[Note: My friends and I produce an arts and culture radio show for Roundhouse radio in Camden and I thought I'd post the first draft (before it was altered for radio) of my most recent piece which is surprisingly on music games. Apologies in advance because it's unedited and probably a case of TLDR.
If you're at all interested the actual radio show can be streamed here:
Arts Attack - 28th August
My piece is towards the end at around the 25 minute mark. Be kind as it's my first proper radio piece]
By now, everyone has heard of the games Guitar Hero and Rock Band. These video game franchises have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years. In fact, Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock is the first game ever to pass a billion dollars in sales from a single video game title, which is an insane amount of money and then when you consider that over 50 million additional songs have been downloaded for Rock Band, you can see that there’s a lot of people playing these games. The popularity of downloadable content for music games is so great that the UK Official Download Chart is considering including these sales in the music charts and record labels and bands have released brand new material through these games. Guns & Roses gave fans a taste of their Chinese Democracy album when the track “Shacklers Revenge” was featured in Rock Band 2, months before the album’s release. You also have to remember that this happened at a time when no one thought that album would ever see the light of day. The developers of these games must be doing something right then and even Time magazine recognises this when they named Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, the founders of Harmonix and creators the original Guitar Hero in the magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of 2008 for their work on the Rock Band games.
So you can see the impact music games have had on the music and games industry and we haven’t even mentioned Sony’s Singstar games which have sold over 16 million units in PAL regions alone. One game in particular demonstrates how powerful these games are and how important they have become. That game is The Beatles: Rock Band, a game about The Beatles that is also being released simultaneously with their full re-mastered back catalogue on the same day. It’s hard to understate how big of a deal this is for the games industry. It’s easy to dismiss this game as just another game based on a big band such as Guitar Hero Aerosmith and Metallica before it but then you then have to remember that The Beatles are probably the biggest band of all time with a huge loyal fan base. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to say that their back catalogue is the most treasured and valuable in music and more importantly it has also never been legally made available in digital form. This all changes when The Beatles: Rock Band comes out because not only will the game feature the newly licensed and re-mastered recordings but the whole albums of Abbey Road, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rubber Soul will be made available to download. So the first time you’ll be able to download any music by The Beatles will be via The Beatles: Rock Band. If that doesn’t convince you that music games are at the forefront of music then nothing will. After all there is probably only one other band that could rival The Beatles in terms of how treasured their back catalogue is and that is Led Zeppelin and even they have made their music available on iTunes.
One of the unique features of the Rock Band and Guitar Hero games is that every week more and more tracks are made available to download and play in the games. This makes it much easier for music gamers to be exposed to new music. This is especially true for younger gamers who maybe listening to older bands such as The Grateful Dead, Boston and Talking Heads for the first time, since those bands aren’t played on the radio or MTV these days. In 2008, a survey conducted by Brown University’s Kiri Miller found that 76% of the players of Guitar Hero bought music they heard in the game.
Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are a hell of a lot of fun. They give you a whole new way to experience music and plays to the strengths of video games as an interactive medium. If you want to listen to music you have CDs and downloads, if you want to see the music you have music videos and live performances and if you want to interact and play along with music you now have these music games. Let’s also consider that not everyone is able to go to gigs/concerts to see bands live. Some people are limited by their age or location and in the case of some artists such as The Beatles, it’s simply impossible to see them live and these music games gets you a little closer to the bands/artists. You feel like you’re playing music together with them which is a completely different experience than passively listening to their music. Both experiences are very enjoyable but are very different.
If you’ve ever heard someone play one of these music games without the music playing it kind of reminds you of children banging on pots and pans in the kitchen and diving off the sofa with a tennis racquet guitar. This raises an important question, are music games trivialising music? The fact that music is being simplified to 5 coloured buttons on a plastic guitar controller has worried a lot of people. Instead of thinking of the correct chords in the song, you’re thinking about pressing the green, red, yellow, blue and orange buttons. Some musicians take offense to this and feel that it’s insulting to change, manipulate and strip down music to make it fit the framework of a videogame. They would argue that this makes the music featured feel like a cheap substitute to the real thing and distorts the artists work and vision. Because you are fixated on the screen when playing these games and focused on hitting the right “notes” you don’t get the same kind of mental imagery you get when you are just listening to music.
That being said, a lot of people don’t realise that Rock Band and Guitar Hero have never been designed to be a replacement for real instruments or teach you how to play any of those instruments, with the drums to some extent being the exception to the rule. You will probably learn a few musical skills such as keeping rhythm and hand and finger co-ordination but that’s not the primary focus of these games which is to experience music in a new and fun way. It’s important to remember that not everyone who plays these games are musically minded so seeing the note charts in these games can also foster a level of music appreciation. Having all the charts of instruments on screen side by side, you can see how the song is put together and when a player is performing poorly, you can hear the notes skipping in the music which can teach you about how each instrument adds to the song. All together this can help build a stronger level of appreciation and respect for the bands/artists of the music and as Noel Gallagher put it: “If it puts little plastic guitars into kids' hands and fires their imaginations, I think that's a good thing. It's harmless fun, innit.” A very valid point and not only that, it’s clearly more than harmless fun as a study by Youth Music found that 2.5 million out of 12 million children in the UK have begun learning how to play real instruments after playing music games such as Guitar Hero.
It’s obvious to see the impact games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero have had on the music and games industry. Guitarist Steven Van Zandt who is famous for playing the guitar and mandolin in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band claims that “in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Rock Band may just turn out to be up there with the rise of FM radio, CDs or MTV.” The amount of time and money spent on these music games is a true testament to how well they are designed and how much fun they are to play. No other medium can allow you to experience music the same way that video games can and the commercial success of these games means that more and more bands can be featured in these games and be exposed to a whole new audience. I think Noel Gallagher put it best when he said that that these games are better for kids than ones that feature “somebody getting their f*cking head chopped off with a samurai sword while getting f*cked by a goblin up the arse with a laser” and “If it get’s kids interested in playing the guitar, then, wow.”