone straight to the fun--how dare we! But that's exactly what Kirk (and xkcd) hit on, and I imagine what your next post may touch on as well.

Nate P. said...

Tyler: I have actually seen people use the "Sim racing games are boring because I can drive in real life" argument in all sincerity. They must have some exciting 175-MPH trips to the grocery store in their Ferrari F355s. (Of course, I've also seen certain otherwise-thoughtful game reviewers use the "I can't blow up my opponents so this racing game is boring" argument, so...)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I completely agree. For me, the more interesting comparison is comparing Rock Band to just listening to recorded music. Is listening to recorded music a bad thing or a good thing? Does pressing buttons while doing so make it worse or better? I know I've learned something about pieces of music while playing Rock Band (and in particular I was struck by how much more of the harmonic complexity comes out in expert guitar than in hard on some of the songs); and I've learned different things about the same piece while playing it on different instruments.

Kirk's comment is really interesting.

Mitch Krpata said...

Kirk, an awesome comment. Thanks for posting it. And without going too much into what's coming in the next post, it's basically that these games are related to music, but they are not a substitute for music. Maybe it helps to have musical talent, but maybe it doesn't. More to the point, it doesn't matter! And that's a good thing, as you say. It's weird when people make an elitist, exclusionary argument when people are just enjoying some rock music.

David, I fully agree. Playing these games has actually educated me about these songs I've been listening to for years. I'm the kind of music listener who doesn't really hear anything except what's highest in the mix, be it vocals or a guitar solo or whatever. Guitar Hero and Rock Band have helped me appreciate basslines and drum beats in a way I never did before.

Exclusive Video Games said...

lol..great read..very entertaining.