Wednesday, November 14, 2007

abstract thoughts

Here's a little abstract I recently put together to submit to a conference. Like a lot of scholars, I've discovered that committing to giving a conference paper on a new research topic is the best way to push myself along: I write a 300-word abstract, and if it gets accepted by the conference I have to write a 20-minute paper (~10 pages), which inevitably starts out as a longer draft, which can then be expanded into a journal article submission during the summer, which might then be rewritten as a book chapter later on. That's the idea, anyway. (And that's also why the pace of academic publishing is so slow.)

Guitar Hero's Rock Pedagogy

What does Guitar Hero teach players about rock's musical repertoires and aesthetic norms, rock as a mode of performance, and rock as an emblem of American individuality? This videogame series has greatly expanded the market for the "music & rhythm" niche in the digital gaming industry. Players use a guitar-shaped controller to play along with both classic and contemporary rock songs, generating appreciative feedback from a virtual crowd. As with the Dance Dance Revolution series, these games inspire physically virtuosic, visually engaging performances; they lend themselves to public competition and are often played in venues far removed from the isolated living room of the stereotypical gamer. Like musicians, many Guitar Hero players "practice" at home and "perform" in public (or on YouTube). Advanced players gather online to share tips for mastering complicated musical passages and extracting the highest possible scores through the strategic use of "star power." This paper investigates Guitar Hero's model of musical creativity, its impact on players' understandings of the physicality of rock performance, and its sometimes-sincere, sometimes-ironic constructions of rock heroism and the popular music industry. Drawing on ethnographic research -- including interviews with players and game designers, a web-based qualitative survey, and the exploration of web-based player communities such as -- I discuss players' implicit and explicit concepts of musicality, creativity, and public/private performance as they are developed through Guitar Hero gameplay in conjunction with other everyday musical experiences. I also address media reception of Guitar Hero, particularly debates over whether the games encourage or discourage the acquisition of "real" musical skills. Finally, I anticipate that I will be able to include some comparative discussion of the collaborative game Rock Band, developed by the same designers as Guitar Hero, which will be released this winter.

Friday, November 2, 2007

e-interview with Freddie Wong

Recently I've been corresponding with Guitar Hero virtuoso / YouTube star Freddie Wong about his gameplay experience. (Special thanks to Devin for getting me in touch with him.) He was gracious enough to answer a bunch of official interview questions via email, and he gave me permission to publish his responses here. Some selections:

What do you remember about your earliest experiences with Guitar Hero?

I was on winter break back at home, and I had heard about Guitar Hero from an online forum. When I bought it, my brother and I played through it, he starting on Hard, and I starting on Expert. Having played real guitar for a few years by that point made it easy to start out on the hardest difficulty, and I only had problems getting through it on a couple of songs later in the game. I remember thinking that this was a really fun game - the primary game mechanic of timing strums with held notes was fundamentally satisfying, even though I'm not a fan of rhythm games in general. When I brought it back to LA after the break was over, my roommates both played through it as well.

What about the game inspired you to invest so much time into becoming an expert player?

To be honest, in terms of time invested, I don't play the game nearly as much as two of my roommates - most of the time it's a casual pick-up-for-a-few-minutes-when-I'm-bored type of deal. There's a very satisfying feedback between the physical action of playing the game and the auditory response, so I'd say that is what has me at the very least coming back to the game.

How long had you been playing before you made your "YYZ on Expert" video?

Since the first one came out, but I hadn't been playing the first one non-stop.

As of now, this video has generated 21,803 comments on YouTube. How many of these comments do you think you have read? What themes have you seen emerge in people's reactions to your YouTube videos?

Nearly all of them - they're more entertaining than the video itself at this point. Since about the beginning of this year, YouTube updated their comment displaying GUI to only display a small amount of the most recent comments. The comments tend to be cyclical in content. As I'm assuming any given comment maker isn't taking the time to read back many many pages of comments, it makes sense that there's a lot of repetition. Generally comments fall into the following categories:

- Calling me names/making fun of me
- Defending me, making fun of people who make fun of me
- Bragging about their own skills/their friend's skills/their best friend's dad's skills/etc.
- Telling me to play real guitar (or saying they'd be impressed if this was a real guitar)
- Pointing out parts of the video, quotes, effects, etc.

