Games are art: Rock Band, and its history, prove it
Roger Ebert stepped into a hornet’s nest when he claimed that not only were video games not art, they could never be art. Ebert is a film critic who has written any number of thought-provoking pieces on any number of subjects since his battle with cancer stripped him of his physical voice. The problem with gamers getting defensive about his stance is that he’s a film critic who has, by his own admission, played very few games to completion. Ebert himself seemed surprised by the backlash his comments received, and reading through the endless number of articles and refutations to his words proved impossible while researching this article. I’m not interested in quoting any of them at length, simply because the definition of what is or isn’t art, or what art can and can’t be, is tiresome. Those discussions are best kept to drunken conversations in loft apartments. “Do they require validation?” Ebert asked. “In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, ‘I’m studying a great form of art?’ Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.” I agree with this statement. My problem with Ebert, and other critics who so easily pick up their gavel to rule on the inability of games to be art, is that it's much more enlightening to try to understand why millions of people have emotional reactions to games instead of simply telling them they're wrong to do so, or that their engagement is less important than that of someone watching a film or listening to music.
Games are art
Yes, I think games are art. I think all games are art, in fact, although I also believe that most games are poor art. The problem is that we’re focusing on the wrong things when we have this conversation; whether we’re talking about a novel, a play, a painting, or a song, the best art creates emotion in the person consuming it. We consider the painting hanging on the wall to be the art, but value we place in that painting is the emotion we feel as we look upon it. There are ugly shades of commerce and politics that go into the valuation of paintings and other forms of “high art,” but those are external, and artificial. The intrinsic value of art is the created emotion in the viewer. A meal from a master chef is considered art, but we value neither the presentation nor the ingredients as we much as we like to pretend we do; those are simply a means to the end. The value comes from what we feel and experience as we eat the food. I’ve enjoyed meals made of multiple courses that create a sort of multi-sensory narrative. In some cases these meals have created a story much more compelling than many books. For that food to mean something, however, it needs to be experienced. You must look at it, smell it, and ultimately eat it. Everything else is secondary. This is why I use the word “consume” when I talk about art, because the painting or the novel are nothing without someone to interact with the colors or the words. All these different art forms are inert until someone brings themselves to them and begins an interaction, and I reject the idea that some forms of art are interactive and others aren’t. The worth of great art is only noticeable once that interaction begins, and there is nothing passive about going to a gallery to look at paintings. You don’t need to hit a button in order for there to be a give and take with a piece of art; the best piece of music is a dead thing on a piece of paper until there is someone to take those notes and play them, and even that is of limited worth without a set of ears to hear the music and react to it. The end result of all art forms is the same: a change in the emotional state of the person consuming it. If that doesn’t occur, the art is a failure. This is why you can’t argue for or against games as an art form without taking the time to play through the games themselves. I’ve seen clever people at cocktail parties claim that a few shapes on a canvas can’t be art, and this is usually combined with a sneering contempt for what passes for “art” in our modern times… although it seems like that argument has been going on for the past century or so. There is an intense difference between seeing an image of a Jackson Pollock painting in a book and coming upon a Jackson Pollock painting in a gallery. Only in person, when you see the texture, size, and scope of that painting can you begin the interaction that’s necessary to grasp what does or doesn’t make it art. I’ve seen people look at images of shapes on the walls of gallery and react as if they had been punched in the gut. That interaction needs to take place before you can have an opinion. Games aren’t more or less experiential than paintings, music, or novels. You have to show up. You have to be an active participant, and it’s very hard to have an informed opinion until you do these things. Roger Ebert’s mistake was reading what amounted to a text description of a Jackson Pollock painting and assuming spatters of paint held no interest for him. People ask me what games they should play if they would like to be convinced that video games are an art form, and I always have the same answer: Rock Band. Not Shadow of the Colossus, not Ico, not anything that merely looks like art or tends towards the inscrutable. Rock Band is the most compelling argument for video games as art, and very few series come close to proving the point that games occupy a unique place in the world of art. To explain my position, we need to go back in time and visit a few young students at MIT.
