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.

3 comments:

Church said...

Very insightful. I kept forgetting which was the academic.

Almost completely offtopic, but I thought you'd appreciate this: http://www.dieselsweeties.com/shirts/#rockisdead (I've no connection--just thought of this blog when I saw it, for obvious reasons.)

Kiri said...

I know. Part of the beauty of ethnographic work is discovering how many incredibly articulate people there are out there.

Thanks for the link. I'm wearing this next time I present at a conference.

Elliott said...

as always Freddie shows his intelligence and grace through an amazing interview.. I can't help but mention my video which illustrates the youtube guitar hero hater in his natural habitat http://youtube.com/watch?v=GVN6KqshmmQ