My six-year-old son is a Guitar Hero II junkie. Every morning he wakes up at 7:30 and by 8:00 is bugging me to let him crank up our XBox 360 to play GHII. This has been happening for the better part of three months; when he started, he could only play the first rank of five songs on the easiest setting (and using his thumb at that). Now, after three months of near-daily play, he has moved up to the medium setting and is starting to learn how to play with his fingers. Last week he scored his first perfect rating, hitting 100% of the notes in “Trogdor.”
While I was watching him play this afternoon, I asked him what his favorite songs were on the game. Most of them were speed metal songs by the likes of Anthrax, Danzig and Lamb of God, with an occasional ditty by Motley Crue or Nirvana. I cringed at first. Great merciful crap….what kind of parent lets their six year old listen to such shit? (I’m expecting a visit from Tipper Gore any day now.) But after quizzing him on some of the lyrics, I quickly realized that he’s not paying a lick of attention to the words of these songs, but their notation schemes and difficulty levels. In essence, what makes a song favorable is the enjoyment my son gets not from listening to it but rather from playing it; the faster the tempo and more complicated the chord structures, the more he likes it.
This got me thinking back to when I first started really listening to music when I was a kid, holing up in my room for hours with my Radio Shack faux-component stereo system and a set of headphones, fiddling through the FM band or rifling through a shoebox of cassette tapes to find my favorite songs. I have always been a good consumer of music, never any credible creator of it. Watching my son religiously play Guitar Hero every day this summer makes me a little envious of him because his developing musical tastes are becoming deeply intertwined with what he himself is capable of doing. I can’t say that I liked the songs and bands that I grew up listening to because I thought I was somehow capable of making music myself; growing up in the 1980s, the advent of MTV and Friday Night Videos told me and millions of kids of my generation that watching/listening was all we needed to do; if we were supposed to bug our parents, it was to get them to buy us the latest A-ha or New Kids on the Block album.
Today, videogames are turning a new generation of kids on to music in a much more visceral way. I realize of course that games are, on many levels, incredibly sophisticated marketing devices, but it’s also undeniable that games—especially progression rhythm games like Guitar Hero or the ubiquitous Dance Dance Revolution—are refusing to allow passive consumption. Anyone who plays Guitar Hero or DDR for at least an hour every day for a couple of months is going to have elevated hand-eye coordination at least, and probably toner arms and legs to boot (Guitar Hero is much easier to play standing than sitting).
The final point here is the gateway effect Guitar Hero is having on my son, in that the more he plays the game and masters the plastic controller, the more he desires to learn and master a real guitar. This recently crystallized around his birthday this month, when a very gracious grandparent gave him a starter guitar kit that is now easily among his most precious possessions. It should be interesting to watch his tastes and abilities to progress.