A Day with the Score-Oriented: Rock Band Tournament Play
Kiri Miller / Brown University

Unicon Logo

Game Unicon 2009

When I first walked into Game Unicon, a videogame convention held last month in an off-the-highway hotel deep in the Boston suburbs, I wasn’t sure whether I was relieved or disappointed at the absence of the much-advertised booth babes. It was mid-day on a Friday, and the convention was just getting rolling; maybe the babes showed up later in the weekend. In any case, once I entered the crowded conference room devoted to Guitar Hero and Rock Band, women were few and far between. A couple of moms came to watch their sons compete, but during my visit there were no female players. The vast majority of players were white teenaged boys, some looking as young as 11 or 12—a very different crowd from the players I encountered during my Rock Band fieldwork in Boston bars. There were cash prizes in the offing, but apparently they weren’t high enough to entice many adult players to take a day off from work.

Many of the players were clad in black t-shirts advertising metal bands whose songs are featured in the Rock Band games. Mastodon and Cannibal Corpse were popular options; Mastodon’s “Colony of Birchmen” is part of the on-disc repertoire in Rock Band 2, while Cannibal Corpse’s “Hammer Smashed Face” is available as downloadable content for an additional fee. In the age of digital discovery ((Jennings, David. 2007. Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Digital Discovery Works and What it Means for Consumers, Creators and Culture. London: Nicholas Brealey.)) and media convergence ((Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.)), it’s quite likely that these young players discovered the music through the games rather than experiencing it as listeners first—though of course the available musical repertoire also drives sales of the games (see The Beatles: Rock Band).

I was at the convention for the Rock Band individual instrument tournaments on guitar and drums. When I arrived, people were crowded around five gaming stations set up around the perimeter of the room. The guitar finals were in progress on some stations; at others, players were warming up for the drum tournament. The room was filled with the clacking of fret buttons and strum bars and the dull thump of drum heads. The game music on each TV was turned fairly low, so that only the players directly in front of the speakers had much chance of hearing it. Here’s a YouTube video someone shot of the room:


Rhythm games room at Game Unicon 2009

Players were required to bring their own instrument controllers; plastic guitars leaned against the walls and a fleet of drum kits waited in a corner. Players with modified kick-drum pedals showed off their equipment and invited others to try out their kits (in some cases offering to sell their work after the convention).

RB Pedal Mod

A modified kick-drum pedal at Game Unicon 2009

ION Drum Rocker

ION Drum Rocker, a popular drum controller upgrade

At first I was surprised that modified controllers and fancy drum kits were allowed, since they seemed to make for an uneven playing field. But of course some musicians have much better instruments than others, and athletes are allowed to compete in performance-enhancing shoes or swimsuits. Competitive Rock Band players devote a lot of time to mods, customization, and repairs. Tournament organizers were not willing to put convention-owned controllers through the sustained abuse of tournament play (or to take responsibility for resulting technical snafus), and they could not realistically require players to own a pristine, unmodified controller for competition purposes.


RB Drum People Info

A casual drum match, with caveats about damaged equipment

The basic rules had been posted on the convention website and several gaming forums in advance:

Rock Band Individual Instrument Tournaments Format

Score Duel Double Elimination
You Must Play on Expert Difficulty
Each Match is Best 2 out of 3 Songs
The Player on the top of the Bracket can choose to pick which side he is on or pick the first song. The first song is then played.
The Second Player then picks the second song.
In the event that each player wins a match a third song will be chosen at Random using Random.org song must be at least Moderate Tier in difficulty.
All Rock Band 1 and 2 Disc Songs will be available to pick. No DLC… there will be some there for freeplay but not in the Tournaments.

