So Gary Marcus wrote an article on Guitar Hero and Rock Band purporting to examine their popularity. He put my hackles up with his first sentence:
In some ways, Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem like the stupidest games on earth.
Then he proved that he knows zilch about playing them at an advanced level:
There’s no need to strategize ahead (as in chess); no need for big muscles (as in basketball)…
Clearly he doesn’t know anything about competitive GH/RB. Star Power strategy is a key part of racking up points (and if you want to know just how deep that rabbit hole goes, go on the ScoreHero forums and search for “squeezing”). If he thinks the games don’t require muscle, he should come over and try playing “Number of the Beast” on expert guitar. Antwon down-strums that monster. Or hell, he should play expert drums! That’ll leave most folks sweating buckets.
Then, of course, he makes the classic mistake:
Why mash buttons on a video game controller, when you could put Sgt. Pepper on your CD player, or learn to play a real guitar? … Whether you buy that theory or not, the plastic “guitars” in Guitar Hero have little to do with real guitars; there are no strings, and no frets, there’s no soundhole, and no jack to hook up to an amplifier, either; except for a bit of clattering, the plastic pseudo-instrument makes no sound at all. And there’s no room for genuine creativity, as there would be with a real instrument. A real apprentice guitarist must spend hours and hours practicing scales and chords, and learning about the relation between melody and harmony; an aficionado of Guitar Hero skips straight to the songs, and may well never learn the difference between a major scale and a minor.
It’s “Play a real guitar, fag!” in long form. To which my standard reply is: do you tell folks who play Grand Theft Auto to run over real hookers and steal real cars? Should afficionadoes of Quake shoot real aliens?
But, he concludes, it’s ACTUALLY about how stupid we are.
Games like Guitar Hero set up one of the most potent illusions of temporal contingency I’ve ever seen: if the player presses the button at the right time, the computer plays back a recording of a particular note (or set of notes) played by a professional musician. The music itself is potent and rewarding — Keith Richards really knows how to bend a note — but the real secret to the game is what happens is that fact if you miss the button, you don’t hear the note.
The brain whirs away, and notices the contingency. When I push the button, I hear Keith Richards; when I fail to push the button (or press the wrong button, or press it late), I don’t hear Keith Richards. Therefore, I am Keith Richards!
Dude, what the shit. Seriously. Wuuuut.
Did he not read the lovely article on Beatles Rock Band in the New York Times a couple weeks back, where one of the Beatles said that Rock Band is a lot like the miming along to music he and the other Beatles did when they were younger? Rock Band (and occasionally Guitar Hero, but don’t get me started on my rant of why GH is an inferior franchise at this point) is about creating the sensation of playing music in a group without having to put in the endless hours necessary to learn an instrument. And, most importantly, it’s about HAVING FUN.
Maybe Mr. Marcus doesn’t remember how to do that.