I presented this conference paper on April 26, 2008, at the annual meeting of IASPM-US in Iowa City. I'm planning to work it up into a longer article over the summer (tentatively titled "Schizophonic Virtuosity").
Today I'll be talking about Guitar Hero gameplay as a form of rock music performance, and about the discourses of rock authenticity that are circulating in player and media discussions of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. I though I’d start with some clips from one of the many Guitar Hero performances archived on YouTube.
The guitarist here is Freddie Wong, a film student at the University of Southern California. He took first place in the World Series of Video Games Guitar Hero II competition, held in Dallas in July of 2007. Notice that this video has generated over 30,000 comments.
It’s pretty clear that Guitar Hero gameplay is a form of performance, whether it’s for the virtual crowd in the game (who cheer your successes and boo your failures), for YouTube viewers (who don’t mince words in assessing your skills), or for live audiences in your living room, at a local bar, or at a formal competition. A central question that animates my current research is whether these performances are considered to be musical. Since last summer I’ve been reading a lot of messageboards and media reviews, watching YouTube videos, running a qualitative online survey, interviewing game designers and players, and of course playing these games myself in an effort to work out how players and their audiences assess creativity, musicality, and originality in Guitar Hero gameplay, as well as how game design decisions, media coverage, and pre-existing rock discourses might influence those assessments.
Throughout this paper I’m indebted to Philip Auslander’s work on the concept of “liveness,” and particularly his observations about how album covers, videos, and live concert tours are all commercial products that serve to “contribute to the impression that rock music is a performing art,” as opposed to a studio-recording art. As Auslander writes, “However inaccurate that impression may be, it defines the experience of rock for its listeners” (Auslander 1999:65). I want to suggest that the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games are also products that affirm the crucial importance of live performance. Their version of a rock musician’s life provides for “practice mode,” set in a grungy bedroom, and “career mode,” consisting of performances at increasingly large and prestigious concert venues; there are no studio recording sessions in the narrative. (Though the games do make allusions to record deals, and of course the games themselves offer prime evidence of the importance of studio recording—not only through their very existence, but more explicitly, e.g., in bonus videos that show how the games’ cover versions of classic songs were recorded by studio musicians at WaveGroup, in California.) I’ll come back to the matter of performance a little later, after discussing some discourses about authenticity and creativity that are circulating around these games.
When I started reading media coverage of the Guitar Hero series, one of the first things I noticed was a preoccupation with the authenticity of players’ musical experiences: the word “real” comes up over and over in article titles and in responses to my survey. For instance, a San Francisco Chronicle article is titled “Rock Band, Guitar Hero III Video Game Do Rock, But Real Is Better” (Hartlaub 2007); an article in Guitar Player magazine about the musicians who recorded the cover versions of songs that appear in the latest Guitar Hero installment is titled “The Real Heroes of Guitar Hero III” (Ross 2008), and a review of Rock Band published in Spin appears under the heading “Even Better than the Real Thing” (Anderson 2007). Most assessments of “realness” in these articles are oriented around musical technique and creativity; while writers often dwell on the difference between playing a “fake guitar” and a “real guitar,” their discussions of the guitar controller’s “fakeness” revolve around what you can and can’t do with it, not around whether it is made of plastic or wood—that is, it would be a “real” instrument if you could make “real” music with it.
I subsequently found that players often have complicated views about creativity and musicality in Guitar Hero. In my online survey, I posed the question, “Do you feel you are being creative when you play Guitar Hero?”, requesting a yes or no answer and an explanation of that choice. I’ve received about 250 answers to the survey so far (89% of them from men, and 90% from people under 30). Answers to the creativity question are 68% negative to date. However, the responses entered in the “Please explain” box have suggested that players employ many different parameters for assessing creativity. (I’ve provided a small selection of answers in the handout, but I’ll just gloss them here rather than reading them aloud.) As one might expect, many of the “no” answers to the creativity question point to the fact that Guitar Hero players are playing someone else’s compositions, re-enacting someone else’s specific performance, and have almost no control over the resulting sound, apart from playing around with tremolo by using the “whammy bar” on long notes or simply making mistakes (in which case you hear a twangy clank). However, a lot of the players who answered “no” go on to use the “Please explain” box to discuss the creative aspects of physical performances techniques—not only “showboating” moves like Freddie Wong’s, but also the specific fingering patterns or alternative playing techniques required for the mastery of particularly challenging passages. In fact, a subgenre of Guitar Hero YouTube videos is devoted to teaching “tapping” or “hammer-on” techniques for certain songs.
[Here I played part of a YouTube video titled “Guitar Hero 3 Dragonforce Tapping Lesson”; this video is now private, but plenty of similar offerings are there if you search.]
