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 emphasized 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.

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