“It’s art amplification”
The first two Guitar Hero games, and then the entirety of the Rock Band franchise, were developed by a company called Harmonix Music Systems. The staff at Harmonix doesn’t just like music: being in a band and going on tour is a major part of the company’s culture. The company’s CEO, Alex Rigopulos, divided the time in his early years between playing video games, programming on the Apple II, and performing in self-described “crappy bands.” He studied music composition at MIT as a young man, which is something that’s apparently possible. His graduate years were spent in MIT’s Media Lab, where he met a man named Eran Egozy. Egozy had a degree in computer science from MIT and was a talented, classically trained musician. The two men realized that they shared an interesting collision of interests, and they had a dream for how they would like to leverage those interests to share their passions. “We wanted to solve what we perceived to be a big, important problem in the world,” Rigopulos told me. “And that is the fact that making music and performing music feels awesome. It’s this deeply joyful experience that everyone tries to have, and very few people get to have. We’re all born with this innate desire, and most people try to learn an instrument in their life, and most people quit because it’s so fucking hard to learn, to get to the point where you get to have that joyful experience. We saw this as a great tragedy.” They began Harmonix Music Systems with a small amount of money, and began to experiment with software that would give the user some sense of what it was like to play a musical instrument. The company’s first product was a program called The Axe: Titans of Classic Rock, which allowed players to interact with music on their PC using a keyboard, mouse, or joystick. “Basically, you pick an instrument and then press one of four buttons to play along with one of eleven classic rock songs,” a review from the website AllGame.com stated. “It takes some getting used to, but after a few practice sessions, you start to pick up on the nuances of the game. When you strip away the video segments, the gist of the game is trying to figure out where to put your cursor so your instrument plays at the right pitch and the right tempo.” It was a fun distraction for a few minutes, but failed to sell in any quantity. Harmonix created an interactive experience for Disney's Epcot Center, which allowed people to move their body and trigger sounds and animations. A program called CamJam also gave players the ability to interact with the game with their physical movements. The company was still a very long way from sharing the emotional connection to music that drove them to create the company. “There was a feeling that perhaps we were going down a blind alley,” Harmonix programmer Ike Adams said in a 2008 presentation, looking back on this time period. “We really needed to come out with that next 'big thing' in order for Harmonix to survive.” The next big thing came from Japan, when video games such as PaRappa the Rappa grabbed the imagination of the Rigopulos and Egozy. They decided to retool the company to become a video game developer. They realized this was the way to share the feeling of music performance with the world: video games. “We gravitated towards the core aspects of game design that lent themselves well to recreating the critical aspects of musical performances in a way that hadn’t really been tackled yet in games,” Rigopulos told the Penny Arcade Report. The result was Frequency, a psychedelic game released in 2001. The player controlled a ship that moved around the screen, and you hit different buttons on the controller in time with circular gems that raced down the screen.You had to jump from lane to lane to hit all the gems and, if you succeeded, you began to layer different tracks on top of each other to play electronic and techno songs. It was like nothing else on the market, and felt amazing to play; fans of the game would begin to move their body with the music as they played, and the collection of eclectic artists that provided the game’s soundtrack added to the experience. Unfortunately, the game had a hard time finding an audience, and the abstract game play didn’t help things. Gamers wanted to be able to understand a game when they first picked up the box, and the musical nature of the action and the addictive qualities of the game weren’t apparent unless you played it yourself. It was hard to understand what the hell was going on if you just picked up the box or saw a screenshot. The game was a critical hit, and to this day it enjoys a cult following, but it died an ugly death at retail. “That was the beginning of a process of us learning a lot of hard lessons. We thought that if we made something that was really addictive and really compelling and it was brought to market by a well-funded publisher that it could be a successful product,” Rigopulos said. “We were insensitive to a number of critical factors, such as the very alien visual aesthetic. It was so hard to describe what the game was. What was the narrative conceit? Who were you as a player, what were you doing there? These were basic questions we didn’t have concise answers for.” The game suffered from the lack of a single easy hook that could be used to lure players. Rigopulos also admitted the musical selections didn’t do the game any favors. “The music was, you know, for the cool kids. It was niche, underground. We though it was great, but it didn’t have mainstream brand appeal. All these factors made it an impossible game to market.” Despite the soft sales of the first game, Sony Computer Entertainment allowed Harmonix to create a sequel, Amplitude. The game offered multiplayer where up to four players could play at the same time, and the game was even playable online, but it suffered from the same problems as Frequency. “It was the beginning of us learning the process that you can’t just make a good game, you need to think about the package, and be able to describe it in a few sentences,” Rigopulos said. He realized that games need to fulfill specific wishes of the player, and the wish had to be immediately clear from the first moment the player saw the game.Harmonix took