Monday, January 12, 2009

interview tidbits: on musicality in Guitar Hero and Rock Band

During Brown's winter break I've been working on a talk I'll be giving in March; the Boston University Music Society (BUMS) has graciously invited me to be the keynote speaker for their annual graduate student music conference. My tentative title is "Virtual Virtuosity and Mediated Musicality: Why Guitar Hero Players Don't Just Play Real Guitars". I'm planning to focus on a very basic question: what’s musical about Guitar Hero and Rock Band? In particular, I will address the nature of the musical notation in these games, how playing a controller compares to playing a traditional instrument, and how gameplay affects musical listening. I discussed these matters in detail with a bunch of players who volunteered to participate in gameplay observation/interview sessions last summer, and I've been revisiting the interviews in search of material for this new talk. I thought I'd post a few clips here (with the permission of the interviewees, of course), since it's so interesting to hear people talk about this stuff.

Kevin (who has a little experience with trumpet, sax, and guitar) talks about whether gameplay feels like making music:


All of my interviewees reported that people had asked them why they don’t just play real instruments. Here are two clips from an interview with Josh, who has many years of experience playing jazz saxophone:



Another interviewee, Steffen, is an experienced rock drummer. He contrasted the experience of playing the guitar controller with the experience of firing a weapon in other video games:


You can hear Steffen trying to work through the apparent contradiction between feeling like he’s really playing music, even playing creatively, and knowing that he's doing what the game wants him to do.

Josh, the sax player, discussed the importance of muscle memory and embodied knowledge for both playing videogames and playing traditional instruments:


Here several interviewees compare their Guitar Hero or Rock Band gameplay with their other musical performance experiences:

Mike (a guitarist)


Dan (a singer-songwriter who regularly performs on acoustic guitar; he sings and plays lead guitar simultaneously in Rock Band)


Lauren (a drummer)


Sean (a pianist who has dabbled in guitar; the interviewer is my research assistant, Kate)


Josh (comparing playing sax and playing Guitar Hero)



Reviewing my interview and survey materials has also made it clear to me that for many players, the feeling of making music in these games doesn’t necessarily have to do with feeling like a star rock performer on stage. Here I talk about this topic with Kevin:



I'm still working through the tracks about the impact of gameplay on musical listening and/or learning about music, but here's a teaser from Dan:


All of these interviewees were undergraduate or graduate students here at Brown; none of them were music students. (I didn't deliberately exclude music students, but math/science/engineering types were much more likely to be on campus during the summer.)

5 comments:

davidicus said...

you seem to keep circling what i think is the core issue: the experience of participating in music. the *joy* doesn't spring from originality (creativity) or skill (musicianship); however, the game does touch on each of those through its recording and scoring. it's a choreographed interaction.

playing Guitar Hero is dancing.

Kiri said...

I agree entirely, in terms of my own experience with these games -- when people ask me what this research topic could possibly have in common with my first major topic, Sacred Harp singing (see fasola.org), my quick response is always "Well, they're both all about the joy of amateur music-making." (Amateur in the best sense, of course.) But a lot of players tell me that they do derive joy from the creativity/musicianship aspects of the games.

greg said...

Playing guitar on GH/RB is a lot more like playing a real guitar than swinging a Wiimote while standing still is like playing tennis or hitting a bunch of buttons on a controller is like fighting. It seems odd that the music game genre is the only one that needs to justify its authenticity. These same arguments could be applied to Street Fighter or any sports game.

AxeGirl said...

I'm interested in exploring this GH/RB phenomenon as well. This blog actually helps shed some light on it.

Adam said...

Hi. Maybe, most people--the ones who think about Guitar Hero's authenticity as a musical medium--still retain the idea that music is separate, higher, beyond, autonomous, even if they're not thinking actively about music with those terms. Videogames simulate, and that removes the player from experiencing 'real' music making. But that's BS, just ask people who play the Laptop. The game is pretty new, and maybe in time the hardware will become more complex. Early bowed stringed instruments had a shorter fingerboard; the Guitar Hero of the future might have buttons all the way down the neck, or 'shift' keys that change the pitch or whatever of a button. Simple or complex, mass enjoyment or select gratification from rigorous, traditional training--people tend to think of music as collateral. Add a rubato button/bar along with extra buttons and if anyone's still a critic, well, I don't care. When playing the game one is listening, keeping time, and reading notes, just in color now. That sounds like music to me.