Many players also point out the creativity of those who have created custom song charts and software hacks for inserting them into the games. A thriving area of the ScoreHero.com website is devoted to these custom charts [you must register to view the custom charts section], and the chartmakers also advertise their work on YouTube:
Over 6,000 of these custom charts are now available on ScoreHero alone. ScoreHero and other forums also track numerous hardware hacks,
from custom paint jobs to adding more realistic heft to the controller (in this case with metal washers) to rewiring the Rock Band controller for use in the Guitar Hero games. The discussions on these web forums demonstrate that these controllers can acquire the same collectible fetish-object status as real guitars. Indeed, a recent article in Guitar Player magazine made this connection with respect to game consoles in general: “For a while, it even appeared that PlayStation, XBox, and Wii were supplanting Fender, Gibson, and PRS as objects of desire for young and old alike. But, ironically, it may turn out to be a video game that helps shift the balance back” (Ross 2008:59). And here I can’t resist showing a new commercial product that bridges the gap: the ArtGuitar RiffMaster Pro Bundle (which consists of actual Peavey guitars modified to work as controllers, plus a set of speakers, for $2,000). Clearly, some players invest considerable creative energy in both individual instrument customization and generalizable modifications designed to bring the controller closer to a real guitar’s size, look, and feel.
But many of the survey respondents who answered “yes” to the creativity question gave explanations that had nothing to do with developing special techniques, showboating, making custom charts, or modifying controllers. Instead, they pointed to the creative aspects of the game’s fantasy world—for example, “I feel like I’m jumping into the artist in their time and playing along and maybe even feeling what it was to be that creative individual in their time” (iRone, m, 31-35). Still others suggest that Guitar Hero makes them more creative listeners, or that it amplifies and channels the creative inspiration that they always get from listening to music.
Last fall I visited Harmonix, the Cambridge-based company that developed the first two Guitar Hero games and was at the time of my visit on the verge of releasing Rock Band. In the Harmonix offices I recorded an interview with Rob Kay, the lead designer on Rock Band and the original Guitar Hero game. I asked Rob to what extent he felt that Guitar Hero was a musically creative experience. I’ll play part of the interview [blog readers: Rob preferred not to have the recording posted online] and you can follow along with the transcript:
KM: To what extent do you feel like Guitar Hero is a musically creative experience, and even for yourself as a player?
Rob Kay: Very low. I mean, it’s not—it’s funny—it’s kind of interesting, actually, that lots of people, after the success of Guitar Hero—there’s, like, this kind of little mini backlash of people being there, nothing big, but people going, like, “Oh, yeah, but shouldn’t people put their time into learning a real musical instrument instead of learning to press buttons to pretend they’re playing a musical instrument?” But from the beginning, we didn’t ever think that Guitar Hero was creative in its direct application, like, people play it to live a fantasy for ten minutes. And that’s primarily what it’s about; it’s about entertainment and kind of bringing people the feeling of playing music, which is actually pretty different than the karaoke and also the drums in Rock Band, which are much closer to actually playing the real instrument or being musical....[Y]ou aren’t physically creating the music, but we’re giving you that illusion that you are. And I think that, certainly, you learn some musical principles from it, and you certainly have to get your head together in terms of rhythm and hand-to-eye coordination and being able to read music in a very simple way using our note tracking system. But I think it’s—the real kind of creative space of actually deciding to do your own thing isn’t really there in Guitar Hero, aside from maybe with the whammy bar, where you can have a little bit of control over the sound. And you have this digital control over the sound as--are you playing well or not? But you don’t have any musical creativity, which is--it’s kind of this area that we actually do want to look more into and keep experimenting with....
KM: What about the creative aspects of the performance style that the people are bringing to Guitar Hero? I mean, and not just in public, but even in their living rooms, people will really stand up, play with their teeth, play behind the head, do all kinds of things like that. Was this something that you anticipated in designing the game?
Rob Kay: I don’t know if we anticipated the specific things people do. I mean, everyone wants to live out their rock style, persona, or alter ego, and I think the wonderful thing about Guitar Hero is seeing people do that. It was a revelation to be seeing my dad get into that. And I’ve never seen him pull a rock move before, and there he is doing all--lifting his guitar up and jumping around and twirling around. But we definitely wanted, in the design stage, to find a way to make the simulation more than just a clinical recreation of music, and we had this whole kind of ambition that started out pretty loosely articulated to bring some showmanship, as well as musicianship to the experience.
The distinctions Rob Kay makes between creativity, basic musical skills, musicianship, showmanship, and the feeling of playing music are all expressed by respondents to my survey, and hashed out in discussions on YouTube, the ScoreHero forums, and elsewhere.
I also conducted an email interview with Freddie Wong about his experience as a competitive player (the full text of which can be found on my research blog). At one point I asked him, “What are your aims as a performer when you play in public?” He responded, “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....I like to think [audience members are] 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.”
