The one thing left standing between games and mainstream acceptance is the continual assertion by the mainstream that games are not acceptable. Not an easy cross to bear, by any means. The term “hopeless struggle” comes to mind here, and rightly so. As games have struggled from the primordial soup of puerile perception to take their rightful place in the pantheon of entertainment media, each barbaric yawp of glee at finally breaking the bonds of adolescence has caused an equal and opposite reaction from the mainstream; an avalanche of criticism, skepticism and ire directed, mainly, at the possibility that games are bad for children. And the fact that those of us doing the yawping have been playing since we were children doesn’t seem to help matters.
The reasons for the possible causes of damage to American youngsters via videogames are legion, but the biggest offending ideas, according to those who write about such things, are that games can contain violence, nudity and promote dangerous ways of thinking, such as the idea that one can do, say or be anything he chooses, in real life, just because he’s been able to do so in a game. This supposes that the folks playing games do not know the difference between fantasy and reality, that exercising one’s imagination is dangerous, and raises the possibility that what we imagine will so ensnare us as to make the real world, the world we can see, touch and feel, pale in comparison and lose its monopoly on our conception of reality. Once we cross the line into thinking we are more than we really are, the belief goes, fantasies are no longer impossible, and we will start to act in ways we shouldn’t.
The assaults on games as destroyers of youth have been waxing and waning in relation to the gravitational pull of various election cycles, and we’ve so far managed to exorcise almost every possible permutation of the “games are bad for you” argument. In fact, the pendulum has slowly started to swing the other way, with a wave of “games are good for you” stories appearing in various news outlets, mainly attributing increases in memory and cognitive ability to games like Brain Age, although some have gone so far as to say that exercising the imagination is good, which, I think, is entirely accurate.
Today, however, is another day, and I’ve just read what I believe is the most preposterous argument against playing videogames I’ve ever seen, and it’s convinced me that where there’s a deadline, there’s a way to make really, really bad arguments for impossibly dumb theories.
Clearly, Guitar Hero is fun. But by bestowing the rewards of virtuosity to those who haven’t spent years to earn it, is it dumbing down musicianship? If a teenager can easily become a make-believe guitar hero, does that mean he won’t ever bother to master the real thing?
The speaker is Steven Levy, columnist for Newsweek, and what he’s doing is comparing Guitar Hero to the devil – literally.
Legend has it that the iconic blues guitarist Robert Johnson was granted his otherworldly chops by Satan himself, at a deal forged at a Mississippi crossroads. The price was his soul. In 2007, one does not have to cut such a hard bargain to get the unique rush of being a guitar god. You don’t even have to sit in your room and practice for months on end. All you need is a PlayStation 2, a special game controller that looks like a tiny Gibson model SG and software called Guitar Hero 2. Within 10 minutes, you will be shredding heavy metal. As you get more adept at the game you will be ecstatically channeling Eddie Van Halen. All this with no strings attached.
And yes, he’s saying this is a bad thing.
What follows this lead-in is a nice, tidy summation of how Guitar Hero is harmful not only to our youth, baseball players and rock musicians, but to the field of rock music as well, since in making it easier for people to experience the joy of playing rock music, the game has effectively erased the need for people to actually learn the skills required to make the music.
Let’s back up a bit here and dissect this thought for a second. We’re talking about rock music here. Not “music” in general, rock music. Rock ‘n’ roll. Am I the only one having trouble taking seriously the idea that a columnist for Newsweek is bemoaning the possibility that fewer kids will want to become rock stars? Have we run so low on ways that games could possibly be tainting America that we’ve now resorted to accusing them of tainting the other things that are tainting America? What’s next? Will we be accusing Grand Theft Auto of making it so easy to be a gangsta, the youth of the inner cities of America no longer have any motivation to excel? That games like Super Columbine Massacre make it so easy to go on a high school rampage, disaffected outsiders will no longer be driven to make their mark, but will instead sit in their parents’ den and eat Cheetos? Are we so desperate to accuse games of being harmful that we’ve resorted to blaming the exercising of our fantasies for harming … other fantasies? If Mr. Levy is to be taken seriously, we have.
