Monday, April 6, 2009

Why Rock Band Is Better Than Actual Music

I love Rock Band. I love it a scary amount. I play Expert guitar and drums. I've been playing video games of all sorts for going on 30 years now, and I don't think any game has given me the pure joy that playing Rock Band on drums has. Sure, it also makes me sweaty and disgusting and needing to bathe after every session, but there is always a price to pay.

I want to write a little about this phenomenon now, before Harmonix and EA and Neversoft and Activision are able to kill the fad with a truly excessive flood of upcoming titles.

(And, to insert myself into the fanboy wars, I strongly prefer Rock Band to Guitar Hero. I like the general look better, and I strongly prefer the song choices. Rock Band has introduced me to far more bands I now adore than Guitar Hero.)

My big pet peeve about the fake plastic Fisher Price musical instrument fad is the constant, almost inevitable refrain that, instead of playing these games, people should go out and play real instruments. Which is stupid in so many ways.

Let's set aside the fact that these people have no right to criticize the innocent leisure-time activities of others. Think I should learn to play real drums? Well, who died and made you the Queen Of Fun?

There is a very good reason that I'm not taking drum lessons. It turns out, I don't want to.

But the main problem with this criticism is that it makes a very common and very fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the fake musical instrument experience: Playing Rock Band is not a less involved way of making music. It is a more involved way of LISTENING to music.

I don't want to make music. There are not enough hours in the day. I need a new creative outlet sucking up my time like I need a hole in my head. But I absolutely love to listen to music. And, when I play Rock Band, I play the songs I want to listen to, and I noodle along with them in a rhythmic, physical way that adds to my enjoyment of the song.

Listening to music is a fundamental human activity, requiring neither explanation or excuse. Sometimes I listen using a stereo. Sometimes I listen using Rock Band.

And I think most other players are the same way. I hope so. The unsavory alternative is Rock Band leading to the creation of hordes of new musicians. God, I hope not. Last time I checked, our world has no shortage of musicians.

So play it loud and play it proud. While it lasts. I honestly think that, in our new recession-wracked world, fake plastic instrument games are kind of doomed. I'll rant about this more in some future week when I don't have a good way to piss off Indie game fans.


  1. That's very interesting... I agree with you that it's all about a new way to listen to music, rather than to play music. That's exactly why I've always disliked the games -- to me, it's just a way for me to annoy myself by messing up my favorite songs.

    To each, his own, I guess.

  2. I think some people have an issue with it because it is a little bit too close to "real". It's like the uncanny value of video games.

    Nobody gets upset when you kill hordes of Aliens in Gears of War. Nobody is bothered by malls full of Zombies in Dead Rising. But put someone in front of GTAIV and it's socially irresponsible. Put them in front of Rock Band, and they're "try hard" losers. The closer to real it is the more people are uncomfortable with it.

  3. I totally agree with your sentiment. Plastic games are a totally different thing from making real music. Although, playing guitar hero DID inspire me to want to pick up a real guitar and learn to play it. And I'm sure many people have too.

    And... Expert Drums? That is ridiculously awesome. I can only handle hard, and my back kills after a couple songs.

    I prefer Guitar Hero though, for the guitar, its much more challenging on expert, and I think the music is better too. (And obviously that's the most important thing)

  4. I absolutely agree, Rock Band/Guitar Hero are fun to play because its interaction added to a listening experience, not because its skill removed from a performance experience.

    And Im coming from the exact opposite perspective.
    I spent enough time with a guitar through high school that I can play quite a few songs from these games on a real guitar, but I still want to play Guitar Hero/Rock Band.

    The experiences, to me, are very different. Playing a real guitar isnt fun, per-se. Playing a guitar is an achievement and a performance. It can be enjoyable, and emotional, but it isnt fun or a game. Its a little like doing yoga, I imagine. Its a type of freeform expression where you show technique and creativity.
    The guitar hero style games arent about that. Theyre about challenging you and giving you a structured play environment that involves listening to music.

    Similar mechanisms, very different intent.

  5. These games dangerously tread on the ancient insecurities of a teenager who defined himself by his musical ability. This is a little silly, considering that Guitar Hero/Rock Band is to music what coloring books (which tell you what colors to use) are to painting, but I feel that this is one of the general sentiments against the games. You might have a good idea of why you like the game, but it's clear to me that most players don't know damn enough about music to tell the difference. It's just ridiculous that these players could ever feel that they have some greater connection to music through these things. I'll scoff and turn a deaf ear any time a non-musician tells me otherwise. I'm allowed to do this because I'm a hypercritical musician. Imagine the feeling you must get every time a non-parent gives you any parenting advice. I'm not losing any sleep over this, but I'll still disapprovingly grunt every time someone mentions these stupid games.

  6. I feel exactly the same way. It's all about enjoying the song.

    Anti-fake-plasticism mainly comes from the elitist attitude of certain "real musicians". You don't see professional dancers chastising DDR players, or soldiers berating FPS players.

