Up For Discussion

Let There Be Shredding

What Have We Learned From Video Games Like Guitar Hero?


Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and numerous other immersive games have connected people to music in a new way. Some have even found themselves tapping into musical reserves they didn’t know they had. In advance of “What Music Does To Our Brains,” a Zócalo event, we asked several people in the world of games to offer some thoughts on the impact of Guitar Hero and the like. What have we learned?

We’ve learned about our own hidden talents and enthusiasms

Video games are incredible learning tools. Every video game is a virtual world with rules different from our own. Even in the most realistic of games, things behave differently from how they behave in our world, so players must discover how things work. Some video games teach skills that don’t benefit gamers’ lives, but music video games are different. All music games, whether they are about dancing, rapping, or playing a simplified instrument, teach the core fundamental of music: rhythm.

Although most music has elements of pitch, music requires rhythm. Since percussive instruments don’t require pitch, many music games are great at teaching gamers how to play percussion. There are games that are controlled with bongos, congas, maracas, taiko drums, and drum sets that all give players valuable experience playing those instruments. In addition, Rocksmith and Rock Band 3 can teach gamers how to play a real guitar.

Many musicians are disappointed that some games like Guitar Hero don’t educate players about performing on a real musical instrument. Even so, those games are great at revealing to gamers the joy of performing. Often, by playing music games, players discover that they have musical skills. This can lead to an interest in learning how to play actual instruments.

Even the Cro-Magnons had musical instruments, so music has been a cornerstone in human culture since the very beginning. Modern technology has allowed us not only to present the joys of music in new ways but also to create new ways to perform. Upcoming games like PixelJunk 4am and Fract OSC use game style interfaces to create music. Gamers who might be intimidated by traditional instruments may be surprised to discover how much they enjoy expressing themselves musically through these games.

Matt Gilgenbach is co-founder of 24 Caret Games, an independent game studio that is creating the rhythm game Retro/Grade. He’s been professionally developing games for 9 years and has shelves full of almost every musical instrument used for a game interface.


We’ve learned about the visceral power of making music–even vicariously

A few years ago I interviewed a player who made an intriguing distinction between playing Rock Band and playing a first-person shooter like Halo. “There’s a big difference between pressing X and having someone shoot someone else on the screen, and pressing X a couple times and successfully putting out a guitar riff,” he said. “Even though you haven’t actually put out the guitar riff, the game makes you feel like you have. Maybe in some sense, it’s not real creativity: it’s you doing what the game wants you to. But the feeling you get inside–it makes you feel like you actually played the song.”

It took me a while to understand what he meant, but I think it comes down to this: shooting another character in a video game doesn’t put a real bleeding corpse in your living room, but pressing buttons or hitting drum pads on game-controller instruments does bring forth real music.

Player after player has explained to me that his or her Guitar Hero and Rock Band experience “feels real” or “feels creative”–and it’s worth noting that most of these players are also musicians. My research suggests that the “realness” of the musical experience in these games is constituted in two ways: first, through players’ respect for the aesthetic quality, technical difficulty, and emotional power of the original recordings coming out of the speakers; second, through the games’ capacity to inspire the visceral feeling of making music. Players are collaborating with game designers and recorded musicians to stitch recorded musical sound and performing bodies back together. The satisfactions of this endeavor aren’t necessarily undermined by the fact that the player doesn’t occupy the same performing body as the person who first produced the music. In short, these games teach us that virtual performance can generate visceral musicality.

Kiri Miller is the Manning Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University. She is the author of Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance, recently published by Oxford University Press.


We’ve learned how to reconnect with our creations

In the recent decade, the rise of digital music distribution–while greatly increasing public access to cultural goods–has made it harder for the artist to profit from his or her creative labor. With streaming music services such as Spotify, musicians make fractions of a cent with each sale of their product, and breaking into the “mainstream” music industry becomes much more difficult. In this context, musical games have emerged as an experimental space in which both professional and amateur users engage in an imagined stage performance to create a personal connection to their creative work. Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and other popular musical game franchises have provided a social forum in which gamers experience creative labor immediately and immersively, without the perceived threats and limitations of the so-called “real world.”

In virtual games, the player is neither fully immersed in the game nor completely outside of it. There is no “magic circle” to contain the space of gameplay. The distinction between real and virtual is blurred, becoming a continuum. Here, the music industry becomes just one potential creative space among many, allowing creators to interact with their creative products in many new ways, outside of what used to be seen as fixed economic structures, to see possibilities over “realities.” Musical video games allow the user a much more “human” and personal approach to creative work. They create a virtual space that allows them to reclaim parts of themselves that are repressed or threatened by the economic pressures of the “real” world.

Mike D’Errico is a graduate student in the UCLA Department of Musicology. As an electronic musician and producer, his interests include production techniques in electronic dance music, chiptune and video game music, and the ethics of virtual performance.

*Top photo courtesy of fiskfisk. Photo of Mike D’Errico by Matt Salinder.