Freddie broke down the tens of thousands of comments on his YouTube performances into several categories, including calling him names, defending him, bragging about the commenter’s own skills, and telling him he should play a real guitar instead. He confirmed that he does in fact play real guitar, and that he puts a lot more time into it than playing Guitar Hero. When I asked him what he thought Guitar Hero taught people about rock, he replied, “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 [in a way] 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.” His comments resonate with those of many survey respondents, who pointed to the games’ impact on their listening approach and their taste for particular genres. Listening pedagogy was also an aspect of the game design approach; Will Littlejohn, the president of the company that recorded the cover versions of many of the songs featured in the games, described his team’s efforts to isolate “the most visceral part you would play at any moment during the song, essentially the air guitar part” and to create a situation where “the pay-off is playing it right: Then you hear the song as it was intended to be heard and you are actively participating in the music” (Jackson 2008:52).
It’s important to note that by employing the idea of rock heroism as their core guiding concept, Guitar Hero and Rock Band actually celebrate models of musical creativity, originality, and authenticity that cannot be realized in the context of their own game designs. Players can develop the kind of virtuosic technical precision that would garner some praise in classical music circles, but they can never even attempt to live up to the improvisational-genius model of the rock guitar hero. In this sense, these games continually remind players that what they’re doing is not really playing rock music. Auslander notes that “Rock’s authenticity effects are...dependent on the nomination of something to serve as the inauthentic Other, whether that thing is current pop music or other rock” (Auslander 1999:71); I would suggest that Guitar Hero has nominated itself to serve this purpose, generating respectful appreciation of the gap between the game player’s performance and the real musician’s performance.
Popular music scholars have long emphasized the fact that rock authenticity is performative. As professional rock musicians do, these games continuously cite the norms of rock authenticity (Auslander 1999:72), both implicitly and in an openly didactic fashion (via in-game tutorials and tips that appear on a chalkboard while songs are loading). I contend that many videogame players are also deliberately performing rock authenticity when they play—but in a manner that self-consciously differentiates their own performances from live rock performances on real instruments. Steve Waksman writes that the electric guitar “is used to invest the body of the performer with meaning, to confer upon it a unique identity whose authentic, natural appearance works to conceal its reliance upon artifice and technology” (Waksman 1999:5); Guitar Hero and Rock Band encourage the same virtuosic style of physical performance—in which “every note takes explicit shape as a physical manifestation of the performing musician” (Waksman 1999:243). But here, artifice and technology are front and center.
The result is a kind of rock drag, a schizophonic virtuosity that is plainly unsettling to some viewers of these performances; the performing body is almost entirely severed from the musical sound coming from the speakers, voiding the processes of authentication that Auslander has linked to live rock performance (cf. Waksman 1999:129 on the unsettling effects of early amplification, which initially disrupted the relationship between body and sound). The term “drag” seems particularly well-suited to these performances because ideologies of gender and sexuality also play an important role here; as Millard and McSwain note, “the erect guitar” has long been “an essential part of the formalized ritual of the rock concert,” contributing to the process by which “the meaning of the sound meshed with contemporary notions of masculinity” (Millard and McSwain 2004:158). In the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, the guitar controllers have a tilt sensor: one activates “star power” by lifting the neck of the guitar into that classic phallic position, immediately generating adoring cries from the virtual crowd. For many commentators there seems to be a transparent connection between playing a real guitar and being a real man—a fake guitar implies a false masculinity. I have encountered countless homophobic and feminizing insults in YouTube comments about these performances; for instance, two recent comments on Freddie Wong’s YYZ video read, “Impregnate women? I’m pretty sure this guy has never seen a vagina” (posted 4/20) and “yur a gay ass mother fuckin fag ill bett you 20 mother fuckin dollars that this shit is fake” (posted 4/21). (Of course, in Freddie’s case, racial stereotyping also comes into play; he has noted that numerous commentators link his Asianness with nerdishness or effeminacy.) Similar assessments of the games appear in media reviews; for instance, San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Peter Hartlaub wrote, “Playing a Guitar Hero or Rock Band guitar is a fairly effective form of birth control. Seriously, look at yourself in the mirror. No one who sees you playing this thing will want to have sex with you” (Hartlaub 2007).
While some Guitar Hero players, like Freddie Wong, are obviously savvy parodists of rock authenticity, my sense is that many players’ performances are more akin to the “authentically inauthentic” glam rock discussed by Auslander, which “takes rock’s ideology of authenticity as its point of reference and is therefore allied with that ideology” (1999:101). As with the Grand Theft Auto players who were the focus of my previous videogame research (Miller 2007, 2008), some Guitar Hero players adopt quite sincere and serious approaches to the game content, especially in terms of respect for the musical material; many others readily switch between sincere and ironic stances depending on the particular song or gameplay performance context.
