This is Your Brain on Video
Review by Bill Kopp and Daniel Kopp
Being of a certain age, I didn’t hear about Rock Band, the newest video game from Harmonix, when it first came out in November 2007. But the buzz grew and grew to the point at which everybody knew about it. A bigger and better variation on the hot Guitar Hero series, Rock Band is taking the world by storm. Consider this statistic: in a mere eight weeks (late November to mid January), users bought and downloaded more than 2.5 million units (songs). In music industry terms, that’s double-platinum.
And bands are lining up to license their songs for use in the game. They see it as a way to get their music in front of a wider audience. Newer bands like The Sounds and 30 Seconds to Mars have signed on, and more “classic” acts like Metallica, Oasis and The Police have added songs. Even the sound-alike versions (in cases where the original songs couldn’t be licensed) are reasonably close to the hit versions.
The Harmonix team takes the songs and creates an interface for each — not dissimilar to the Dance Dance Revolution game — where players can “play” along using facsimiles of real instruments. The Fender Stratocaster®-styled “guitar” controller can be used to play the guitar or bass parts, selecting novice, intermediate or expert levels. The drums are a bit like early Simmons® electronic drums, with just enough “give” to (one hopes) avoid early carpal tunnel syndrome for players.
The hot video game is a musical “gateway drug.”
The people at Harmonix even put some thought into the needs of southpaws. The guitar controller can be easily modified for left-handed players: the strap peg gets moved, and the color-coding in the game is reversed; I’m not sure there’s a precedent for such forward thinking in a video game. There’s even a kick pedal that can be slid to the right or left, in case you’re a left-handed drummer like Ringo Starr or Stewart Copeland.
While it’s not explicitly stated, the controller from Guitar Hero plugs right into the Rock Band hub, so owners of both games can put together a whole competitive ensemble.
Uniquely, Rock Band includes a microphone. How it works isn’t exactly intuitive, but it does. Somehow the mic measures the singer’s pitch accuracy (Paula Abdul and Ashlee Simpson should probably stick to the guitar controllers).
But the most amazing thing about Rock Band is the way it acts like a musical gateway drug. The game is arguably turning a whole generation of gamers onto music they might not otherwise discover. The average fourteen-year-old, for example, probably listens to classic rock radio only when he’s forced to ride in the car with Dad. But with Rock Band, he’s gaming and rocking along to The Rolling Stones, The Who, David Bowie and Blue Öyster Cult. My son Daniel wasn’t especially familiar with Deep Purple; he was quite interested when I told him that my vinyl copy of 1972’s Machine Head contained other way-cool songs on a par with “Highway Star.”
What’s more, this gateway drug effect is leading young people toward interest in learning to play real instruments. With the video era of the last few decades, music performance had taken on a play-acting image: as Frank Zappa put it “they’ll spray an alley with a hose, and we’ll escape together.” But Rock Band is reintroducing people to the joys — the coolness — of wielding that axe in front of adoring (if, well, fake) crowds.
While the game loads up — and between songs — Rock Band spouts music trivia (they call ’em “facts”). It’s obvious that the developers of this game are doing more than servicing a perceived market niche; Rock Band is a labor of love.
The Harmonix team has always been associated with music. Long before Rock Band, they developed interactive music attractions for Disney’s Epcot®, and a gizmo called “The Axe,” PC-based software that facilitated real-time musical improvisation via mouse or joystick. The founders of Harmonix, Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy, met while working in MIT’s Media Laboratory. They formed their company with the express mission of (as the company’s official bio puts it) “creating new ways for non-musicians to experience the unique joy that comes from making music.” With Rock Band, they’ve succeeded. One shudders at this thought, though: how will they possibly top it? This is a story worth following.