I still have a soft spot for the things I loved as a child, and the thing I loved most as a child was video games. Like many of my generation, I have been gaming for essentially my whole life. I didn’t outgrow it as my parents hoped, and have only recently realized what a profound part of my upbringing gaming has played.
Now games have evolved into much grander concepts than we ever imagined they could. The entire industry is built on a simple enough notion: appeal to their ego. They offer you the chance to be a gun-toting space marine, a football demigod, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, a rock star. Music-centered games have exploded onto the scene and turned our ideas of what games can do upside-down.
I didn’t always have such kind things to say about them. My first encounter with a such a video game almost swore me off the genre entirely. ‘Twas another boring night in the dorm and the geeks were a-gaming. My roommate Adam and I were locked in a fierce Mario Kart tournament when our friend Joe walked in. We invited him to join us, but he declined, informing us that he was only taking a break from “rocking out.” This seemed unlikely. Joe was a diligent and talented computer science major and behaved as such; he spent hours in the computer lab each night, studied constantly, and somehow maintained an intense gaming schedule that suited his work ethic. Needless to say, nothing about this behavior screams “rock.”
He went on to explain that he rocked in quite literally a virtual sense. I couldn’t suppress the sardonic grin that crept across my face. “Is that so?” I asked, the tone of my voice a splendid mixture of good-natured mocking and loathsome smart-assery. “That line must drive the ladies wild. ” Not phased by my asinine remark, Joe continued, saying that Guitar Hero was his current game of choice and that he was attempting to get five-star ratings for each song. At this point in time, Guitar Hero wasn’t really a new game nor had it yet achieved the iconic pop-culture status it enjoys today. I had heard of it but had no interest in playing it. I was, after all, a real musician who played real instruments.
“I bet you’d be good at it,” Adam chimed in. We had roomed together for years and he had observed the great amounts of time I was spending both in the practice rooms as well as in front of the TV with a controller in hand. “Let’s find out.” I had a sneaking suspicion that Adam was looking for an escape from the beating I was dishing out in Mario Kart, but I had a chance to prove just how dumb this whole music game thing was. Kart domination could wait for that.
Moments later I was standing in front of Joe’s TV, plastic guitar strapped firmly in place. After an oh-so-brief tutorial on the game mechanics and a half-baked assurance that I would do fine, Joe fired up the console and set the game to Expert mode, as was his habit. A devious twinkle sparked from his eye as he grinned at me. I began to sweat a little. Joe never really seemed to get angry, and now I knew why. He just got even instead.
Predictably, I failed almost immediately. I laughed nervously and mumbled something about a practice run. I tried again, and lasted about four seconds longer than the first attempt. A third try, and I flopped instantly again. The virtual crowd booed me enthusiastically and I conceded defeat.
“Dude,” Adam shook his head with disappointment. “You suck.” Clearly, he expected me to be some kind of prodigy, and I had fallen pathetically short of those expectations. Trying desperately to recover what remained of my tattered pride, I declared that this was nothing like actually playing the guitar, you couldn’t learn anything from playing this game, and that the whole idea was pointless, but they both knew as well as I did that I had already been pwned.
Since then, I’ve had a few revelations about the whole music-game thing, the first being don’t start on expert mode. Obviously, I said a lot of negative things out of wounded pride, but as I’ve come to explore the genre more fully, I have to retract everything I said purely on principle. I have a feeling that we greatly underestimate the educational value of games like Guitar Hero. That said, I also believe these games can’t teach you how to play an instrument any more than they can show you how to descend into alcoholism, trash a hotel room, or any of the other things you do as a rock star.
But what can they teach a budding young musician? Like it or not, these games are a part of the way music is taught now. Even if they’re never used in a studio or other traditional sense, students will be drawing lessons from them. Deciphering how best to implement them could prove detrimental to the future of music education.
After a lot of soul searching, I’ve decided to step up to the plate. I’ve taken it upon myself to play a lot of these video games and, as objectively as possible, rate the potential of their educational benefits and pitfalls. Someone has to have the courage to sit in on the couch and pretend to rock out all day and Joe already has a real job. This is my chance to truly be a Guitar Hero. It’s going to be a tough journey, but remember, I’m doing it for the kids.