|No Strings Attached|
In 2005, Harmonix Music Systems partnered with video game publisher RedOctane to release Guitar Hero. As rock songs blare, lights on the screen’s virtual fretboard move toward the player, who has to nail the same colored notes on the guitar’s neck while tapping a strum bar. In the background, players’ customizable alter egos can be seen rocking out on all manner of stages, from grungy clubs to enormous arenas.
The game was the brainchild of Alex Rigopulous and Eran Egozy, who set out to give video gamers a chance to play real songs without the burden of having to learn an instrument. "Making music is one of the most profoundly blissful experiences life has to offer," Rigopulous said. "Everybody tries to learn to play an instrument at some point in their lives, and almost all those people quit after a few months or years because it’s just too hard."
The duo had no idea how popular the game would become. Guitar Hero’s surprise success quickly led to Guitar Hero II. Then their company was purchased by MTV Networks, which tasked them with crafting a competing product. That subsequent creation, 2007’s Rock Band, upped the ante by adding virtual drums, bass and vocals to the mix. New Rock Band accessories further enhance the fantasy-rocker experience, including a stage kit with lights and smoke. A separate company will even make T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers for your teen’s virtual band.
How big are these games? As of Oct. ’08, 23 million Guitar Hero titles have flown off of shelves. Rock Band had sold 1.3 million and was gaining momentum quickly. The total haul for the emerging "rhythm game" genre in the last two years has topped $2 billion, in part because it appeals to girls as well as boys. This Christmas, Guitar Hero: World Tour (now with bass, drums and vocals) and Rock Band 2 will duke it out for the allegiance of wannabe rockers everywhere. Meanwhile, newer entries (such as Wii Music, Rock Revolution and Disney’s Ultimate Band) are striving to carve out their own niches.
Although many families enjoy playing these concert simulators together, others are uncomfortable with them. Understandably so. As the games hit critical mass, a curious thing happened: Young players suddenly discovered four decades of raucous rock ’n’ roll—and the baggage associated with much of it.
Old Songs Win Young Fans
Guitar Hero and Rock Band challenge gamers to work through setlists showcasing singles from the 1960s onward, such as Foghat’s 1975 hit "Slow Ride." It’s the first song on Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. "There’s not too many places a 10-year-old is going to hear Foghat these days," a reporter for Guitar World magazine observed in an interview with former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash. Slash’s response captures the greater significance of the Guitar Hero phenomenon: "Exactly. So that’s cool. A lot of people have been asking, ’Is this the new wave of how people are going to be exposed to music?’ … It might be, because the kids are into it. The possibilities are endless in terms of what you can expose them to through this medium."
Industry insiders credit Guitar Hero with reviving anemic rock sales simply by introducing those kids to bands and songs they never would have heard otherwise—while giving parents and children common musical ground. "It’s a cool generational thing to share [music interests] with your kids," says Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. "My [son’s] favorite bands are … the same bands that are my favorite bands."
Parents outside of showbiz are echoing that sentiment. Responding to a USA Today article about the Guitar Hero craze, a mom commented, "My 9-year-old son and his friend now beg me to hit the rock station that plays cool music: a little Zeppelin, Stones, throw in some Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, GN’R, etc."
Brand-New Marketing Tool
For Rigopulous and Egozy, winning over tweens was one thing. Winning over artists protective of their music was quite another. Acts were leery about signing on at first, but Slash and scores of other aging rockers have begun to recognize the vast marketing potential of these games.
Aerosmith represents an interesting case study. In June, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith sold 567,000 copies in one week, grossing more than $25 million. By comparison, Aerosmith’s last studio album pulled in just $2 million from first-week sales of 160,500. Guitarist Joe Perry said of the game’s influence, "It has taken over what records used to do. At least for a band like us."
Or a band like Kansas, whose members report seeing a lot more young faces at their shows after "Dust in the Wind" appeared on Guitar Hero II.
