On the Value of Video Games

So I've been meaning to write a post on how video games are really starting to come into their own. Games are no longer only managing to appeal to lonely adolescent males. The Wii and Rock Band/Guitar Hero games really are fun for all ages. They are complex, interesting, interactive, social games. Sometimes even instructive - I now have a much richer understanding of the game of golf, such as which club to use, the effect of wind, etc (whether that's valuable knowledge is, of course, another question, but it's nice to have something more of an appreciation of something so many people enjoy).

This purported take-down of Rock Band/Guitar Hero is just too silly. The first argument against it is that it glorifies classic rock. Not my favorite genre either, and I would love it if there were, say, a 1940s standards game, but I'm not holding my breath. But that doesn't seem a reason to dislike the game.
The player chooses a song from the game’s selections (or downloads one) and plays by fingering the colored buttons on one of the goofy, cheap-looking plastic instruments designed and marketed for the purpose. There’s a bit more to the games, and they are not all the same, but the main idea is to approximate the notes played on a recording. With success at that, the player progresses, and the avatar gets richer and more famous. Billy Idol/cousin Donny goes from playing in small clubs to concert halls to stadiums, amassing more and more of the material benefits of rock celebrity--first a van, then a tour bus, eventually a private jet … grander stage sets and bigger speakers, more dry ice and lasers, larger and more adulatory crowds of sexed-up kids….

Elementally, then, the games are concerned with the creation of identity, the mastery of rules, and the navigation of social systems as means of earning distinction and rewards. It fits that they would appeal to adolescents (and regressive adults) struggling to come to terms with the grown-up world. There is no harm in all this, though clear dangers lie in the consequences of success in these games’ schemes--that is, in their opulent glorification of ego-gratifying luxury, idolatry, and easy sex. Foremost among those hazards is the delusion that an ego adequate to achieving rock stardom can be gratified by any amount of anything...

What’s troubling about Guitar Hero and Rock Band is not the presence of competition in the context of music, but the terms of that competition: the values--or more accurately, the non-values--the games promote. The games measure performance almost entirely by two standards: speed and flash (accomplished by use of a whammy bar on the play guitars). The more notes you hit on the games’ buttons and the more rapidly you hit them, the higher your score, the richer you get, and the more girls who thrust their gargantuan digital breasts your way. The imaginative power of the notes or the chords underneath them matter little; what counts most is the notes’ quantity and speed. The music best suited to these games--the outrageously stupid big-hair arena metal that Spinal Tap first parodied twenty-five years ago--is and always has been blandly hyperactive and formulaic. It is music as grotesque as the games’ porny electronic girls in the indiscriminate robot frenzy they are programmed, like Rock Band players, to enact.
Hate to break it to you, but I really don't think this game is going to make much of a difference in terms of associating music with the acquisition of wealth and sex. That association has been there for a long, long time.

In general, one doesn't play a game to pretend that what is going on in the game is really happening. An example from my generation: I played Donkey Kong without supposing that I was an Italian painter jumping over barrels.

Even if that were the case that I was indeed supposing that, one may enjoy a fiction without wanting it to happen in real life. I have enjoyed murder mysteries and movies where buildings get blown up without wanting it to actually happen.

Besides, it's not like one tries to score high points in Rock Band (haven't played Guitar Hero) in order to get some sort of sexual gratification. There's some T & A, but the T & A actually belongs to band members - one is not given glimpses of T & A based on one's performance. And I seriously doubt it's much of a motivation to play the game. One can see more explicit sexual images in any music video.

I also seriously doubt that someone who was indifferent to fan adulation or money, would suddenly become wildly desirous of these on the basis of this game. One doesn't play a game so that one feels the gratification of what is fictionally granted in the game (what if the measure were points instead of money...would we suddenly be less motivated to play?). One's goal in getting money in the game is simply to achieve success in the game. Getting "health" points while paying a shoot-'em-up game doesn't seem to motivate players of such games to switch to whole grains and start exercising in real life.

And yes, it's not like playing real music. But it teaches you the beginnings of real music. It helps you focus on how music is put together. One attends to the different intsruments, one learns the basics of rhythm and pitch. (Actually, you can't even really see the T & A because you're so focused on getting the music right.) Someone who has never played an instrument can get a taste of how music is put together without actually going out and learning an instrument. My nephew has taken up drums because he enjoyed Rock Band so much, and I'm sure many other kids have, too.

The purported harms of Rock Band really don't seem very harmful. The benefits are, I think, quite real. And I have little patience with the notion that anything done "inauthentically" whatever that really means) is not worth doing. Indeed, pretense serves a hugely valuable psychological purpose.

Besides. The games are fun!

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