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.)


Jason T said...

Hi Kiri,

I'm wondering if the division between the Guitar Hero franchise (with Red Octane/Activision) and the new Rock Band franchise (with Harmonix/EA) will affect the ways people use musical games. It sounds like Guitar Hero III is going to be much more game-like, with "attacks" and "boss battles," whereas Rock Band seems more indebted to the gameplay of the original Guitar Hero games designed under Harmonix.

I don't mean to insert my own questions into your research agenda, but if you happen to have any thoughts on this one, I'm curious to know what you think!

Looking forward to keeping up with the blog,


Kiri said...

This is indeed an interesting question. My gut feeling is that Rock Band is going to push the initial Guitar Hero concept much further in the music-making direction -- in the tradition of earlier Harmonix games -- while GH3 will have more in the way of classic game challenges, as you suggest here. I'm curious to see how players respond. I've been surprised to find that many of my survey respondents don't regard their GH experience as "musical," and certainly not as musically creative. My prediction is that Rock Band will be perceived as much more musical because of its overt emphasis on multiplayer/multi-instrument collaborative gameplay.

Jason T said...

I think that makes sense. Also, Rock Band will have (some) players actually singing, too, which would presumably feel more like making music themselves.

I think it's also interesting to note that some rhythm games — well, really I guess I'm just thinking of Parappa the Rapper — let the player hit extra buttons as long as the correct button is hit at the correct moment. Playing Parappa always felt more like making music to me than playing GH, as I had a bit more creative freedom in the performance of the former. From what I saw of Rock Band at the Penny Arcade Expo, it looked like it explicitly gave the singer some opportunity to explore a vocal range as long as the note was held.