The obvious gaming parallel to draw here in refuting this ridiculous claim is the case of other simulation-style games, like Flight Simulator, which has done nothing but increase opportunities for people to learn to perform the actual act of flying through simulation. In fact I happen to know someone who has taken solace in the joys of flight simulation after having lost the ability to do the real thing. Clearly, then, Flight Simulator is not a threat to commercial aviation. Far from it.
Although, as Levy points out, playing Guitar Hero is not at all like playing an actual guitar and probably won’t teach anyone who plays it any more than how to mash colored buttons when prompted, something Simon has been doing for decades. It enables an aping of the thing, rather than opening the door to learning how to do it, as a true simulator might. And yet, I still have trouble believing this is in any way a threat to rock music (and no, I can’t stop laughing at that idea). Better to warn boys and girls that wearing 10-gallon hats in their front yard will prevent them from having the desire to actually become a cowboy. Or that laying a chair on its back and counting backwards to zero will prevent one from wanting to actually become an astronaut. That wearing a tiara will keep one from becoming a princess.
All of us have pretended to be our heroes, and some of us still do. Our imaginations, and the expressions of them, are at the very essence of our creativity and our ability to feel. We learn how to play as a child and carry that feeling (if we’re lucky) into adulthood, never once forgetting how to dream along the way. For when that happens, when we do forget, we lose something truly special; something irreplaceable. Very few of us, however, regardless of how we played or still play ever become cowboys, astronauts, princesses or rock stars. We become accountants, steel workers, retail employees, secretaries or editors, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still dream. Rather, I think it makes it all the more valuable that we do.
I tried to learn to play guitar once. I spent three months trying to get my fingers to reliably form a single chord to no avail. It just wasn’t happening. And even when I could get my claw-like hand to mash the right strings in the right places, my strumming was off, or my guitar was slightly out of tune and I wasn’t hitting the note – couldn’t tell even, half the time. My fingers, ears and lack of dexterity betrayed my dream of becoming a rock god. It just wasn’t in the cards for me, so I gave it up, and moved on to other things at which I could excel. But I never let go of the dream of feeling like a rock star. I still sang in the shower, still played air guitar at red lights and still imagined what it would be like to stand on stage, guitar in-hand, as “Freebird” blared from the head-high amplifiers. And it exactly is that unfulfilled, unfulfillable longing that Red Octane and Harmonix tapped when they released their amazing game last year.
Do I think, if I were able to play guitar, that playing the game would dissuade me from actually becoming a rock star? Do I agree, in other words, with Steven Levy that a game like Guitar Hero poses a threat to rock music? Um … no. When I turn off my PS2 and set aside my plastic guitar controller, I go back to my life, in which I am an editor at an online magazine, occasionally have to eat ramen noodles and rarely have panties thrown at me by underage girls wanting to meet me backstage after the show. When the actual rock stars interviewed for the various stories about Guitar Hero, who play the game between gigs and occasionally run late for a show because they’re having so much fun, turn off their PS2s, they walk on stage to have panties thrown at them, or go back into the studio to record the albums for which they will be paid more money than I’ve made my whole professional career. I think the differences speak pretty loudly for themselves.
There are some of us, Mr. Levy, who know the difference between fantasy and reality, and I suggest that they are not the ones making such preposterous claims. I can’t play the guitar and will therefore never become a real guitar hero, but I can keep the dream alive, thanks, in part, to an entertaining game, and that’s really the point here, isn’t it? If there’d been a game called Writer Hero in my house when I was kid, or Wage Slave Hero, and I could play the game to get the benefits of doing an honest day’s work without actually going through the motions, then we might have a problem. But for now, let’s lay off attacking the dreamers for just a little bit. We’re over here doing our thing, not hurting anyone. I promise. We won’t even share if you don’t want us to. We’ll just keep our dreams to ourselves.