the lessons learned from the commercial failure of its first games and applied them to Karaoke Revolution, a more successful product that allowed the player to sing along to pop songs using a USB headset. The game could tell by the pitch of your voice how close you were to singing the song correctly, and would give players a score based on their performance. Players were also given a human avatar so they could see clearly who they were supposed to be in the game, and the concept was easily explained and fulfilled a wish: You were a pop singer! People knew what Karaoke was, and the song selection was much more welcoming to fans of mainstream pop music. Karaoke Revolution spawned a number of sequels, and became a hit for Konami’s “Bemani” line of rhythm games. The company had its first commercial success, but more importantly, everyone now understood how to make music games work in a competitive market. It was time to tackle something more ambitious, a product that was closer to the original vision of sharing the feeling that comes from playing live music. “Guitar Hero was our first opportunity to merge the more successful presentation aspects of Karaoke Revolution with some of the addictive and engrossing rhythm game play we had experimented with in Frequency and Amplitude,” Rigopulos explained. It’s fascinating to look back and see how many elements of Guitar Hero were already visible and working in Frequency and Amplitude. You had the round jewels that told you when to hit a button, and they traveled down a series of lanes at a speed that matched the tempo of the music. By pressing the buttons in time to the music and hitting the jewels, you began to feel as if you were part of the performance.Harmonix hit the winning formula with Guitar Hero by mixing the successful aspects of Frequency with the wish fulfillment and easily explained game play from Karaoke Revolution. The game play was simplified to one single lane with five slots, corresponding to five buttons on the guitar-shaped controller. Instead of techno music, the focus was shifted to rock and roll. The abstract, moody backgrounds and splashes of color from Frequency were ditched in favor of smoky clubs and epic arenas. Finally, and most importantly, you weren’t mixing techno songs, you were playing the guitar. Guitar Hero was released in 2005 and shipped with a plastic guitar featuring five buttons and a strum bar. You had to press the button in time with the music while also strumming the faux instrument to play. It was easy to understand and explain. It tapped into a very common fantasy, and the title itself explained the game. Twisted Pixel's Dan Teasdale did some design work on Guitar Hero 2 and, later, Rock Band, and he explained that they actually de-emphasized many game-like aspects to focus on the music. “We tried not be gamey about things, and allow the game to be representative of how it feels [to play the music.] A lot of things we tried early on, like power-ups and stuff, they didn’t make you feel like you were part of a band, which was the goal,” he said. The game was created with the help of peripheral designer Red Octane, and it became a monster hit. Guitar Hero began to pop up at parties, in basements, it was played in college dorms… anywhere people used to listen to music. It proved impossible to license the original tracks for the songs in the game, which included a strong mix of modern and classic rock, so Harmonix was forced to license the compositions themselves from the record labels and had an in-house band re-record cover versions of the songs for inclusion in the game. Guitar Hero became a sensation, but the game was only step one for Harmonix. “The idea of the full band predated Guitar Hero. The full band game was the full realization of the dream. The guitar-only game was what was achievable on a shoe-string budget and as a first outing. It was the sensible place to start,” Rigopulos stated. Shipping a game the size and price of Rock Band without the proven success of a guitar-only game would have been impossible. “Guitar Hero acted as a beachhead at retail,” he said. Harmonix and Red Octane followed the game’s success with Guitar Hero 2, which became a monstrous success. Activision, sensing opportunity, acquired Red Octane in 2006 and put Neversoft to work developing Guitar Hero 3. Harmonix was done with guitar-only games, and began working on its dream project: a game that would combine vocals, guitar, bass, and drums to allow players to feel as if they were playing music in an actual, working band. Nailing the physical interaction with the music via all the physical instruments was key. “The important ingredient was the challenge of translating music as an abstract notion, as a score, translating that via a physical interaction to music as sound,” Rigopulos explained. If you don’t hit the buttons, you don’t hear the note, and the songs were set up to mimic what it would feel like to play the actual music on a real instrument. This was done with great accuracy on the drums, where you had to hit the pads in time with the music, just as you would with an actual drum set. The many notes of a guitar were simplified down to five buttons for the game, but with four drum pads and a kick pedal the experience of playing the actual drums could be simulated with great precision. The act of playing with others was also a core part of the experience. “We wanted to make it feel like a group of four people were doing things together,” Teasdale said. If a player in the game begins to do poorly on their instrument they can fail out of the game, only to be saved whenever another player in the game activates their Overdrive, a special boost that is gained by playing very well in certain sections of the song. This mirrors life in a real band: when someone doesn’t pull their weight, everyone else has to improve to pick up the slack. These elements of the game were working very early on, as Harmonix knew how to do guitars from their work on the early Guitar Hero games, and the Karaoke Revolution games taught them how to handle vocals. The problem was getting everything to work together in a way that felt cohesive. “We spent a year trying to get the communication, the feeling of being in a band, so that