Arm Chair Rock Stars

Revolutionary video games let people experience musical dreams of grandeur

Video games have always been a miraculous invention. Since the first competitive computer simulation pong, to the lush, multi dimensional titles of today, they have inspired awe in those who play them.

The concept of immersing one’s self in a virtual world where you call the shots, and have control of your destiny, has always been something that’s appealed to people.

Players hit the notes on their instrument as their appear on the screen in quick succession. Failing to hit the proper notes with the proper timing can result in failing the song.Video games have become incredibly sophisticated in recent years, and no game proved that more than Guitar Hero.

When this trail blazing title was released in November 2005, it gave players a chance to do something that had never been possible before, play their favourite songs on a virtual guitar.

The Guitar Hero concept is simple, players use a plastic controller shaped like a guitar with five colored buttons on its stem. Each of these plastic buttons corresponds to a musical note. The musical notes appear on the screen in different formations as they would if you were reading guitar tabs on a page, and the players strum these notes in successive formations to mimic their favourite songs.

The idea has been taken to the next level with the 2007 release of Rock Band.

Rock Band can be played by four people at once. There are two guitars, a simulated drum pad that’s played with real sticks, and even a microphone to belt out the vocals.

This game has spawned legions of wanna-be Rock Stars, and for some, it’s incredibly addictive.

Mihir Sircar and his friend, Phillip Smalley, engage in a raucous session of Rock Band.“I play Rock Band, at least six days a week” says Mihir Sircar, a York University undergrad, and a self proclaimed Rock Band fanatic.

“It’s an addictive game because it has all different types of music genres” he continues. “It has music from my childhood, which I really enjoy.”

“With Rock Band not only can you hear the music you like, but you can do something while you’re hearing it” he goes on to say. “The songs and the activities stimulate your senses.”

Sircar claims the game has given him a greater appreciation for music and the talent that goes into playing an instrument.

“When you’re playing the drums in the game, if you mess up a note, the drums stop and it messes up the song” he explains. “Now when I hear a song I can understand and appreciate how each individual instrument plays a role in putting that song together, and how difficult those rolls can be”.

Sircar also admits that at times he has felt the motivation to learn to play an actual guitar.

According to Duke Gray at Long & McQuade Music Store in Scarborough, Sircar isn’t the only one.

“These games have certainly put a spark of encouragement into people wanting to play instruments” he says. “By playing the game, they actually get to play songs from the bands they listen to, which makes them want to get into the real thing. So it’s a good stepping stone”

“I see a lot of kids coming in and they’ll play the songs in the game, and they’ll learn how to play them on a real guitar” he continues.

Although Gray praises these games for getting people, especially young people, interested in music, he doesn’t think they are proper learning aids.

“It is the encouragement to learn, but I wouldn’t call it a learning tool,” he says. “It’s an entertainment tool”.

“You’re going from a guitar neck with buttons on it, to an actual instrument with six strings that has to be tuned” he explains. “There’s more involved in the real thing.”

Debbie Broomer at Legend Music in Pickering agrees with Gray.

“It’s completely different” she says. “The children believe they’re learning how to play, but they really aren’t”.

But still she admits, “It does definitely instil an interest in learning.”

Broomer explains that lesson enrolment has risen at Legend Music with the advent of games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

They have recognized this at Legend, and are using the game’s influence to help fuel interest in real instruments.

“Because Rock Band has become so popular, and it is inspiring students to learn, we’ve taken it to another level” she says. “We’re going to be doing Rock Band birthday parties, with real instruments”.

Boomer explains that the Rock Band experience will be brought to life through this endeavor.

On top of inspiring people to get into the musical arts, Rock Band and Guitar Hero have helped to restore an appreciation for classical rock.

“I’ve seen the reemergence of a lot of older bands” says Gray. “A lot of kids that are in high school are walking around with Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Doors t-shirts.”

“For a while there that was gone,” he continues.

It appears that music simulators have a lot to do with this.

“Rock Band has given me an appreciation for Rock and Roll,” Sircar says. “Especially those classic bands from back in the day that people seem to have forgotten about,”

“Before Rock Band I had never even heard of Rush. Now they’re one of my favourite bands,” he continues. “I’ve come to appreciate how talented they are, and how other bands like them left their mark on the world.”

Not only are these games reviving music’s past, but they are also helping to preserve its future.

Motley Crue, a classic 80s metal band who recently got back on to the scene, debuted a new single exclusively for Rock Band back in April.

“The Saints of Los Angeles” went on to be a smash hit on the radio this summer, but it began as a downloadable song on Rock Band.

Players have to pay a dollar each to add these downloadable tracks to their library, but the money helps support the bands that created them.

“Before the music industry was kind of bumming out with all of these illegal downloads,” says Sircar. “Rock Band has become a crutch to help keep it standing. I pay a dollar per song, so I’m paying to support the music industry”.

He goes on to say “Rock Band and these types of games are helping these artists survive, and have a reason to keep making music”.

Clearly the influence of music simulators goes far beyond your TV screen.

Rock Band 2 was just released for the X-Box 360 on Sept 14. It will be released on the Nintendo Wii, the PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 2 consoles later this year.

Meanwhile Guitar Hero World Tour is expected to hit the shelves on October 26 of this year. The game aims to replicate the whole band experience brought into existence by the first Rock Band.

It looks like Armchair Rock Stars will be busy cranking out hits in their living rooms for some time to come.