Play Stuff Blog

My Guitar Hero Problem  

It’s not that I play too much, quite the contrary. The Guitar Hero game I’ve had at home since last Christmas is still wrapped in cellophane. I just can’t bring myself to buy the guitar controller required to play the game.

Guitar Hero Control My reluctance is not a reflection of the game, which is by all measures popular, fun, and imaginative. Guitar Hero is more than a game actually. It’s a pop culture and gaming milestone that has opened doors for an entire genre of new-age musical video games. No, my reluctance is a reflection of my own personal issues and biases.

It’s like this. I’ve been a performing musician for years, and I have first-hand appreciation of the hard work and practice it takes to play an instrument. In fact, after 30-plus years of playing, I still consider myself an amateur. I relish the thought of younger generations learning to play real guitars and other instruments, but I’m afraid that kids who could be learning to play real instruments will instead spend their time learning to tap buttons on fake instruments. My musician friends, others in the blogosphere, and the pop-culture media are voicing a similar concern.

 South Park Guitar HeroRecently, the adult cartoon South Park aired an episode that illustrates this issue in characteristically irreverent but poignant ways. Plus, the 2009 New York Times article, “While My Guitar Gently Beeps”, has explored the contempt for music video games in great detail and provided some psychological insight into attitudes resembling my own. So, even though I know I’m not alone in my trepid attitude towards Guitar Hero, I’m still a bit embarrassed by feeling this way.

As a result, I’ve taken the first step—admitting that I have a problem. And now I want to recognize and give credit to the good cultural points of Guitar Hero and other music video games. So, consider these points:   

1)      Guitar Hero teaches basic rhythmical concepts. I realized this when I first played the game in our NCHEG arcade (just because I don’t own a Wii guitar doesn’t mean I’ve never played the game—after all, this is my job). The best technique isn’t just a matter of simply following the colored indicators; it also requires timing the button pushes to the beat of the song.

2)      Guitar Hero World Tour (originally referred to as Guitar Hero IV and the latest game in the series) teaches cooperation through the introduction of drum and microphone controllers, which is certainly a skill required in successful real bands. Groups of otherwise momentous talent have ultimately failed because they lack this skill.

3)      Guitar Hero, and most video games in general, teach success through perseverance, a quality most musicians know intimately.

4)      Not entirely unlike reading sheet music, players of Guitar Hero are required to follow displayed patterns with corresponding finger movements. Being able to read ahead and anticipate the next note makes for a more successful performance.

5)      Guitar Hero fosters musical appreciation. Rather than shuffling through the music of their older family members, young Guitar Hero players are introduced to some of the greatest music of previous generations. There may even be a new generation of classic rock fans being cultured on Guitar Hero and similar music video games.

Guitar Hero I don’t accept other supposedly positive qualities sometimes attributed to Guitar Hero, such as the claim that the game inspires kids to pursue real life musical training and careers in the music industry. Although I’m sure this is true in some cases, I doubt that this is any more common than players of Madden NFL pursuing football careers, or players of Call of Duty enlisting in the military. Claims have also been made that Guitar Hero helps kids deal with stage fright and performance anxiety, but this remains unverifiable.

Despite the positive qualties I see in Guitar Hero, I remain disappointed. Guitar Hero doesn’t teach us  more transferrable music skills.Then again, why should I expect it to?  It is, after all, a game. And perhaps it and similar music video games will open the door for more serious games, eventually teaching music to future generations of rock stars.

I guess it couldn’t hurt to ask for a guitar controller this Christmas.