The players were totally score-oriented, as one would expect at a tournament that didn’t award style points. ((On “score-oriented” vs. “rock-oriented” gameplay, see Miller, Kiri. 2009. “Schizophonic Performance: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Virtual Virtuosity.” Journal of the Society for American Music 3(4): 395-429, forthcoming in November.)) They focused on the screen and rarely indulged in any rock-star moves, though I saw several people twirling their drumsticks as they waited to play. Audience members with video cameras also kept their focus on the TV screens, not the players; they documented the steadily rising scores and the moments when something went awry for one of the competitors. Numerous Guitar Hero and Rock Band videos on YouTube adhere to this format, with players dissecting their own performances after the fact:


RB Drum Screen Comment

Drum match at Game Unicon 2009

But while players didn’t perform like rock stars, the sheer physicality of their gameplay was striking. Waiting drummers clutched their sticks, standing behind active players and ghost-drumming along with the on-screen notation in perfect unison. Players had distinctive physical styles and approaches to drumhead rebound; some were choppy, heavy hitters, others fluid and graceful.



Contrasting drum styles

No one was sight-reading; playing on the “Expert” difficulty setting with a high degree of accuracy requires practice and memorization, and the “No DLC (downloadable content)” rule meant that players couldn’t use obscure repertoire choices to unseat their opponents. Audience members were connoisseurs of the most difficult parts of each song; they tensed up in anticipation of tricky passages and shook their heads in appreciative awe when a high-level player made them look easy. During the guitar tournament, people moved around to the side of the competitors to peer at their fretting hands, checking out their fingering techniques.


A finalist in the guitar tournament

After a while, something about this cacophonous hotel conference room filled with fidgety teens playing plastic instruments began to feel very familiar to me. I realized that it reminded me of my All-State clarinet auditions in junior high and high school. There were no Cannibal Corpse t-shirts there—band and orchestra kids generally occupied a different niche in the teenage social ecosystem, and even the metal heads among us would have dressed a bit more formally for the audition judges. But there was the same charged atmosphere of performance anxiety, the same high-volume heterophony generated by compulsive repetition of tricky musical passages, the excitement of meeting peers who shared one’s interests, and the daunting realization that one might not be the biggest fish in the pond. I chatted with one of the proud moms at the Rock Band tournament as her son made it through several rounds of competition; he was visibly sweating from the exertion of playing drums, and enthusiastically shook hands with his opponent at the end of each song. She mentioned that he also played several traditional instruments, including non-Rock Band drums, and was hoping to go to Berklee to study music some day—but it wasn’t yet clear how serious he was about it. Meanwhile, playing these games was simply another aspect of her son’s musical life, and she was happy to support it.

My experience at Game Unicon made me think about the “pick up a real instrument” discourse from a new angle. My research doesn’t focus on children or teens and their musical development, in part because of the labyrinthine requirements for getting IRB approval to do “human subject research” with minors; I’m not even supposed to interview anyone under 18. But I’ve paid close attention to the wealth of hand-wringing media stories about how Guitar Hero and Rock Band could keep kids from taking up real instruments. These stories assume a false dichotomy; as I’ve discussed elsewhere, lots of people do both. But what if they didn’t? If the 14-year-old boy never played a real drum kit or went to Berklee, but put in hours and hours of disciplined practice on his plastic kit, gained an intimate knowledge of hundreds of songs across several genres, developed close friendships and respectful rivalries with fellow players, and expanded his multimedia skills by editing videos of his gameplay to post on YouTube, wouldn’t that still be something worth cultivating? I’m not here to endorse one musical practice over another, but I’ll be interested to see how many more proud parents start to show up for tournament play.

Image Credits:

1. Game Unicon Logo
2. Rock Band Pedal Mod, Photo Provided by Author.
3. ION Drum Rocker
4. Damaged Equipment Youtube Blurb, Screen Capture Provided by Author
5. Rock Band Drum Comment, Screen Capture Provided by Author

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Fieldnotes from a Rock Band Bar Night


21st Century Fieldwork

In this column, I’m attempting an assignment that I require of virtually all my undergraduate students: a performance ethnography blog post.

When I arrived at Our House East, a college-crowd bar near Northeastern University, I found Mike, the guy who runs the weekly Rock Band game night, standing out front tapping away at his cell phone—texting me, as it turned out. I recognized him from his Facebook profile photo and introduced myself. (I’d found him through a Rock Band group on Facebook and had messaged him to arrange an interview.) We went inside, where he had set up the Rock Band instrument controllers facing a large wall-mounted TV. It was only 5:30, and the college students were gone for the summer; the small bar was almost empty. Mike insisted on buying me a beer and offered me a homemade brownie from a Tupperware container. He was a super-friendly guy, and I could immediately see why he’d been hired to run a social event that required people to volunteer to perform in front of strangers.