When we made the video originally, we actually planned for "talking points" or things that we actually hoped people would point out, in an effort to generate conversation - things like putting the strap on wrong, putting the alcohol on the television, flashing "crybaby" at the end as an easter egg, breaking the guitar. One thing that worked very well was that I actually missed notes on purpose - had I played the song perfectly, people would immediately start to think it was faked somehow (the debate in online videos of veracity being something that comes with the territory of apparently amateur user generated content and soured by the numerous failed attempts of advertising agencies to "put one over" on the internet audience - see the gloriously disastrous All I Want for Christmas is a PSP viral ad campaign that Sony tried last holiday season). At the time the video came out, it was fairly well known there was a hack to have the game play the song for you 100%, so we wished to avoid that dismissal, which would cause viewers to not pass along the video (which is instrumental in popularity).

As a result, every time someone calls the video fake, another user replies that the fact that I missed notes means it wasn't fake, so our strategy worked out perfectly. This also had the side effect of having people, the longer the game had been out, come into it and proudly declare that they could 100% the song, so they must be better than I was (and the response: well can you get 100% while jumping
around and doing all that crazy stuff he does?)

From studying the comments, it becomes clear that there's a pattern to people who comment on videos - almost universally, they do so as an afterthought without seeing if the same thing they've said has been said before. The fact that their comment, given the rate of comments, will likely not be seen by anything more than a handful of people before it gets pushed to a back page does not deter the act of commenting, despite the fact that many of the comments seem to be posted with the hope that others will read them (bragging about their own skills, for example). Assuming the user has an account, the act of commenting is made trivially easy and without investment. This too also favors people who comment with the goal of insulting - it's always easier to flame others than to compliment.

How do you respond to the people who say "Why don't you just invest that much time in actually playing the guitar?"

I make a point to actually not respond to any comments, because frankly, if I did, it might kill discussion. The single factor I attribute to the success of the video is that it generates conversation and controversy. That is to say, if so many people
didn't hate me, it wouldn't have as many hits as it does.

When someone recognizes me from the video and asks me, I do let them know that I probably invest a lot more time playing real guitar than the game, though.

What do you think Guitar Hero teaches people about rock? What (if anything) have you personally learned about rock from Guitar Hero?

Guitar Hero is very good at exposing people to artists and genres that they may not originally be familiar with, and perhaps more importantly, involves them in the music that goes beyond simply passive listening. It's nothing really deep, but it's more than you get from listening to a song in a car - attention to rhythm, orchestration, song structure, tonality, etc. On a fairly superficial level, the game illustrates a path of a band, from playing small gigs to large venues in the same way the Tony Hawk games usually illustrate the ascent of an amateur skateboarder to a pro.

Do you feel you have a personal style as a Guitar Hero player/performer?

My approach towards the game is that first and foremost it's a game, so I should at the very least look like I'm having fun with it. Too many people take it super seriously, sitting there and trying to nail all the solos perfectly and everything and spending a lot of time practicing and honing a skill that really isn't too useful outside the context of the game. While there is a sense of accomplishment from being able to do that, I think the point of a game is to have fun with it, and if I played the game like that I'd go nuts from boredom.

What are your aims as a performer when you play in public?

The game is ridiculous. The fact that people are watching me as if this was a real guitar is ridiculous. So my goal is to just go with that, and just have fun with it. Since I'm working with an analogous instrument, I figure analogous and unrealistic rock moves should go with it too.

Why do you think audiences respond to what you do?

I like to think they're in on the joke. There's a level of spectacle that lies in hitting difficult looking sections while doing stupid crazy stuff, but I think they feed into the good natured stupid fun of pretending to be a rock star. I'd imagine it's not unlike air guitar competitions, although here there's a point system.

Why do you think people get so hung up about debating the value of technique vs. showmanship?

People I think like the idea of competition and a tiered structure, to be able to conclusively say "this person is better than this person." From various conversations I've had with players, their argument is that it's a game with a point system - there's no need to muddy up the competitive waters with subjective evaluations of showmanship or performance, but to me, that level of rock posing is intrinsically built into the game to begin with. I'm going to copy and paste a response to an interview question that was similar here:

I've heard the controversy about having showmanship be a judged aspect, which I don't understand - the game is called Guitar Hero. Harmonix spent all that time designing different venues, creating all the crowd noise assets, and animating all the characters, and doing everything they can to create the simulation of being a rock star on stage from your living room and you're telling me that they expect you to sit down and just play it? If they wanted a game to focus on technicality, why not do what every other rhythm game does - have a tiered point system for accuracy of hitting the notes (like the good, great, perfect system in DDR), rather than a binary hit-or-miss? Even the star power activating mechanic requires you to tilt the guitar
up. On the other hand, if it was all about performance why bother with multipliers and scores? This is not to detract from people who play it technically at all, but I'm bringing up the point that if you think the game is "meant" to be played or judged only by technicality or showmanship, you're wrong - it's both.

