Games are art: Rock Band, and its history, prove it
So why is this art?
I first played Guitar Hero at a conference for video game retailers, months before the game was scheduled for release. The guitar felt small and slightly flimsy in my hands, and I failed the first song I tried to play. I scraped by after playing a more familiar song on my second attempt. By the time I played my third song I was hooked, and bought the game the moment it was released. I began showing it to friends and family, and the game spread among people I knew, until most nights we were playing Guitar Hero to the exclusion of everything else. I was a member of the press by the time Rock Band was released, and I marveled at the size of the box and the audacity of the product when the first pre-release bundle showed up on my doorstep for review. It took me an hour or so to set everything up the first time, and the game took over my living room for months. My friends and I took turns on our favorite instruments, argued over which songs to play, created a virtual band and played though the game over and over. It became an addiction. The founders of Harmonix set out to create a product that shared the feeling of playing live music in front of an audience, which is a very real emotion that’s created by a number of factors. It’s a mixture of the thrill of being skillful at something that’s difficult, the praise of an appreciative crowd, and the thrill of creating a piece of music that you enjoy. The game recreates all these aspects of the live music experience, and seeing people who have never had much success learning how to play an instrument lose themselves in the music as they nail a guitar solo on the hardest difficulty setting or hit the drums as hard as they can as they bang their head through their favorite metal song is thrilling. There is a rush that comes when you play the game well and you’re working together with those in your living room, all playing their own plastic instruments and, while it’s not quite as good as writing or playing your own music, it’s not far off. The ability of everyone to share in the joy of playing live music has even raised the ire of musicians who claimed the games cheapen music, or that people should just stop playing games and pick up the guitar or drums for real. The criticism actually makes sense to Rigopulos. “People don’t criticize Madden players by saying they should just go out and play football, and they don’t criticize Call of Duty players by saying they should just go out and join the army,” he said. “It seemed like a strange criticism to me, but the more I thought about it, the reason these games provoke this very specific cultural criticism is that no one believes that they’re playing football when they’re playing football, and no one believes, when they play Call of Duty, that they’re really in combat. But there is a suspension of disbelief when you’re playing Rock Band that you are really playing music. The simulation is much closer to the real world experience in these games than the simulation is in these other genres of games. It’s this closeness that provokes the criticism. There is a genuine simulation going on.” This is why Rock Band is the best example of games as an art form. The game leverages every strength of the medium in order to share a very specific feeling, and the final product re-creates that emotion with great skill. When people bring up games as art they often talk about games that look like art, as if recreating a certain aesthetic is enough to be effective. Other people point to a game’s writing, which may be done artfully, but it still doesn’t make the game itself art. The power of Rock Band comes from the ability to bring people together, teach them a skill, and then as they get better at the interaction it rewards them with a feeling that few have experienced before. It’s a feeling that used to come with a high cost in terms of both time and money. This is why snobby guitarists become so precious about their craft: they want to hoard that joy instead of sharing it. The argument seems to be the joy is unearned unless it comes from years of practice. “What’s fascinating to me is that I agree with you, it’s an entertainment experience that relies on the medium… the flipside is that much of the artistic content of the game is third-party art,” Rigopulos said when I brought up my thoughts on Rock Band as a triumph of artistic expression. With the rhythm game genre proven to be a marketing giant, they had no problems licensing the master tracks of songs for the Rock Band series. In fact, there was data from the music industry that showed you could boost the sales of songs by including them in rhythm games. “In a way, we’re just taking the emotional content that already exists in this incredible music and presenting it to the player in this interactive context where it amplifies the emotional power. They have access to the emotionality of that music on a level that they wouldn’t as passive listeners. It’s almost like an art amplification device as much as it’s own artistic statement,” Rigopulos explained. That’s certainly part of it, but he’s selling short the work of Harmonix. There is joy to be found in simply listening to this music, but it’s the people who created this game under his leadership who allowed players to interact with the music in a deeper way. When you play the bass line or drums, even in the limited capacity the simulation allows, you begin to understand how these parts of the song work together to make a whole. As you learn how to play the game and you no longer have to think about the movements of your fingers, you slip into a state of bliss that is deeper and more satisfying than just listening to the song. That emotion was recognized by Rigopulos and Egozy years ago, but it took years of iteration and experimentation before they found a medium and method of sharing it with anyone who wanted to play their game. Video games offer a set of tools and shortcuts to our brains that other art forms do not, and it takes artists to use those tools to share their feelings with the world. Rock Band does that in an effective, almost Dionysian, manner. Gamers who have never picked up a real guitar can, in a matter of hours, play along with songs by The Who, and they often find themselves pinwheeling their arms like Pete Townshend. Players often jump up and down in time to the music, their pupils dilated, their cheeks flushed. The game engages the whole body, and creates an ecstatic state on demand.Alex Rigopulos and company identified a wonderful emotional connection they shared with music, and they understood that the feeling you got from playing music could be re-created with the right tools. The people at Harmonix then took the medium of games and crafted an experience that allowed anyone with a television, a game console, and the Rock Band package to experience, in some small part, the thrill of playing live music. This is what makes an artist: The act of finding an emotion or experience that elevates or informs the human condition, and then creating a way to share it with the world. Rock Band was the end result of a long quest to share the joy in playing live music with the masses, and the most effective way to share that feeling was through a video game. The question of whether or not video games are art has, in my opinion, been asked and answered. The only question is which artists have the vision and talent necessary to show us new things, and to share new experiences.