Nearly every act affiliated with these games has enjoyed a big spike in sales of downloadable tracks, so much so that Harmonix vice president Greg Lopiccolo says, "[Bands are] coming to us now. … They understand that this is the way for an entirely new audience to appreciate their music."
Changing How Young People Relate to Music
Rigopulous believes rhythm games will permanently change the way future generations interact with music. "In three to five years, people are going to expect to be able to play with music as the normal way they experience music that they love," he says. "So if you have a favorite band that releases a new album, yeah, you’ll buy the CD or you’ll download it on iTunes or whatever—but you will also want to go into Rock Band and download the game levels based upon those 15 new songs and experience them as an active participant in the music making."
It turns out young music lovers won’t have to wait three to five years. Metallica fans have the option of purchasing a version of the band’s latest CD, Death Magnetic, with a special code that grants them access to all 15 tracks for play with Guitar Hero III.
Furthermore, while each title comes with a standard playlist, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners can use their consoles’ online function to access stores with an ever-expanding list of downloadable tracks. There are more than 1,000 songs available for these games—great for families wanting to jam on positive tunes without having to play through trashy tracks in order to "unlock" a handful of good ones. (You’ll find up-to-date track lists at hub.guitarhero.com/#/music and www.rockband .com/music).
For Those About to Rock, We Caution You
Although play-at-home versions of the songs’ lyrics have been scrubbed of profanity, pitfalls still abound. Young fans get Blue Öyster Cult’s romantic ode to double suicide ("[Don’t Fear] The Reaper") and Poison’s celebration of back-seat sex ("Talk Dirty to Me"). From Aerosmith’s paean to losing virginity ("Walk This Way") to Slayer’s apocalyptic celebration of death ("Rein in Blood"), there are enough dicey tracks that parents willing to let their children experience this phenomenon should be prepared to run interference. Another problem is that the games promote a full-on rock star fantasy. Skimpy outfits. Boisterous bar crowds (complete with beer-bottle projectiles). Neon outlines of strippers. There are also jokes about trashing hotel rooms, and grotesque artwork and occult imagery. With its slogan "Unleash your inner rock star," Guitar Hero approves of a lifestyle that, fueled by these and other visual prompts, could create an unhealthy musical appetite. It’s something to consider before your budding Eddie Van Halen straps on a plastic ax and starts shredding.
Of course, compared to M-rated fare such as Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, Guitar Hero mania is downright pro-social, according to Aerosmith’s Perry. "I think it has a lot more going for it than all that first-person shooter stuff," he said. "It’s just a whole different way to play video games without all this violence."
A Level-Headed Response
In the end, the enormous popularity of this genre reminds me of the power of music. When I was strumming my racquet as a teenager, I was identifying with something. Singers. Emotions. Sometimes just the sound of the guitars. That music offered a way to express my yearnings, especially a longing for acceptance, admiration and a sense of connectedness with others. Rhythm games tend to satisfy those same desires.
Now more than ever we should work to understand why our kids connect with certain music, then channel those deep desires into healthy, positive outlets. One might be picking up a real guitar, bass or pair of drumsticks. Another might be Guitar Praise, a Guitar Hero clone that exchanges secular messages for some of the best hard-rocking tracks Christian music has to offer. It features songs by Flyleaf, Skillet, Stellar Kart, Newsboys, Petra, tobyMac and many more.
Moms and dads willing to roll up their sleeves may find ways to navigate popular mainstream versions, work around the uglier content and even help children download songs that meet their family standards. One such parent told me, "We only play a small fraction of the songs on Guitar Hero II, but the kids really enjoy those. For us, it comes down to this: Is the avatar modest and appropriate? Is the concert environment an OK hangout? And are the lyrics acceptable? It really helps when the games include instrumentals like ’Jessica,’ ’Misirlou’ and ’YYZ.’"
One thing’s for sure: Guitar Hero and Rock Band have reignited interest in rock music. And with billions of dollars at stake, these franchises aren’t going anywhere. Their amazing success once again underscores the importance of helping children sort through the values zipping at them—whether from an iPod or via a frenetic virtual fretboard.
Published October 2008