What do you make of the media debates about Guitar Hero's impact on the vitality of rock as a genre? Do you think an argument could be made that the game promotes/discourages actual guitar-playing? (And does this strike you as an important issue?)

I think realistically in terms of societal impact, the most you can hope from this game is that it's exposing people to a wide range of music they may not have heard on their own, and expose them to some aspects of song writing. There will be those who will be inspired to pick up an instrument but I don't think teens are going to go out in droves to pick up guitars. Learning an instrument is a pretty time consuming endeavor after all.

One thing Guitar Hero seems to be doing though, and the one thing that I think the record companies are really anxious about, is that here is an avenue that could potentially give the ol' music industry a kick start. All efforts so far to get people to stop illegally downloading music have failed. What worked was making it convenient and reasonably priced, something Apple understood with their iTunes
store. But another way to go about this would be to change the rules entirely - to create a new form of music consumption that cannot be simply copied. Music consumption of the late twentieth century has been a passive effort. The most recent time period as far as I can tell that music probably has been actively consumed, that is, experienced beyond simply listening, was the ragtime era, where people would purchase sheet music of the hit songs of the era so they could play them at home on their upright pianos.

Now, with increasing stimulus, the act of sitting around at home and just listening to a record all the way through is no longer as commonplace as it once might have been. Music is consumed simultaneously with other activities - jogging, driving, doing homework, taking a shower. By and large people don't engage with it beyond a passive level. But now at least here's something that takes a very simple idea - interact with the music by making the act of listening into a game - and running with it. And more importantly - the game itself is a shell. You can plug in all kinds of music, and the core game can work with it. The potential for digital distribution for both Guitar Hero and Rock band is exciting as well as frightening because while many are excited by the idea of playing entire classic albums from one artist in the game, you essentially have a monopoly (the game's publishing company) as far as new content is concerned. There are no third parties that can produce content for these games, and the game company can essentially charge whatever they wish, and people will pay for it (See the recent article about Activision saying they saw no reason to lower prices on digital downloads because over 300,000 people have been paying for it). If the music companies and the game companies, two of the three entertainment giants right now, wish to use these games as a vehicle for delivering music content on any sort of long term scale, they need to recognize that people will buy their content if it's reasonably priced and convenient.

However given the history of greed, I feel the more likely course of action is for these companies to sacrifice long term relevance for short term earnings.

Monday, October 22, 2007

interview with Rob Kay

Last Wednesday I had a terrific conversation with Rob Kay (lead designer of Guitar Hero and the forthcoming Rock Band) in his office at Harmonix. I feel very lucky to have been able to talk with a game designer on-the-record, which is something I never managed to pull off during my Grand Theft Auto project. Rob gave me permission to post excerpts of the interview transcript here; I'll start with this one, which begins with my asking a question about "star power." (When you are playing a song successfully, you gradually build up "star power," which can then be deployed by lifting up the neck of your guitar; the crowd goes wild and you earn extra points for a while. The folks over at ScoreHero have made star power strategy into something of an artform, as Rob and I discuss later.)

KM:The other thing about star power that I think is really interesting is the way that it visually shakes you up when you’re playing. And I wonder what went into that decision.

RK: Do you mean, how the visuals react on-screen?

KM: Yep.

RK: So, I think one of the big things that you try to do in game design is give people instant gratification, feedback for anything that they do in the game. And feedback is always audio and visual. And if you can, if you’ve got these big moments, emotional moments in your game you want to make sure you’re using both the audio and the visual to really give you a positive feeling for doing something good in the game. So, star power is the big bonus moment, and you want to feel like you’re being rewarded for doing it. And then—you know, that’s like on a purely mechanical level? And I know we spent a lot of time trying to figure out, what should the visuals be, what should the sound be, and I was really keen that we had a theme, that we found something to link it all together. And so, we thought, well star power, should we put little gold stars or something like that, I was like no, that’s a little bit cheesy. And so then we thought it would be fun to go with the whole, hey look, it’s the electric guitar, you’re playing an electric guitar, so let’s make the theme electricity, and overloading, and all that kind of vibe. So we went with this kind of electric blue color scheme, and little kind of fizzes and spark sound effects when you deploy as well. So it was trying to bring a little bit of the raw, amp, overload kind of feel to the feedback. And that’s what drove the visuals. So as well as serving that functional purpose, which is to let you A. know when you’ve earned star power because you see the blue little sparks go off, you know that as your meter fills it’s blue, and it’s got sparks, so you’re identifying it conceptually, okay, blue glowy stuff is star power, it’s serving that functional job, but it’s also serving an aesthetic, an experiential kind of thing as well, making you feel like, oh yeah, it’s all electricity, and I’m kind of overloading the crowd with energy by releasing it. That was kind of an important direction.

