The Role Of Music Games

I got kicked out of choir in middle school and ever since, I've limited my study of music to whatever Guitar Hero and Rock Band have bothered to teach me.

Now, of course I've heard people say that this is wrong; that video games cheapen or damage the experience of learning real music with their plastic peripherals and oversimplification of beats, rhythm and notes. But it seems like even more music games seem to be popping up in response to this criticism – all of which claiming that they are different, that they really are about the music and not about mimicking and button mashing.

Think about it: we've got Timbaland's Beaterator which includes lessons on real music theory in the tutorial, DJ Hero which introduces the concept of an artist who uses other people's music to make an original song and elaborate music studio components in Rock Band and Guitar Hero that put the power of composition directly in your button-mashing fingers. And let us not forget Wii Music and all its lofty educational ambitions.

To tone deaf choir reject like myself, the music game scene isn't just over saturated – it's downright intimidating. Am I supposed to be entertained, educated or indoctrinated? I can hardly decide.

All of this came up today while talking with Carlo Delallana (designer) and Matt Leunig (associate producer) about their game, Jam Sessions 2 – a guitar simulator. I was playing Good Reporter and trying to find out how the game would treat me as a gamer and also as a would-be musician (despite my evident failure in middle school).

I asked about the scoring system and Delallana said the game wouldn't punish me or make the song sound bad for messing up a note. I started to ask about competitive multiplayer and both Leunig and Delallana emphasised that their game was more about making music than trying to be better than the next guy. Finally, I told them about Beaterator's music theory lessons and asked for their take, and Delallana dropped this bomb: "There's a danger in teaching [music]because there's no one way to learn music."

That may be why Jam Sessions 2 is so careful not to punish gamers for messing things up – and why it doesn't really tell you what to do when you get to the music studio to start recording and editing your own tracks. It also may be why I gravitate to it over Beaterator or Rock Band because I don't really know that I want a music game to teach me or judge me on something I feel like I suck at. But is that reaction even worse than me assuming I know how to play the guitar having beaten Killer Queen on Hard?

It comes down to what music games are supposed to be for. If Delallana is right and there's no one way to learn music, then maybe it doesn't matter whether or not DJ Hero has a better track list than Scratch: The Ultimate DJ. But on the other hand, if the game isn't supposed to teach me music – if it's really just an interactive fantasy where I can pretend to be a rock star – maybe all music games are only as good as their set lists.

Either way you look at it, though, there is eventually going to be a music game for everybody if the market for these games keeps expanding like it is. Whether you're a choir reject like me or a Ukulele Hero hold-out, there just might be some comfort in that.


Comments

    Although only having left school, I've had experience within various areas of music, whether it be attending gigs, performing at the Opera House, touring, composition, etc. What I can say about the various music game franchises (I've played most titles out there) is that if anything, they encourage the appreciation of music. However, I've always thought otherwise for the Guitar Hero games, which simply endorse the life of a rock star, no scathing offense intended.

    However, Guitar Hero itself is an interesting commentary on the music industry itself. Take for instance, the opening cinematic of GH4 where a Kenny G parody hypnotizes a dazed audience. If anything, the GH franchise makes for excellent social commentary.

    I tend to judge a good music game by the way in which I play it. Am I looking at the screen and actually trying to match circle to circle (in the case of GH)? If so, then I'm experiencing it as a 'rhythm/matching/almost puzzle' game. Conversely, am I playing with slight reference to the 'gems' as an indicator of when to change the beat? If so, then I'm playing a 'true' music game. If I find myself actually nodding along, then I realise that I'm playing a real music game rather than a superstar emulator - this is the case most evidently with The Beatles: Rock Band and even Elite Beat Agents and Rhythm Heaven. There's no authentic 'musical' fun in copying a shred guitar solo note-for-note in Guitar Hero, merely the buzz of accomplishing a difficult feat like in any other puzzle game.

    Case in point - Rhythm Heaven is extremely ambiguous in its 'hit this at this visual cue' business, but in effect is a far easier and more enjoyable game when the visual cues are taken lightly and you instead rely on your internal metronome.

    Delallana makes a valid assertion - there is no specific way to teach music, even in the real music world. In that respect, it's a hard question to ask music games whether they're trying to be pedagogical or not.

    In other words, music games should be there to educate players in music, not music theory. Although, Rock Band's Drum Trainer has inspired me attempt to play drums. I even tried getting a real kit and playing along with the Rock Band charts once - it worked.

    To me music games are not even about music, sure there is music playing and your plugging in pseudo notes at the correct timing. But its more to do with simple button mashing, the music is there to simply to put a context to the experience and make it enjoyable.

    Because if you think about it, whats the difference between a fighting game and guitar hero? The buttons in the shape of an instrument it really is just to let you respond to visual cues.

    Excellent comment Justin Tam!

    However, you should of used a semi column instead of a comma at the end of the third paragraph to give a little more emphasis. Also, you could have perhaps used a different word than 'however' at the start of the second paragraph as you have already used it at the end of the first paragraph. Of course you're much better than me writing wise and your vocabulary is pretty awesome, so you may take my advice with a grain of salt.

    I disagree with your statement about the Guitar Hero series by the way. There may have been some examples of shred guitar solos which have made Guitar Hero less about the music and more about the puzzle factor. However; they make up only a small minority of the game. A minority that have seemingly misguided people into assuming that they represent the game as a whole. After all, they were only made for the Guitar Hero extremists who desired such great levels of difficulty.

    Now to plmko, I don't believe that music games are a simple button mashing fest at all. Turn off the sound from your TV and see for yourself what a difference it will make to the game. And while having patterns based around music does place a context for the buttons of a controller to be played; the same can be applied to any real life musician who looks to their score for direction.

    Even fighting games must have a context to stray away from becoming a mere button mashing experience. At higher levels, players must remember sequences of buttons to input to link combos to rack up damage and prevent the opposing player from attacking back. Combine this with strategic timing and prediction of the input of said controls and the controller can instead be seen as a vehicle for mental warfare.

    Hey guys,

    I stumbled across a really interesting article on the interactions between music and gameplay in contemporary video games:

    http://www.touchebitches.com/2009/10/synaesthetics-in-contemporary-games.html

    The argument is that a lot of developers are designing games where gameplay influences music and music influences the gameplay, creating a synesthetic relationship. Interesting stuff!

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