The set-up in the bar wasn’t quite what I had expected. I had assumed the players would face an audience, as at a karaoke night—perhaps even standing on some kind of stage, with a projector screen across the room so they could read the game’s musical notation. Instead, the instruments were only a few feet from the TV; the players would have to look in that direction, with their backs to the rest of the bar. I asked Mike how he thought Rock Band nights compared to karaoke nights.

Mike: It’s a completely different demographic because most people who do karaoke are more apt to get up and sing. They want to have their own songs, and they like the attention factor of it. I think with Rock Band, it relates to a totally different demographic because it’s more based on the rock music [included] when it first came out. As it progressed, they introduced a lot more pop songs and whatnot. I think it gets more people involved, versus just a karaoke-based demographic. I mean, we’ll be playing in bars, and there’ll be age ranges from 21 to 60. And you get 60-year-olds up there playing “Paranoid” [by Black Sabbath] or something, and wanting to sing. And the way that we get them involved is to talk to them about it, make them feel comfortable about it, and show them what to do. We’ll be right by them, side by side, they’ll watch. They’ll be sitting around, being like, oh, that’s not my thing. And then they see how much fun, that everybody’s getting into it, and then, eventually, they’ll even do it and they’ll have a blast.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYbj5oR4VFA [/youtube]

“Paranoid”—Rock Band demo at E3 2007

KM: Do you see people being self-conscious about it?

Mike: They are. A lot of people are self-conscious. I think everybody’s self-conscious in a lot of different ways, I mean, doing something that you’re not used to doing….I encourage people, but I don’t force it on them. I’ll let them know how much fun it is, I’ll put it in no-fail mode [a setting that lets the players finish a song no matter how badly they are doing]. I’ll give them a song list, and I go, “Check it out, there’s 650 songs. Just watch people and what they’re doing, and if you guys feel like you wanna get involved, go for it.” And a lot of people will be there for a couple of hours, and by the second hour, after they have a few beers, they loosen up and they get up there.

As people began to trickle into the bar, I could see that Mike knew almost everyone. He told me that many regulars had been coming to various Rock Band bar nights around town several times a week for months on end. (The bars pay Mike and his employer, Shaun, to host these events and help bring in customers; their two-person company currently runs eight regular bar nights around Boston.) We wrapped up the interview so he could greet people and get things started.

Our House East

Rock Band at Our House East

Despite having significant musical performance experience, I had been nervous about the prospect of playing Rock Band in public. I was afraid that the bar-night regulars would be competitive, score-oriented players who always used the “expert” setting. But after Mike’s pep talk during the interview, I sat down at the drums right away; others picked up the bass, guitar, and microphone. Those waiting to play were chatting and getting drinks, but they paid enough attention to the game to shout encouragement now and then and clap at the end of each song. Other patrons ignored the game entirely, treating it like a pool table or pinball machine—though the music was turned up loud enough to required near-shouted conversation. As players took their turns, they kept their eyes focused on the screen but got physically involved with their performances. Guitarists played standing up and moved to the music, and drummers often twirled their sticks or tapped out the tempo at the start of songs. These weren’t showboating, spectacular performances like the ones that circulate on YouTube, but they were physically and musically engaged.

Later in the evening I interviewed two regular players, Kellie and Heather. They were in their mid-twenties and had gone to college together at Northeastern. Both women loved playing Rock Band; neither owned the game, so they only played at bar nights. Kellie had a lot of prior musical experience (including classical piano and music theory training), while Heather seemed to think of musicality as an in-born quality that she simply didn’t possess. But when Heather talked about playing Rock Band, it was clear that she was thinking musically and playing by ear, not simply following visual instructions:

Heather: I listen to the other instruments, and it helps me formulate the song in my head for the next notes for the bass or the guitar coming along. I feel like it helps me….Whatever I’m playing, I listen to the other beats from either the bass and the drums or the guitar and drums….See, I don’t know a lot of the songs. The drums are the main thing, if I hear the beat of the drums going correctly. That’s why if somebody’s playing that doesn’t know how to play drums –

Kellie: It messes you up if you don’t know the song.

