Anyone Can Play Guitar: “Rock Band” Makes Videogames Social

And we don’t mean “trash talking through your headset” social. Pseudo-rockstar Kevin Nguyen sees Rock Band, the unofficial, full-band successor to Guitar Hero, as the future direction of videogames: a social activity.

Everyone wants to be a rock star at some point in their life, but only those select few who chase the dream ever get to be one. Fortunately, for those of who will never perform in front of an audience, there is Rock Band, the latest creation from Harmonix, the fine folks behind the first two Guitar Hero titles. Whether you’re a real musician or just plain tone deaf, Rock Band panders to everyone’s shared desire for stardom.

The game comes complete with a microphone, a guitar, and a drum set. The mic is standard fare, and the guitar will be familiar to anyone who’s played Guitar Hero, though it does feature a pickup switch and a second set of buttons higher up on the neck for players with a penchant for Eddie Van Halen-like flamboyance. But it’s the drum set that really makes Rock Band worth its $170 price tag. Requiring just a two-minute assembly, the drum set is a surprisingly authentic and satisfying experience. It has the toughest learning curve in the game, even when set to “easy” difficulty. This may steer away easily frustrated friends, but drumming becomes second nature after three or four songs.

The cooperative dynamic of Rock Band makes Guitar Hero seem boring and trivial. Whereas the Guitar Hero series allows you to simulate impressive musicianship, Rock Band reproduces the thrills of stage presence with surprising authenticity. When one of your bandmates does poorly and fails out, you can save them by activating overdrive, a concept similar to Guitar Hero’s star power. By deploying overdrive simultaneously with your friends, you can also multiply the number of points earned from the performance.

The most common criticism I hear about Guitar Hero is the allegation that time spent playing would be better spent actually learning the real instrument. There may be some merit to this argument, but it misses the point entirely. Sure Rock Band is a glorified karaoke machine, but videogames, like movies or television, provide a quick, temporary escape from reality.

And making that escape has become an important part of our culture.

It’s also something that all videogames have in common. They give you an experience that can’t be found in real life, whether it’s shredding like Jimmy Page, speeding in a Ferrari, or preventing an alien invasion. No one has ever demanded a game that imitated their banal day-to-day experience. (The one exception to this is The Sims, which is amazing in its own regard for providing an escape from reality to a computerized version of that exact same reality and still being fun.)

But as we retreat into stimuli that mimic what we cannot accomplish in real-life, are games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero stunting the potential of gamers who would otherwise pick up a real guitar? Steven Levy posed this question in his Newsweek article “The Low Cost of (Guitar) Heroism”:

What’s more, as digital technology becomes deeply integrated into “real” instruments, we can expect the shortcuts to virtuosity that we see in Guitar Hero to become commonplace in music.

Though I would never consider myself a serious musician, I pick up a guitar frequently enough to claim that I “play.” And I haven’t felt that playing Rock Band has cut back my desire to play a real guitar.

Levy’s article works under the assumption that simulated musicianship and real musicianship are interchangeable. While Guitar Hero and Rock Band may provide a fun and somewhat authentic experience, it’s still a different activity. The fact that I can learn the solo in Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” faster in the game than in real life doesn’t dissuade me, or anyone else, from playing a real guitar. The widespread popularity of these games is more likely to inspire players–rather than discourage them–to put down the faux Fender Stratocaster and pick up a real one.

And if nothing else, Rock Band is an exclusively social videogame–It’s really not meant to be played alone, nor would it be much fun. With Guitar Hero showing up not only at frat parties, but also at bars (at least in Boston), the sociable qualities of music games have become a billion-dollar business. Rock Band and Guitar Hero may not only point to the future of how we play videogames, but the way we entertain ourselves in general.

Rock Band became a good excuse to throw back a few beers and escape the humdrum suburban landscape. In a way, the game invites more social interaction than going to the movies. I got to feign stardom for an evening by getting a few friends together to rock out to the Strokes’ “Reptilia.”*

* That is, until I broke every single one of the instruments it came with. Luckily, the escapism will continue, thanks to Rock Band’s 60-day replacement policy.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.