everyone felt like they were working together. We tried tons of different things trying to get that back and forth between different people,” Teasdale said. “As soon as you start giving people things to pay attention to around themselves, they’re not paying attention to that track anymore.” The game also required more hardware, and Harmonix had members of the development team flying back and forth to China to take a look at the early versions of the game peripherals, which would look and feel much more like actual guitars compared to the toy-like aesthetics of the Guitar Hero instruments. The team members developing the game at home were stuck playing and testing the early code on primitive versions of the hardware; the prototypes were hacked together at the office. This made for some interesting challenges, and the developer didn’t have access to near-final drums until four months before the game was scheduled to ship to retailers. “We did a lot of prototype work, but much of it was crossing our fingers and hoping it would all come together in the end,” Teasdale explained. The screen itself was designed around the idea of how real bands were laid out. The singer is out front, so it was put on the top of the screen. The guitar and bass were given the sides, with the drums in the middle. It gave everyone an intuitive idea of where to look on the screen when they were focusing on their instruments. It had to make sense to everyone the first time they looked at it, and this is just one of the aspects of the game that was play-tested extensively. In Guitar Hero 2, there were songs that were so difficult that players became stuck and never saw the final songs, and Harmonix was adamant about wanting to avoid similar mistakes. The difficulty in Rock Band definitely had spikes, but there wasn’t nearly as much as a roadblock as there was in the past games. Another important bit of testing was described by Dan Teasdale, and proved prophetic: the team would grab people coming out of clubs and bars to make sure the game was playable even after you’ve had a number of alcoholic beverages. Teasdale bluntly called it “drunk testing,” and stated the importance of a user interface that was easy to navigate even while inebriated. After the game was launched and became a success, many bars actually began hosting Rock Band nights where you could drink while taking turns playing your favorite songs on the stage while your friends belted out the lyrics into a beer-drenched microphone. The drunk testing paid off. This unorthodox play testing also taught them how real people would play the game, and features were added to deal with unexpected interaction. “Everyone felt the need to mash on the strum bar at the end of every song, and that’s something we didn’t expect,” Teasdale said. People would come in, finish a song, and then they would enjoy hitting random notes and strumming the plastic guitars as quickly as possible, which at that point caused your energy to go down, and could in fact lead to someone failing a song at the last minute. “That was where the big rock endings came from, we made some game play where people could wail away and sound awesome.” On the other hand, there were design decisions that took a significant amount of time to create that players took for granted. They spent many hours thinking of how to show the kick pedal on the drums, and finally decided on a wide orange bar that stretched across the entirety of the lane. Despite the difficulty of the problem, the solution was elegant; players knew instinctively what to do when they saw that bar. “PAX was when we first showed it to the public, and the two years before that we had been scrabbling [to finish the game], and things were breaking and we had just been looking at bugs and crunching for six months… we were only looking at the bad side of Rock Band,” Teasdale said, describing the first time the game had a public exhibition for players and the press. Fans lined up for three hours or more to play the game, and after their session they walked back to the end of the line to wait to play again. “Even now, thinking about, it was like holy shit, we have something amazing here.” There was another unknown factor, however: was the market ready for a “game” that included multiple plastic instruments, cost nearly $200, and required four people and an entire room to play and enjoy all the features? “We actually weren’t getting much pushback from retail. At that point Guitar Hero 2 was out, and it was selling like crazy,” Rigopulos said. That fear took place when they launched the original Guitar Hero, when retailers weren’t used to selling games that came in larger boxes, and of course the higher price of the game and the peripherals was also a concern. Retailers were ready to take a chance on Rock Band due to the success of Guitar Hero, but those inside Harmonix itself were scared of the bet they were making. “We were sure Guitar Hero was going to sink at retail because of the price point and the size of the box. We took it to a whole new level with Rock Band, where the price point was almost two and a half times [Guitar Hero], the volume was substantially higher than just the guitar, and at that point resistance was not from retail,” Rigopulos remembered. “Retail had a lot of confidence and were eager buyers of the product.” To this day, those at Harmonix marvel at the complexity of the product, the size of the box, and cost they were asking gamers to pay to play the game. “We had to put a frickin’ powered hub in the box for all the peripherals. It was just an insane proposition,” Rigopulos said. They did not know if the consumer was ready to go from a guitar-only experience to the full band. Rigopulos said they were “terrified.” The game was another huge hit for Harmonix, with players more than willing to buy the game and instruments, and Rock Band night became a ritual for many families and groups of friends. “I’m impressed that people spent $170 on plastic, looking back and seeing how crazy that bundle was… I mean, it’s an awesome game, but for a console-level investment to do that well, it’s insane,” Teasdale said. Now to answer the final question: Why is Rock Band art?
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.