Heather: I can’t play the song, yeah.

Later, Heather remarked, “When I’m listening to my iPod on the bus now, I can hear the guitar riffs more, and I’m playing the notes with my fingers, like I would on Rock Band.” Both women talked about experiencing an adrenaline high during Rock Band performance, which Kellie compared to going on a roller coaster: “It was one of those feelings, like I was just terrified, but it was so much fun at the same time. There were so many emotions mixed in.”

I went to Our House East expecting spectacular, glammed-up, audience-oriented performances. Instead, I found a friendly, accessible musical scene with a tight-knit group of friends at its core—more like an open Irish session than a karaoke night, and with fewer barriers to participation than either of those other typical bar events. Much to my surprise, the scene reminded me of the participatory tradition that was the focus of my first major research project: Sacred Harp singing, an American vernacular hymnody tradition that is open to anyone, regardless of perceived musical expertise, and that revolves around drop-in community “singings” rather than rehearsed performances for an audience.

Sacred Heart

A Sacred Harp singing in Western Massachusetts

Given Sacred Harp’s strong DIY, anti-commercial ethos (not to mention the religious song texts), many participants would find the comparison to a mass-produced, rock-oriented video game bizarre. Yet at Our House East, I encountered the same sense of openness, community, and passion for collaborative music-making that attracts people to Sacred Harp singing. As Heather said, “I’m always prepared to go to Rock Band. It’s the highlight of my week.”

Image Credits:

1. Photo credit: James Baumgartner
2. Cell phone photo by the author
3. Sacred Harp

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Just Add Performance
Kiri Miller / Brown University

Rock Band

Rock Band

When I tell people that I’m doing research on Guitar Hero and Rock Band, I usually get one of three responses:

1. “But those games aren’t really musical, right? Isn’t it just pushing buttons in time?”

2. “Are you studying whether they get kids interested in playing real instruments? Because I read an article about how guitar teachers are getting a lot more students since that game came out.”

3. “I love those games! So, do you actually play? Like, for work?” ((Yes, I do play, but like everything else that has to do with my research, I can hardly ever make time for it during the academic year—I’m busy replying to student email and attending committee meetings, like everyone else in my profession.))

People who don’t already have personal experience with the games usually think it’s self-evident that Guitar Hero and Rock Band are only creating musical automatons who suffer from escapist delusions of rock stardom—or, as guitarist John Mayer has said, “Guitar Hero was devised to bring the guitar-playing experience to the masses without them having to put anything into it.” ((Brian Hiatt. “Secrets of the Guitar Heroes: John Mayer.” Rolling Stone Online. June 12, 2008. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/21004549/secrets_of_the_guitar_heroes_john_mayer/2.)) If I’m talking to a fellow ethnomusicologist, s/he often assumes that my project involves a critique of the games as the latest symptoms of the decline and fall of genuine musicality and DIY creativity. If there is a saving grace here, it can only reside in the possibility that the scales will fall from players’ eyes and they’ll be inspired to pick up real instruments: in the words of Sleater-Kinney guitarist/rock critic Carrie Brownstein, “[M]aybe by pretending to be in a band, there will be those who’ll find the nerve to go beyond the game, and to take the brave leaps required to create something real.” ((“Rock Band vs. Real Band.” Slate. November 27, 2007. http://www.slate.com/id/2177432.))


My previous video game project was on Grand Theft Auto, and there, too, much of the non-gamer media response revolved around the relationship between gameworld activities and “the real thing”—only with GTA, the winds of moral panic blew in the opposite direction. Clearly, games like this would inspire players to pick up a real gun or beat up a real prostitute. Think of the children, especially the underprivileged children! As Congressman Joseph Pitts (R-PA) asserted at a June 14, 2006, hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, “It’s safe to say that a wealthy kid from the suburbs can play Grand Theft Auto or similar games without turning to a life of crime, but a poor kid who lives in a neighborhood where people really do steal cars or deal drugs or shoot cops might not be so fortunate.” ((Transcribed from television footage. For further discussion of GTA and the “effects” debate, see Kiri Miller, 2008, “Grove Street Grimm: Grand Theft Auto and Digital Folklore.” Journal of American Folklore 121 (481):255-285.))