KM: It’s interesting how that sort of replicates a really iconic, mythical moment in rock, which is the moment of Dylan going electric.

RK: [laughs]

KM: I don’t know if that ever occurred to any of you at all, but it just struck me just now when you were talking about it because it is this huge [snaps fingers] sort of transferral at this moment, although of course the crowd reaction was different—

RK: Yeah. Not explicitly. That’s right. Yeah, well that wasn’t an explicit goal at the time. But yeah. I mean, it’s very much a part of what, I mean Guitar Hero from the beginning was always, well, not right from the beginning, I think when we first started we didn’t know whether it was even going to be about rock or whether it was going to be about guitar. Because first of all it was about guitar, and then we only kind of realized a couple of weeks into the project that it made sense to make it all about rock.

KM: Really, so did you consider initially having a bunch of different genres so that you could be the country guitar hero, or the whatever guitar hero, the classical guitar hero?

RK: Yeah. Up until that point the normal thing to do in music games was to have a mixture of music from different genres. And I think the real, I mean, you could ask, why would you do that, it seems so obvious to put it into one genre and have a real identity, but I think people are probably just thinking about, oh how do we appeal to lots of people, oh, put lots of different music in there. And certainly in our karaoke games they were pretty pop-centric but they had a pretty wide range of songs. And Guitar Freaks, which I’m sure you must’ve heard about and looked into, had a strange mixture of songs, it had blues in there as well as rock, and you know we kind of had to make a decision early on, were we going to have blues as well, and were we going to have other stuff that people think of as typical guitar music, and it just seemed right to us to make it about, you know, balls-out rock guitar, that it’s the iconic thing that bringing a guitar game to America should be all about. Seems like the obvious think to do, to take it in that direction.

KM: So there is that American aspect to it. [NB: Rob Kay is from Manchester; one of the many limitations of this transcription is the fact that you can't hear his accent and speech cadences.]

RK: Yeah. I was always joking with Ryan who’s our art director, that it’s gotta be like a balls-out American thing, people identify with that I think. And it’s just the cliched thing, and often in videogames it’s those cliches that are easy to hold onto and get into, you just, you step out of yourself for a little while. And I enjoyed it, even though I wouldn’t necessarily identify, for me, you know, that American guitar rock as being my favorite thing. I know what it is, and I know how to get into it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

research questions

It feels like my research has stopped in its tracks since classes started -- but of course that's what everyone said being a new faculty member would be like. Meanwhile, I'm trying to at least generate some questions about Guitar Hero in hopes that my brain will keep them on the back burner somehow. Here are some general areas I want to investigate (some of them already under investigation via my Guitar Hero survey):

What does Guitar Hero teach its players about rock -- about rock aesthetics, rock canons, and what counts as classic rock? And do different kinds of players receive this rock pedagogy differently? (For instance, players who already know most songs in the games vs. players who are learning them for the first time?)

On a more basic level, what kind of music pedagogy does Guitar Hero provide? How does it get across ideas about reading notation vs. learning/playing by ear? How does its tutorial compare to typical beginning guitar lessons?

Do players feel they are being "musical" or creative when they play? (I already know the answer is that some do and others definitely do not; I'm interested in finding out what concepts of musicality/creativity are in play. Also, do players with experience playing real instruments tend to have different views about this than non-musicians?)

Guitar Hero has gotten a lot of media coverage, much of it focused on the games' relationship to actual guitar-playing. (Three main categories of story: "Real rock stars who play Guitar Hero"; "Will Guitar Hero deter kids from playing real instruments?"; "Guitar Hero gets kids excited about guitar [and/or about rock]".) Why is this such a compelling topic for reception of the games? Having looked at a lot of moral-panic (or reaction-to-moral-panic) media connected with the Grand Theft Auto games, I'm interested in how critics make moral or ethical arguments about a game that's non-violent and not overtly political. In this case the ethical issue seems to be about whether this is authentic/genuine performance and whether it endangers or promotes actual music-making (somewhat in line with the old argument over whether video games isolate players or create player communities).

