In 2007 Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock revolutionised the concept of rhythm games, which no longer conformed to the realms of the arcade in the form of overpriced and annoying dance machines. It was not the first game of the franchise, but its release across four separate consoles and its capacity to use the internet, enabling online multiplayer and downloadable songs, ensured the series was available to more people than ever.
Given the sales records that it set at the time, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve since witnessed both the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series develop, evolving to the point where you can play with four people at the same time as an entire ‘band’, or as a DJ with the recently released and suitably named DJ Hero. There are entire games dedicated to single bands, portable versions, and even Band Hero, with its focus on mainstream Top 40 music. It is undoubtedly a phenomenal success, but does this come at a cost to the subject of such games: the music?
We’ve all heard the unfounded and sweeping generalisations that video games turn kids into mindless, soulless, vitamin deficient, murderous zombies and on the surface of it we can easily apply such cynicism to Guitar Hero. By way of example, I’m sure many of you are familiar with the South Park episode where the boys become obsessed with the game, frantically competing to reach a million points, but laughing at Stan’s dad when he tells them he can play the songs on a real guitar. And the game’s reward to them for eventually hitting that golden target of a million? A congratulatory “You are fags!” So though it’s easy to say that playing Guitar Hero is an ultimately fruitless endeavour, and an experience that undermines playing an instrument for real, I want to argue that this simply isn’t the case.
Whilst there are no substitutes for the real experience of learning to play an instrument, they are not as completely removed from the process as it might seem. Hand-eye co-ordination and timing are two essential qualities for any musician, and Guitar Hero requires them from the very first note. In addition, the experience of being a rock star and wowing crowds with slick solos has got to be rewarding for younger players in particular. The game is undeniably fun, and with music being presented in such a compelling way, kids are more likely to take an interest in music and move onto the real thing rather than dismiss it. The Times Online reports that up to a fifth of those under 18 who play the game have been inspired by it to take up a real instrument, and that sales of instruments have since seen an increase too, particularly those such as the Les Paul guitars which the plastic controllers replicate.
The music industry itself has been reaping the benefits of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises too, with some bands’ songs seeing sales increasing hugely (over 800% in some cases) after their inclusion in the games. Clearly, then, such software is an incredibly effective medium for showcasing music, something that is important in times where piracy and the death of physical media are ever looming threats to the industry. The cliché gamer is often presented as unhealthy and unsociable. However, playing with friends and family in a band formation is a fun, and very social activity. Although it cannot promise to make you friends, it at least encompasses a socially led attitude to music and gaming.
Surprisingly the franchises are actually being used to improve health by being incorporated into physical therapy treatments and prosthetic limb development. Research is also being carried out to see whether it can be used to aid the treatment of obesity, autism and stroke patients.
So where do the series go from here? Beyond adding more playable songs every week, developers are looking into ways of making the experience even more like playing real instruments. There are also rumours of a live tour, which does seem excessive, but would at least help further fund the music industry.
Guitar Hero will never have the ability to turn children into the next Hendrix, but it can set them on their way. Instead of concentrating on the negative stigma of video games, we need to acknowledge that children nowadays are more likely to be playing games than listening to the radio, and consider the potential benefits of this rather than instantly criticising and discouraging it. The benefits for the industry and bands are there too. Couple this with the potential social and health advantages, it’s clear that Guitar Hero and Rock Band are stepping in the right direction, and represent a fusion of two very different art forms into something accessible, enjoyable and appropriate to our fast-paced modern world.