Tuesday, February 17, 2009

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

Continued from part one.

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.


Anonymous said...

What you're almost, sort of trying to describe here is pretty much the intent, the very ideal of Harmonix, isn't it? It seems so anyway.

What they intend to do with their games is to allow listeners of music to get a new or even deeper appreciation for music.

And that is what the games do, right? Playing a pop song in rock band is a closer examination of the song then a normal person usually would give it the attention to.

Kieron Gillen, not just a video games reviewer but before also a music critic, put in an early article on Guitar Hero in the Escapist how the game got him an entirely now view on the guitar solo.

Or listen to players who have learned to enjoy songs through the Harmonix games, or would listen to songs through the games they would otherwise have never cared for.

Looking at it through the intent from the developers, and not the story of some of the marketing, Rockband works perfectly.

Mike said...

The irony of the ad that got dropped into the feed -- Learn & Master GUITAR, Click Now for Serious Guitar Training -- is delicious.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow. That Rob Horning post suuuucks. Blerg to the MAX. There is a worthwhile discussion to be had about dilettantism and its role in modern culture, but as you say, Mitch, Guitar Hero has no place in that discussion. Not yet, anyway.

The Lost and the Damned is taking its sweet time downloading, so I'm gonna write more.

Overlooking the boorish getoffmylawn-iness of his post, the assertions Horning makes about the cultural state of things range from the overly simplistic to the downright insulting. He clearly can't make the case that Guitar Hero is really a form of dilettantism (it's just... not), and as a result his whole post actually has a lot in common with, well, a less-fun Fallout 3. It wanders a vague wasteland of philosophical references and apocryphal examples and then just sort of... ends.

And boy, does it end:

"The next thing you know, everyone touts Guitar Hero as a reasonable substitute for guitar playing and mocks the fuddy-duddy nabobs of negativism who are still hung up on the difference."

Oh, "everyone" does, do they? Everyone? Ugh. Using this kind of generalization to prop up an ill-conceived argument grosses me out. Does he really think his readers are so simple-minded?

Like you said, Mitch:

Guitar Hero : Pro Guitar :: Horse : Pro Basketball

There is more to the story, of course - there are amateur and semi-pro levels in both music performance and basketball. And there is a significant discussion to be had about how, after the rise of Punk, musical dilettantism has become acceptable, even desirable, to arguably negative effect. But Guitar Hero has yet to evolve into enough of a synthesis of playing and listening to factor into that discussion. Like you also said - the games have yet to change the relationship between the artist and the listener.

However, that won't always be the case. As I mentioned yesterday, my own interest lies in the middle ground that is sure to be forged in the coming years.

As the technology behind both the peripherals (Touch strips? Whammy bars? When do these things stop being "game controllers" and start being "MIDI controllers?") and the software (having the ability to, say, use Soundreplacer to re-program drum parts on the fly without sacrificing the tones of the original track) improves - and it will improve - we are indeed going to start seeing a re-definition of how people experience music and how much creative say they have in that experience. The line between playing, DJ-ing, and gaming will continue to (ever-so-gradually) blur.

As a result, the conversation will grow increasingly complex. And based on that post you linked to, I truly hope that there are writers out there better-suited to the debate than Rob Horning.

Thanks again for writing about this, Mitch!

Iroquois Pliskin said...

this is a good set of posts. I've never had a snappy retort to this line of cultural criticism Horning offers aside from the fact that it is humorless and sad.

Not to turn this into Insult Fighting Request Hour, but the mention of dire straits begs the important question: what is that one band you really wish were in Rock Band? all the time I listen to music these days I end up wishing that rock band were the way that I was appreciating it.

Mitch Krpata said...

The band I wish were in Rock Band tends be whatever band I'm listening to at the time. "This song rules!" has been replaced by "This song should be in Rock Band!"

But there are a few that stand out. Dire Straits should definitely be in there. Neil Young. Andrew W.K. More Radiohead. And lately I've been daydreaming of a Joy Division pack with "Transmission," "She's Lost Control," and "Love Will Tear Us Apart."

AC/DC was always a big one, and the track pack delivered. Now we just need Led Zeppelin and everything else is just gravy.

Garrett Martin said...

I play in bands. I also play lots of Rock Band. They scratch monumentally different itches. One's great when I want to get very drunk and stand three to six feet higher than most other people in the room. The other is great when I want to get slightly drunk and have a good time with my wife and non-musically inclined friends.

I wrote this thing once that is most germane: "A lot of folks dismiss Rock Band, wondering why somebody would waste time on a game instead of playing real music. Those people are full of wrong assumptions. Not everybody has the time, talent, or patience to play a real instrument at a level they’d appreciate. Maybe it looks ridiculous to play plastic toy instruments. Maybe these critics actually play in a real band and think a video game version is lame or embarrassing. Maybe they just hate fun. But nobody is too cool, too smart, or too talented to play and enjoy Rock Band. Too smug, maybe, but not too cool."

Anonymous said...

I think this whole argument kinda boils down to the values left to us by the Puritans who founded this country: Hard work and productivity are placed on the highest pedestals in America.
When you practice the guitar, even if you don't succeed at it, you're being "productive." You're buying in the American dream (myth?) that if you work hard, anything is possible. You're not just some guy fooling around in his bedroom. You could be the next (God forbid) John Mayer.

Playing RB and GH looks to some people like opting out. They perceive you as saying "Fuck it, I'll never be that good. So I'll just pick up a game that lets me feel like a rock star without putting in the work." To people like, say, my Dad who have devoted their lives to the ethos of hard work, productivity, and "anything is possible," that's almost offensive.

There's also a bit of an Ayn Rand / Incredibles ethos to it. The idea that those of us who aren't super talented and haven't worked hard enough don't "deserve" to feel like rock stars.

To me, it's a really anti-democratic, elitist, and obnoxious. And insulting to the extent that it suggests that we don't respect the difference between beating Guitar Hero on expert and being Jimi Hendrix.

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys - I put assembled my thoughts on the convergence that could occur in future iterations of these games and put 'em in a post that I'm pretty happy with.

If you're interested, it's here.


polyphonic said...

Apart from what Mitch has already said, my main problem with articles like Horning's is that it creates a false comparison ... why play Rock Band instead of playing in a real band?" ... when it could just as easily be "Why play Rock Band when you could be watching sitcoms instead?", or "Why play Rock Band when you could be reading US Weekly?" There are plenty of terrible things that people do to spend time, and the idea that something as innocuous and communal as Rock Band raises anyone's ire is bizarre to me.

Mitch Krpata said...


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