Guitar Hero (Not)

So yesterday I dropped into the Best Buy on Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street to see if I could pick up a CD for my mom. (I couldn’t — neither they nor two other stores had a copy of the Grammy-winning Raising Sand; if you can’t buy the album that swept the Grammy three days after the ceremony, you know things are bad for the CD industry.)

Anyway, they had a game system set up with Guitar Hero ready to play and a kid or young guy (16? 18? 20? Who can tell these days?) was playing. He was pretty damn good and I watched a while and we started talking and he invited me to try it. So I picked up the other controller and set it to “beginner” and we did some heavy metal song I’d never heard. The “beginner” level is basically just strumming in time, which took me a while to master because the controller feels so weird; it’s nothing like strumming a real guitar.

I got the hang of it, more or less, and we moved on to “Easy” in which I played the rhythm line for a Billy Idol song while he played the lead. Guitar Hero is an unforgiving game. If you really suck, the song stops, your character’s guitar drops onto the stage, and Billy Idol gives you a disgusted wave of the hand. It was funny but after a few of them we shook hands and I went looking for my CD.

I’m a reasonably good guitar player, especially for basic rhythm, but I found it quite difficult to play the game. First of all the controller feels and works nothing like a guitar so I had to keep looking at the “neck” to make sure my fingers were on the right buttons. Second, it did not seem that what I did with the controller actually made any music. If I hit a note early or late or hit the wrong button I didn’t hear a wrong note. The screen would give me visual response, but I don’t want that. I’m playing music. How can you learn to play music if your hands aren’t making it? It was like playing with earplugs in and someone flashing lights to tell you if you got the note right.

Most importantly, I wasn’t playing the music; it was playing me. Your role in Guitar Hero is to match the notes on the screen as accurately as possible; basically you are a human player piano reading the game’s music roll. You don’t have any opportunity to experiment, to find things that work, to try something, get feedback, and try it again. You are not learning to play music. You are learning to press buttons. The fact that the controller is shaped like a guitar is incidental. You could just as easily be pressing the A S D F keys with your left hand while banging on the space bar of a computer keyboard.

The kid was pretty much perfect, and said that he did play guitar — level hand, palm down, rocking back&forth. I told him the game can’t but help, but I was being nice. What I wanted to say was that if you’d put as much time into your guitar as you did into this game you would have a real word to express your playing level.

I fundamentally do not understand the game, and I can’t think of anything I’m missing. Video games usually allow you to do something you can’t or shouldn’t do in real life — race cars, fly fighter planes, kill dragons, steal cars. But why simulate something you could do perfectly well in real life? I mean, there are plenty of music-minus-one CDs where you can play along with the greats, and if someone hasn’t already done it, a MIDI version of that game is entirely possible, in which you would play a real guitar and make real music and still get to see Billy Idol pump his fist during your solo.

Maybe I’m a curmudgeon about video and computer games. I never, ever play them, but not because I don’t enjoy them. I avoid them because they’re too addictive and too physically damaging; if I’m going to injure my hands and wrists I’d like to do it for better reasons than a high score. But even if I had infinite time and 18-year-old hands I still don’t think I’d have any interest in playing this game. Especially not since it would be taking away time I could spend on really learning the instrument.

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