Music-oriented videogames like Guitar Hero and Rock Band are generating new modes of engagement with popular music repertoires. Tens of millions of players use instrument-shaped controllers to play along with classic and contemporary rock songs, generating appreciative feedback from a virtual crowd. These games inspire physically virtuosic, visually engaging performances. Players often “practice” at home and “perform” in public (or on YouTube). Advanced players gather online to share tips for mastering the fingerwork for complicated musical passages. In the course of their gameplay, players encounter and assess game designers’ conceptions of rock’s canonical repertoire, aesthetic norms, performance conventions, and symbolic value. But what does pressing buttons in time with a pre-recorded soundtrack have to do with music-making? This article investigates these games’ implicit models of rock authenticity, their sometimes-sincere/sometimes-ironic constructions of rock heroism, and their players’ ideas about authentic musicality. Drawing on ethnographic research—including interviews with players and game designers, a web-based qualitative survey, and media reception analysis—I discuss players’ concepts of musicality, creativity, and performance as they are developed through Guitar Hero and Rock Band gameplay and game-related discourse.
By Kiri Miller