Ever wonder why games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are so wildly popular? New York University professor of psychology Gary Marcus says it's because they give us a feeling of power.
In some ways, Marcus wrote on his blog at Psychology Today, Rock Band and Guitar Hero "seem like the stupidest games on Earth," and with the way he describes them it's not hard to see why. "Colored discs scroll down a TV screen, and eager participants mash colored buttons in time with what they see," he wrote. "You press a red button when you see a red disc, a blue button when you see a blue disc, and hold your fire when you see nothing. Rinse, lather, and repeat; that's about all there is to it."
He acknowledges the runaway popularity of the two franchises, which have grossed over $3 billion between them. But why? "What," he asked, "is the appeal of a game that demands so little of the human mind?" It's not the music, which can be had cheaper and with less work by simply buying a few CDs or hitting iTunes. Nor are we learning anything about making real music or music theory; we're just pushing buttons like a hamster who wants a treat. So what's the appeal?
"It's a lust for power," Marcus said. "Not of the sort that allows one to rule the world, but the sort that allows one to control one's own world."
Simply put, people are happier when they're in control of a situation, but according to Marcus the human mind has a tricky time determining when we actually have that control. Guitar Hero succeeds because it's able to create a "potent illusion of temporal contingency" - we know we're not actually playing the music but when we do well in the game by pressing the right button at the right time to make the right sound come out, a certain murky part of our brain is tricked into thinking we are and we get a small, artificially-induced but very real taste of what it's like to be standing on stage, strutting our stuff.
"When I push the button, I hear Keith Richards," Marcus explained. "When I fail to push the button (or press the wrong button, or press it late), I don't hear Keith Richards. Therefore, I am Keith Richards!"
So is all that just a fancy-pants way of saying we like the games because they make us feel like awesome rock stars? Maybe. But the next time you're talking about Rock Band and you slip in a line about "inferring causality from temporal contingency," a move that's sure to impress the ladies, you can thank science - and me.