Congressman Joseph Pitts

This kind of “media effects” discourse is so well-established and pervasive that it took Guitar Hero and Rock Band in stride. Will these games save real rock music or destroy it? News at 11!

Come to think of it, Congressman Pitts’s logic might be a more persuasive fit for Guitar Hero than GTA: it does seem more likely that a wealthy kid from the suburbs would have the resources to move from playing a plastic controller to taking private lessons on a Fender.

But really, I think this obsession with the relationship between playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band and playing “real music” is missing the point. My standard strategy for explaining my research to those caught up in the effects debate is to point out that playing these games isn’t just like playing real instruments, but it’s nothing at all like just listening to music. It’s a third thing, a new way of musicking. And if you want to get involved in value-oriented debates about it, here’s a thought experiment: rather than concluding that Guitar Hero players are wasting the time that they would otherwise be putting into long hours of practice on a real guitar, consider the possibility that they might otherwise spend that time just listening to recorded music (or, of course, playing Grand Theft Auto). Anyone who has played Guitar Hero or Rock Band for more than five minutes will tell you that it requires a deeper level of musical engagement than listening to an iPod—intellectually, emotionally, physically, and often socially. Moreover, everyone I’ve interviewed for my research reports that the games have substantially changed the way they listen to popular music when they’re not playing. This has certainly been the case for me; after playing drums in Rock Band I started to hear and understand drum parts in a totally new way (forever altering my visceral reaction to heavy metal, for instance). I’ve been running an online survey about the Guitar Hero/Rock Band gameplay experience, and so far 79% of my 480 respondents have indicated that the games have increased their appreciation for certain songs or genres; 75% have added new music to their listening collections because of the games. (A few more stats appear here.)

Music Knowledge

Music Knowledge

My survey statistics only reconfirm what the music industry already knows: these games have created a huge market for value-added versions of previously recorded popular music. Every song licensed for release in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games has been broken down into parts and transcribed at four different difficulty levels, creating a new, hard-to-pirate digital music product. Once players have bought a game and a set of instrument controllers, and have invested the time required to achieve proficiency on one or more instruments, they are happy to spend money on new repertoire. (This is a venerable business model; in the nineteenth century, once a family had a piano in the house, they gladly kept buying four-hand piano transcriptions of the latest symphonies and chamber music for parlor entertainment.) In March 2009, Harmonix announced that the Rock Band franchise had surpassed one billion dollars in North American retail sales revenue in 15 months, including over 40 million paid downloads of individual songs. In September, Harmonix will release The Beatles: Rock Band, an extraordinary licensing coup—The Beatles back catalog can’t even be purchased on iTunes yet.


The transcription work, scoring mechanism, and on-screen avatar band are the obvious components of the value-added, of course, but I want to suggest that the most important value-added aspect is the potential for performance. Actually, the term “value-reconstituted” might be more appropriate: you reconstitute instant soup by adding water, and you reconstitute a recorded song by adding performance. In both cases, the quality of the original ingredients makes all the difference. Guitar Hero and Rock Band let players put the performance back into recorded music, reanimating it with their physical engagement and performance adrenaline. Players become live performers of pre-recorded songs, a phenomenon that I call schizophonic performance. Unless I’m off-campus, in which case I just call it a lot more compelling than listening to a recording.

Value-reconstituted songs make some people very uncomfortable, because rock music is supposed to be über-authentic hard work. Instant fame is only for industry-manufactured sellouts, and hitting buttons on a plastic controller to release someone else’s hot guitar solo seems a lot like lip-syncing—it’s not even as authentic as karaoke. But players aren’t deluded; they’re quick to point out that they understand the difference between playing instruments and playing Guitar Hero. (It’s worth noting that 74% of my survey respondents have experience playing instruments; 49% have experience playing guitar). They know that the “instant” songs that they play in Guitar Hero and Rock Band are packaged, commercialized, and designed to be labor-saving, but that doesn’t spoil their musical experience. Just add performance, and the music blooms into new life.


Image Credits:
1. Rock Band
2. Congressman Pitts
3. Music Knowledge
4. Front Page Image

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