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Channeling their inner rock star, Matt (left) and Dylan demonstrate the popular video game Guitar Hero at the local GameStop. Photo by Phil Houseal

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Guitar Heroes

by Phil Houseal
Dec 24, 2008

If you have teenagers, don't be surprised to find a Guitar Hero under your Christmas tree. I'm not talking about an aging rock star sleeping off last night's excesses, but rather the season's hottest video game.

I have been hearing about this music action game for a while, but since my video game phase ended after mastering Ms Pac-Man, I needed to do a little research. How, I wondered, could you turn playing an instrument into a competition?

With the help of Peter McFarlane, Manager of GameStop, I arranged a demo. I brought along members of the game's target audience - namely my 15-year-old son Hartley and his high school buddies. They eagerly seized the controls and introduced me to the world of ersatz rock and roll stardom (is there any other kind?).

There are actually two competing games. Guitar Hero is better known, but Rock Band is gaining popularity due to its addition of drums, bass, and other instruments and a broader music library.

Here's how it works.

Players strap on a game controller shaped like an electric guitar. In place of strings, there are 5 colored buttons on the neck. "Strumming" is accomplished by pushing a lever located in the center of the guitar body. On screen, a never-ending "end on" view of a guitar neck streams away from the viewer. Colored buttons appear on the image, corresponding to notes in the song. The player's goal is to push the correct button and strum in time with the music.

It is not easy. I made it halfway through one song before being kicked out of the band for missing licks. The only reason I got that far is because I chose American Woman, a tune etched in my brain since the 1960s.

The real appeal of the game is that it fleshes out the concept of "air guitar" - flaying an imaginary Stratocaster with Springsteen cranked up to 10. Using these video games you get to play a model Les Paul or Flying V (complete with customizable overlays). You choose your stage name and persona. Onscreen, your bandmate avatars prance on stage. When you screw up a song, they groan and smash their instruments. But when you nail every note, the crowd roars, lights pulsate, and you book your band in ever larger venues. That's more reward than leaving your initials at the top of the list in Asteroids.

I handed the controllers to local experts Dylan and Matt. They took off on a five-minute head-banger without missing a lick.

"It's more active than sitting and playing," explained Matt. "For me it's more fun because you can play with friends - it's more of a party game."

Observer Hayden echoed the opinion of many parents, "This is what happens when kids sit around and waste time."

That made me wonder if Guitar Hero leads some slackers to take up real guitar, or is just another way to pretend to have talent without investing any effort.

According to McFarlane, who holds degrees in music performance, the more likely outcome is introducing kids to different bands.

"Some kids who've come in have picked up guitar because of this," he said. "But many hear stuff they never would have heard before. They say, hey, I like this music."

There are other side effects. Later that very evening I overheard a young wife discussing her husband's "addiction" to Guitar Hero. "He won't leave the house," she lamented to her friend. "He plays it four hours a day. I told him he is not getting Rock Band because he can't handle Guitar Hero!"

That is probably a plaint heard since grandpa shot cat's eyes and dad played pinball. Ain't technology grand?

"It's entertaining," McFarlane said, "to say the least."