I was struck today by these posts by Rob Horning and Nicholas Carr. As I read it, they are basically arguing that Guitar Hero is a simplification, mechanical, waste of time compared to playing music. But I think they miss the basic point of games – that games are designed. This mistake is so common, we take it for granted. But no one seems to be surprised that other products are designed to fulfill different functions. Yes, old musicians might look on Guitar Hero in horror, but I wouldn’t be surprised if old musicians look in horror on rock music, or the electric guitar too. But they are all designed for a purpose, and if you don’t know what that purpose is, then you can’t appreciate it. What game designers call setting or fiction is just a layer on top of the game, not the game or purpose itself, and it’s easy to confuse them.
This is easy to see, in fact, when you consider other fictions that could have been on top of Guitar Hero. Harmonix, creators of Guitar Hero, didn’t even start with guitars, they started with electronic music, and published their earlier games Frequency and Amplitude. Players would ride down the music track, using the game controller to select notes. And yet you can get the same game experience, the same sort of fun, out of all of these games. How could this be? You aren’t playing the guitar! It’s because Guitar Hero isn’t about composing or elaborating on music, it is about perfecting and getting inside a piece, understanding how every little part ticks. And then doing this over and over again as you train your hands to play patterns. It is designed to do that – not to replace playing music. Yet Guitar Hero still provides a valuable skill – ask any classical orchestra member what their training is like and you’ll discover a lot of similarities, and yet we consider orchestral music high art. It’s just not the skill we think of when we think of Guitar Hero’s setting.
This wouldn’t even be hard to realize if you looked inside the trailers of the rock bands Horning thinks are offended. Many bands proclaim that they play Guitar Hero in their down-time, even their own songs. That doesn’t make sense, from the traditional point of view. But it does if the act of playing Guitar Hero is for a different purpose then playing music. For example, bands play music to create, but play Guitar Hero to unwind. Or bands play music to explore, but play Guitar Hero to socialize. Consider Nascar drivers – no one considers it a betrayal of their profession if they drive other vehicles to work. Of course not! People probably even expect race car drivers to race model cars with their kids. But all of these car-based activities are designed for different purposes.
Of course, the common consequence of this misunderstanding about game design is that because games are structured, but not in a perceivably useful way, that they have decreasing levels of challenge. This is, again, missing the meaning behind the design. It is to take the fictional drama and presuppose that it is the only drama, ignoring the mechanics, like the score or the ever-growing song list in Guitar Hero, that are there specifically to meet this human need. Games excel at providing challenge and interest – they are one of the most engaging solitary activities for the brain. We know this empirically, but many people don’t make the connection that games are designed to be that way. Some of the activities that require the most study, the most training on the planet – Chess, Poker, Starcraft, even Guitar Hero – are games. Video games are not the result of corporations trying to dumb down are hobbies. They are an activity that can be as engaging, skillful, time consuming, and passion-driving as any other, because that’s what a designer set out to create, and what people crave to spend their time on.