Value judgments about “realness” in Guitar Hero and Rock Band tend to recall media coverage of the lip-syncing scandals that have beset popular music performers from time to time (see e.g., Wurtzler 1992 on Whitney Houston and Auslander 1999 on Milli Vanilli). In assessing the Milli Vanilli scandal, Auslander suggested that its main threat to rock ideology consisted in its possible foreshadowing of “a new era of music performance in which the visual evidence of performance would have no relation to the production of sound....Live concerts would become what recordings had always been: simulations—-recreations of performances that never took place, representations without referents in the real” (Auslander 1999:86). In some quarters Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been regarded as the realization of this threat; as the San Francisco Chronicle writer suggested, “something...seems fundamentally wrong when you pick up the video games....What kid will ever want to pick up a real guitar, when learning to play a fake one is so easy? If Rock Band had been available in the late 1980s, would we even have a Green Day -- or just three more no-name slackers killing a lot of time in their parents’ basement?” (Hartlaub 2007). Similarly, Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein asked in a Slate.com article, “[R]eally, if you are going to play the game with a group of friends for more than a night, shouldn’t you just form a real band? There is something sad about the thought of four teenagers getting Rock Band for Christmas and spending all of their after-school time pretending to know how to play” (Brownstein 2007).
Yet in their narrative structure, these games also celebrate the classic model of building a rock career through authentic live performances—and many reviewers have taken the approach of a writer for Guitar Player magazine, who asserted that “the game itself is a bit of a hero, as it leads generations of game-console fiends to consider the joys of actually playing the real thing” (Ross 2008:63). Brownstein, too, ends up adopting this position: “With so much of music blurring the lines between ersatz and authenticity, at least the Rock Band game is a tribute to rock, rather than an affront....[M]aybe by pretending to be in a band, there will be those who’ll find the nerve to go beyond the game, and to take the brave leaps required to create something real” (Brownstein 2007). Along these lines, as I was writing this passage someone posted a comment to my Guitar Hero research blog pointing me to GuitarHeroTab.com, which provides real guitar tablature for songs featured in Guitar Hero and Rock Band; the site promises, “If you want to be a real Guitar Hero or play in a real Rock Band, we’ve got all the tunes you need to get rocking on stage!”
Writing about Jamaican dub, Michael Veal has recently made an observation that strikes me as remarkably appropriate to this discussion of realness: “Virtual technologies such as sound recording and film were often misunderstood in their early years as serving purely documentary functions; their creations were often dismissed as inferior simulations of reality. A more expansive take is that creative manipulations of these technologies in fact create new forms of reality (that is, new ways of ‘hearing’ the world) within which they function as ‘prosthetic’ devices, ultimately extending human sensory perceptions into new areas....At the same time, these technologies essentially function as fantasy projection devices, containing, in their deceptively accurate simulation of ‘reality,’ the potential to disrupt human understandings of the ‘real.’” (Veal 2007:218) A major question in the reception discourses surrounding Guitar Hero and Rock Band has been whether they will revitalize and perpetuate that “real thing” model of rock or instead affectionately memorialize it while inspiring new modes of musicality. I would venture to suggest that the games might already be doing both these things in the hands of different players. While many players readily discuss familiar ideologies of musical originality, creativity, and rock heroism that inform their assessments of what counts as “the real thing” others are concluding that these authenticity discourses are simply no longer relevant to their own musical realities.
Anderson, Kyle. 2007. "Even Better than the Real Thing." Spin 23:104-110.
Auslander, Philip. 1999. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. New York: Routledge.
Brownstein, Carrie. 2007. "Rock Band vs. Real Band." Slate (November 27, 2007). Accessed March 28, 2008.
Hartlaub, Peter. 2007. "Rock Band, Guitar Hero III Video Game Do Rock, But Real Is Better." San Francisco Chronicle (November 27, 2007): E1. Accessed March 28, 2008.
Jackson, Blair. 2008. "'Guitar Hero' Rocks: WaveGroup Carves Its Niche In Interactive Music Videogames." Mix 32(3):50-52.
Millard, André and Rebecca McSwain. 2004. "The Guitar Hero." In The Electric Guitar: A History of an American Icon, ed. André Millard. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Miller, Kiri. 2007. "Jacking the Dial: Radio, Race, and Place in Grand Theft Auto." Ethnomusicology 51(3):402-438.
Miller, Kiri. 2008 (forthcoming this summer). "Grove Street Grimm: Grand Theft Auto and Digital Folklore." Journal of American Folklore.
Ross, Michael. 2008. "The Real Heroes of Guitar Hero III." Guitar Player 42:58-63.
Veal, Michael E. 2007. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Waksman, Steve. 1999. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Wurtzler, Steve. 1992. "'She Sang Live, But the Microphone was Turned Off': The Live, the Recorded and the Subject of Representation." In Sound Theory / Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman. New York: Routledge.