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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13 Responses to Guitar Hero (Not)

  1. trishalynn says:

    You forget that Guitar Hero and Rock Band weren’t made for you. They were made for people who *don’t* know how to play instruments and can give them a reasonably good way to fake it along. At the same time, Wil Wheaton said in his keynote to PAX 2007 that because of GH, his older son took two real guitars with him to college, is learning to play them the right way, and is into classic rock.

    I think that while your point is valid, I personally think you’re being more harsh on the game than you really need to be.

    • ken says:

      Nope, still don’t get it. People who don’t know how to play guitar could buy a guitar for a lot less than that game costs and still have some money for lessons. And if they put the time into the guitar that they’d otherwise put into the game, they would no longer be people who don’t know how to play instruments.

      • Maybe it’s that some of us really can’t play for shit, and lessons and time wouldn’t help.

        • ken says:

          If you can learn to play Guitar Hero you can learn to play guitar. What skills are required for the latter that aren’t required for the former?

          • If you can learn to press the buttons on Guitar Hero, you can learn to “press the buttons” on a real guitar, true. That’s not playing guitar. I know how to press the buttons on a real guitar and I can’t play for shit.

          • ken says:

            All I’m saying is that whatever time and energy is put into learning to press the buttons could just as well be put into learning to fret a real guitar. And there’s a lot more to Guitar Hero than pressing the buttons — right-hand rhythm, staying in time, etc. All of which is what you need to really play guitar.

  2. rosefox says:

    It’s like asking why people who love karaoke don’t take singing lessons. It’s not about art. It’s about hanging out with friends, having a few drinks, and embarrassing yourself in culturally acceptable ways.

    • ken says:

      Sorry, don’t buy that either. People who do karaoke are singing; that’s closer to the music-minus-one idea I mentioned in the post. The singing equivalent of Guitar Hero would have you use an electronic controller to try to match recorded singing. It sounds dull just writing about it.

      On top of which, until I walked up, that kid was playing Guitar Hero alone.

    • ken says:

      Oh, and playing music is not about art either. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. It’s about hanging out with friends, having a few drinks, and, yes, sometimes embarrassing yourself. But also about creating together, being together, and sharing, not only with friends but with strangers.

      • rosefox says:

        “Creating together” is art.

        • ken says:

          Very true and good point. What I meant was that playing music is not (or shouldn’t have to be) about being “good” but about being together. To me that makes it similar to karaoke, which I see as essentially social and genuine. On the other hand Guitar Hero seems essentially solitary and artificial.

          • rosefox says:

            See, I mostly hear about Guitar Hero in the context of “the bar near us has a Guitar Hero night now!” or “do you wanna come over and play Guitar Hero?”. I agree about the artificiality–which again is kind of the point, as it’s craft, not art, just as when I do a cross-stitch piece the whole point is to follow the pattern–but I doubt most people consider it a solitary pursuit.

          • ken says:

            Wow, that’s a comparison that never would have occurred to me. I never thought of Guitar Hero as a “craft.” I think of crafting as making things; when you cross-stitch you’re following a pattern, but when you’re done you have a beautiful piece of fabric that you made with your own hands.

            The fact that you’re following a pattern is not my problem with Guitar Hero. Mostly when I play music with friends we are playing well-known songs that everyone knows and has played many times before. Even the original songs I write are usually based on very well established patterns. It’s the fact that you don’t create anything with Guitar Hero; it seems to me an empty activity. (Which, I realize, could be said about any video game, but this seems more so because you don’t even get the benefit of an experience you couldn’t have in real life.)

            And I’m sure you’re right that there’s more of a social aspect to it than I realize. I don’t know the first thing about electronic gaming culture.

            But I will say this. The skills that kid displayed were not acquired hanging out with friends once in a while. They were acquired through hours and hours of concentrated practice. Those hours could have gone towards learning to play an actual instrument.

            Perhaps I am inherently biased in feeling that time could have been better spent, but I do. And not in the “Well, that’s not what I would do” way that I feel about, say, playing chess or doing cross-stitch or even playing World Of Warcraft. It’s more of a WTF feeling, and no matter how much I think about it I cannot see the other point of view. But thanks for making me think about why.

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