  7. Very true.

    Rock Band is, of course, air guitar with a score. It's also why I only play it on 'easy'. Even learning to play a plastic guitar seems like a little too much effort.

  8. This really hits the nail on the head -- it's all about extra engagement while listening. I don't think all players feel this way, though, and it's clear they've lost the thread when they repeat the same song over and over trying to get five stars.

    The critics could really stand to get some perspective. I wonder how many race-licensed drivers start flame wars about how the Gran Turismo fans should all just man up, go to track days and racing schools, and quit "wasting time with kids' toys". Only scale separates this example from musician disdain for plastic guitars.

  9. I have the same problem with these music games that I do with video games in general; instead of playing these games, people should go out and do the real thing. Why are people wasting their time PLAY fighting of hordes of zombies when the real ones are out there running amok? Who is going to defend us again alien invasion when everyone is just simulating it with a video game?

  10. @Adam: "This really hits the nail on the head -- it's all about extra engagement while listening. I don't think all players feel this way, though, and it's clear they've lost the thread when they repeat the same song over and over trying to get five stars."

    I dunno. Some of the most fun I have is going at a song I really love again and again to achieve 5 stars. (hi2u Flathead by the Fratellis.) It's when you start doing that for songs you hate that it gets a little worrying. (hi2u Visions.)

    - Jeff Vogel

  11. Love the writing style. Just wanted to give props to a blog I've been enjoying for a month or so now.

  12. Yeah, Rush! +10. ... That is all.

  13. "Playing Rock Band is not a less involved way of making music. It is a more involved way of LISTENING to music."

    I've never thought that way--and you have a very good point there.

  14. Hehe, I'm coming at this from the other end. I've been a musician for over 10 years, and I have to admit, I've had a chuckle or two in private about the Guitar Hero/Rock Band phenomenon. I've warmed up to it though. Logically, it's just a cross between karaoke and Dance, Dance, Revolution! :D I don't really have any more interest in playing them than you have in playing an instrument, though I think it's a really cool concept now. The only people I've ever criticized are ACTUAL musicians, in bands, that spend more time playing Guitar Hero than guitar. Yes, that's correct. :D My sister sings on, I think it's Rock Band, with her friends (in her 30's, shh!) and she whoops everyone at it! Runs in the family!

    I think one reason those games don't appeal to me though (I'm a 20+ year video game blow-hard also!) is that my main focus in music is creating my own. I've never been the guy at the party playing other peoples' songs people want to hear. ...I've never been exactly the guy at the party either, but I digress... Your right, the last thing we need is a bunch more people playing music! I think it's actually a good thing that a lot of music fans can express that interest without having to resort to the whole rigamaru of learning an instrument, forming a band, etc. It's a pain in the arse, believe me! It's good to have a less seriously involved alternative.

    I've been trying to get into game development too, but as a second to music, it's SLOW. It may never amount to anything, and that's ok with me, but I have a good time with it anyways. Maybe for me, programming is my Rock Band! :D

  15. The other issue is that 99% of the people who play Guitar Hero are never going to have the real talent and ability of most professional musicians. Ditto people playing Singstar or DDR.

    But those games give one a chance to fantasise about playing some 50,000 seat stadium, in the safe privacy of our own living room, away from the inevitable derision outside. It's fantasy, and it's fun, and you can compete against yourself.

    Which is a hell of a lot less disillusioning than having an actual dance off against Rita Hayworth or a singing contest with Mariah Carey. On Singstar, I *always* win. (Playing the 1-player game at least).

  16. I have one more non-related comment: Jeff do you have a Twitter account yet or do you plan to get one?

  17. You B****! You've killed my brother Kenny!

    Well, his name's not "Kenny" ...

  18. Having just recently been sucked into guitar hero I have to agree with you. Even though I am on of those people that would prefer the real instrument, this is a totally different thing. Its a game and as game its about having fun. Being interactive without frustration or extra hours that you don't have with the music that you like is all about these games.

  19. I know this is an old post, but many of my friends will spend their time horded away in their rooms practicing guitar hero to get better than me as if its some real accomplishment. I spend my free time playing real guitar, they spend their free time playing guitar hero, then when we have some drinks and play guitar hero for fun its turned into a huge competition thats boasted about as if its a really hard skill to master.

    Those games are fun as shit, but playing along with songs on a real instrument is far more rewarding than clicking 4 plastic buttons over and over. And if you are going to spend hours of your life trying to "master" a video game emulating a part of real life I think your time would be better spent actually learning the instrument.

    Nothing wrong with the games, they certainly are fun, but my point is this: if you have enough free time to dedicate 10 hours a week to getting better at rock band your time/money would probably be better spent practicing a real instrument. 10 years from now the rock band fad might fade away, but being able to play along with songs on a real instrument is a skill that will be more rewarding and more versatile in the long run.

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