I know I’m late on this, but I had better things to do (such as make money!)…anyway, last weekend’s New York Times Magazine had a long article on the forthcoming game The Beatles: Rock Band which I think is worth looking at.
If you are an American between the ages of 15 and 30 and participate in any kind of social life with your peer group, you have almost certainly heard of Rock Band, even if you haven’t played it. The standard version of the game allows you to select an avatar (usually wearing some ridiculous/awesome leopard-print outfit) and form a “band” with your real-life buddies’ avatars, and then you select various classic/hit songs to play using plastic instruments following color-coded music notation on the screen. (Say that three times fast.)
The classic version of Rock Band allows you to pick any variety of songs–any artist, any style, any era offered in the game–to make a set list or to play one at a time. While it attempts to recreate aspects of the performing experience, it doesn’t take itself too seriously: the point is to have a good time with your friends, not to earnestly make-believe that you’re a rock star.
The Beatles: Rock Band aims at a much more “realistic” experience (whatever that means within the context of a video game…). The creators (along with Ringo, Paul, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono) are trying to re-create specific concerts, specific recording sessions, etc. Yet at the same time they gloss over many of the difficulties the Beatles had toward the end of their career together, because they’re attempting to keep the real purpose of the game in mind:
“This isn’t an archival project, it’s a game,” [producer Giles Martin] said. “It’s entertainment. That’s what they [the Beatles] were doing here in the first place. Later, people attached all sorts of significance to it, but they’d be the first to tell you that what they wanted most was to entertain people.”
The point Martin makes–that the purpose of Rock Band in any of its iterations is entertainment–is precisely why I, unlike a few musicians I know, don’t think it will hurt “real” music-making in the slightest, and might even advance the cause. (The Times reporter more or less agrees with me here.)
One thing I’ve noticed is that people who don’t play instruments (I’m including voice here) often have unrealistic ideas about what it takes to be a competent musician: depending on the instrument and style, they either think it’s really easy (guitar, pop vocals) or really really difficult beyond any average person’s ability (orchestral instruments, opera singing).
The truth is somewhere in the middle: most of the aspects of technique that go into learning any instrument are not that difficult. The hard part is doing them over and over again until they become second nature. Anecdotally, it seems to me that most people quit making music not because they’re “bad,” but because they can’t or won’t put in the time. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (which I haven’t read, but this trope has been making the rounds) expertise is achieved after 10,000 hours of dedicated practice of a certain skill, whether in athletics, chess, music, or what have you. As a Suzuki teacher, this makes sense: according to the method’s founder, Shinichi Suzuki, the key to being a great musician is “practicing only on the days that you eat”–a tongue-in-cheek way of approximating this 10,000-hour rule.
Rock Band is like learning an instrument (albeit simplified): each of the individual techniques, such as pressing a guitar button, hitting a drum pad, etc., is not at all hard. But getting them in the right order and at the right time takes practice. In my experience, people who play real instruments aren’t inspired to quit because of Rock Band, and most Rock Band players who didn’t play an instrument to begin with aren’t going to be inspired to start because of their favorite video game.
The real benefit is twofold: musicians get a chance to unwind and play music for fun, instead of for a grade, a gig or an audition; and non-musicians get a chance a) to understand, in a small way, what it takes to be a good musician and b) to get a small taste of the satisfaction of rehearsing and the thrill of performing–why musicians do what we do.