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How to be Cool

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Video games have been called a lot of things -- addictive, corrupting, stimulating, distracting -- but of all the allegations and accolades leveled at gaming culture cool has never been among them. A handful of rebels, radicals, and rockers of the gaming industry have made it their mission to change that, though, and they intend to do so by tackling one third of that holy trinity of cool -- Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The two-tone plastic replica Gibson SG doesn’t really look that much like its authentic counterpart. The shape of the guitar is more or less dead on but it is far too small, adorned with bright colourful buttons, and weighs less than half of what it should. It’s basically a flimsy children’s toy, the likes of which you’d give to a toddler to harmlessly bash away on. However, if you dare to sling that dinky little trinket over your shoulder things begin to take on a whole new hue -- Maybe it’s not so dinky after all, in fact it looks pretty good on you, maybe it’s actually kind of cool. Maybe you could be a Guitar Hero.

The effect is instantaneous, be you dedicated gamer or curious newcomer, once that little guitar is in your hand you instinctively know what to do. The gameplay in Guitar Hero is insidiously simple, as your chosen song plays a visual representation of its notes float down your television screen. When they hit the bottom you play them by hitting the corresponding coloured button on the fret board and strumming the tinny strum bar. In reality this results in an annoying, often clumsy series of plastic clicks, but through your speakers it’s translated into a sonic assault of guitar shredding. To an onlooker you might be playing a game, but in your head you’re with the band now.  
Music-based peripherals for video games are by no means a new thing; in fact it was this exact kind of gimmick that saved video arcade parlours across the globe. The traditional Pac-Man and Space Invaders conception of the video arcade was in steep decline come the 1990s, it wasn’t until the machines started incorporating lavish new features like motion sensing, motorized seating, and various weapon- and instrument-shaped controllers that business started to pick up.

Of course if you’ve ever been to one of these dens then you know exactly who they belong to; the freak kids that have spent so much time playing the games that they no longer even need to look at the screens to play. They just stand there, fake guitar in hand, cigarette hanging from their pouting lip, rocking out and looking cool. These people have put the effort in and they reap the rewards. Be they dancers, shooters, drummers, or racers; they’re the elite, they own their little bit of mechanical territory, and as a result we uninitiated are all too intimidated to give it a try.

With their flimsy wee Gibson SG replica, Harmonix (the original developers of the Guitar Hero series) essentially democratized this particular avenue of cool, allowing anyone to try out a little virtual guitar noodling from the comfort of one’s own social cocoon. These days it need not be a faux pas to boot up your Xbox in the middle of a party; like the ancient art of karaoke preceding it, the Guitar Hero experience greatly benefits from a small, benevolent public and a generous supply of alcohol. Nowhere is this more evident than in bars around the globe that have gone so far as to replace karaoke night with an official Guitar Hero night for cocky showboats to translate their virtual swagger to a slightly more public arena.

Of course Guitar Hero wasn’t the only party game arguing for home video game consoles as a social platform, Sony practically managed to replace the term karaoke with SingStar in the modern vernacular. While prepubescent Amy Winehouse pretenders no doubt merrily chirped through many a slumber party aided by Sony’s karaoke titles, it wasn’t until Harmonix struck the brilliant idea of combining the vocal challenges of SingStar with the strumming simulation of Guitar Hero that something magic started to happen. Adding in a rudimentary electronic drum kit and a second guitar input for bass, Rock Band allowed four players to fake their long-dormant desires and form a virtual band; Birth of the Geek Cool.

The gear is well made, the songs are usually tactfully chosen (and you can always download your own selection from the online store) and the presentation is top notch. But none of that is what really distinguishes Rock Band, Guitar Hero, or any of the other successful new music games; it’s the feeling you get when you play. Nailing a tricky bit of fret work in your favourite Stones song, setting down a bit of mumbling that would make Joe Strummer proud, or just surviving the drum track for Detroit Rock City -- these games don’t just challenge you to achieve, like drugs, cars, or dark sunglasses they actually trick you into feeling idiotically cool.

And the world has embraced this Geek Cool feeling; Rock Band and Guitar Hero are now bona fide cultural phenomena. As well as acceptance into the local pub scene, Guitar Hero has also penetrated the Guinness Book of World Records crediting players with exceptional scores on difficult songs, and grabbing the coveted “Biggest Funeral for a Fictional Object“ award when the game’s publishers held a public funeral for the air guitar in London. Rock Band’s founding fathers Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy even made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2008 for creating a video game so successful that it actually positively impacted the music careers of those featured in the game.  

But for all the wind-spitting Rock n Roll swagger do these games actually make us cool? That’s not for me to say, but there are a few surveys floating around the ether than suggest these games are at least moving us in some positive directions. A study in the UK showed that some 2.5 million children who had jammed on this type of music game went on to begin playing real instruments afterward. The different types of physical dexterity required to play the various instruments not only helps those already training to develop the necessary skills to play, but has also been shown to help the rehabilitation of stroke victims. There’s no doubt that these new games are teaching us something more than we generally expect of a video game.

So maybe we’re not there yet, but surely any video game that makes even us tragic geeks feel cool, if only for a few minutes, is a decent start.

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