In a news post on Kotaku, Jack White is quoted saying that new musicians need to “quit playing video games, throw away their Auto-Tune program and cut three strings off their guitar.” I don’t disagree that this combination of actions might help a person improve as a musician, but this sort of absolutist argument has become tiresome; we hear the same complaints registered against video games time and again by the older generations of musicians. They’re partially right: you’re never going to become a great guitarist by playing Guitar Hero. On the other hand, no intelligent person is playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero hoping it will turn them into a musician, and it’s not nearly as bad as the anti-video game musicians claim it is. In fact, you might get some small musical benefits out of playing a well-crafted music game.
To illustrate my point, I will have to enter into full awkward self-disclosure time: When I was living in Greensboro, North Carolina, my friend Andy and I started a story-based rock band about two dinosaurs that showed up in the present day United States, their adventures, and their inevitable Highlander-style showdown. The band was called Saurus. Our major influences were The Flaming Lips, Frank Zappa, and Jet Li’s The One. This is all true. I have proof.
We performed our entire sets in plot order, projected a PowerPoint presentation behind us to explain the story, dressed in lab coats, and let the audience determine which of the two dinosaurs would win the final battle, thus choosing both the last song of the set and the fate of the entire world. The dinosaurs had the combined powers of all the dinosaurs that are now extinct, you see. For the duration of my time with this crazy project, I played a lot of video games, including the newly-released Rock Band.
I am not the world’s greatest musician. My band-mates, Bart and Andy, are both vastly superior to me in both musical composition and skill with their instruments. They kept me around because the story was partially my idea and I wrote some decent lyrics from time to time. I had to practice a lot to even keep up with them, and that practice is the main source of whatever skill is present in the final recordings on our one and only album, The Word Dinosaur Means Terrible Lizard. But when I slacked off and decided not to practice, I usually played Rock Band, and here’s the thing about Rock Band: If you’re going to slack off and not practice your instrument or work on a new song, there is no better video game to play.
It’s not actually playing music, sure, but it’s still interacting with music in a very real way. You have to focus on rhythm and timing. In well-charted games and songs, certain finger motions reflect the acts of actually playing an instrument. I’ve gotten more comfortable using hammer-ons and pull-offs through Rock Band than I ever was before. On top of that, playing the drums can teach a lot about rock timing and provide a newfound respect for the drummer in your band. That’s a tough job to do well.
Rock Band is no more damaging to a musician than any other form of procrastination, and certainly less damaging than most (read: heroin). Of course you’d always be better off practicing or writing, but if you’re going to spend some time with a video game, music games will keep your mind thinking musically. Maybe my crazy dinosaur rock band doesn’t prove that point, but you should have heard my playing when I started out. Trust me, I was a lot worse.