And continuing in this "performance" area: what about the growing number of Guitar Hero nights at bars, a la karaoke nights, and the public (and/or YouTube-disseminated) Guitar Hero competitions? How do players' and viewers' concepts of technical virtuosity and performance style/rockstar charisma play into their judgments about Guitar Hero? I've already seen some interesting debates about this in YouTube comment threads about people like Freddie Wong (a friend of a student of mine -- I need to arrange an interview with him as soon as I have the time).

Then there's the whole industry/marketing-synergy side, for which I really need to talk with the game designers (next month, I hope, thanks to a friend-of-a-friend at Harmonix). How did they choose the repertoire? How did they work out licensing issues? (All this applied to Grand Theft Auto, too, but I was never able to get the questions answered for that project.) Have sales of certain artists/songs seen a bump since the release of the games? If so, how much of this is nostalgia-related (as with GTA: Vice City's soundtrack) and how much has to do with actually creating a new fan base for this music? And what about the placement of novelty tracks with subcultural capital (like those from Homestar Runner), or tracks from little-known bands? Does this significantly increase Guitar Hero's street cred with certain kinds of players? Other things to ask the designers about: how did they come up with the various avatars? What sort of diversity were they hoping to achieve? Were they thinking at all about gender issues? (Or about how to pre-empt criticism re gender stereotypes? How does this all fit in with the legacy of Riot Grrrl?)

Another level of the "industry" topic relates to how the games depict the music industry, particularly with respect to an individual band's path to stardom. The order of cities, the assorted venue types, and the increasingly complex concert staging all say interesting things about how rock can rely on or create a sense of locality, as well as how hierarchies of venues get built up. The interstitial rock tips (during loading screens) place the game in the role of a kind of rock mentor, and the financial statements showing how little the band nets from each performance offer some wry commentary on romantic ideas of rock success. (My little brothers play in a band, and I would bet that some aspects of Guitar Hero ring true with their first multi-city tour experience. I wonder how many GH players have actually played in bands in public?)

While writing this post I've been trading songs with James -- I've 5-starred a bunch of stuff, but only on Medium. (And let me state for the record that "Beast and the Harlot" is a hilarious song.)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

for MYC students: how to embed YouTube

"Embedding" multimedia content on your blog is easy and makes for much more interesting content than just linking to other webpages. What you're doing, metaphorically speaking, is opening a little window to content hosted somewhere else on the web, and allowing your audience to look through that window rather than actually going to another site.

Embedding a YouTube clip in your blog is one of the simplest ways to do this. YouTube actually provides you with the HTML code that you need, in that little field that says "embed". (When you look around the web you'll notice that a lot of other sites do this, too.) When writing your blog entry, use the "Edit Html" view, and just copy and paste the YouTube code where you want the video. For instance, here's the Clash video we watched in class. (If you use the "View" menu on your browser and go to "View Page Source," you can see the code that created this result -- search for "youtube".)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

for MYC students: how to post audio

Just a scan of the San Andreas radio dial --

How did I do this? I uploaded an MP3 as an attachment to the "clip collection" page on our course wiki (well, first I recorded the track during gameplay, but that's another story). Then I embedded a link to it in this posting.

In your posting, use the "Edit HTML" tab. Here's what the code looks like:

<embed src="URL_of_Audio_File" autostart="false" loop="false" controls="console" height="62" width="144"></embed>

You'll want to replace "URL_of_Audio_File" with the actual URL of your own uploaded file. In this case it was

For your own clip, it will be this same URL stem
with your own filename tacked onto the end. (Of course, you could also use some other URL if your audio clip is hosted somewhere else on the web.)

UPDATE for current classes: Please note that the URL stem will be different for each course. See the course FAQ on the wiki.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

new project

I'm starting this blog to keep track of my Guitar Hero research efforts. I'm hoping to carry out an ethnographic study of this game, including perspectives from both players and designers. This blog will also serve as a model for the students in my courses at Brown this fall (Musical Youth Cultures and Introduction to Ethnomusicology), since I will be asking them to create their own research blogs for course projects.