The Rock Band Zeitgeist: Does Anybody Still Care About Plastic Guitars?

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The recent Rock Band 4 rumors have turned me into my Dad.

You’d think that being in non-virtual bands would be what would allow me to relate more to my father, since both of my parents played in bands together for many years. My Mom plays keyboards of all forms, from the organ to the piano to the synthesizer. My Dad, on the other hand, is a more “old school” guitarist who’s been known to grumble about kids these days not playing music on real instruments, such as when he saw several chiptune artists hammering away on Game Boys at a nerdcore show at which my own band performed. (We use “real” instruments, but I do play a keytar, so I’m walking a fine line.)

Personally, I think bands made up of two tiny keyboards and a laptop are just as “real” as other bands, and I know from experience that it takes just as much musical skill to compose a good chiptune song as it does to compose a song in any other format. But when it comes to the rumored release of another Rock Band game, I think my Dad might actually have a point. Does the next generation after mine actually give a shit about playing a plastic guitar? Is that something they grew up fantasizing about?

For the record, guitar sales are doing just fine. But if Harmonix wants to sell big with another Rock Band, they need to capture the hearts of current college students, not just my generation.

Rock Band is structured around a really specific fantasy: “let’s be in a band together.” That’s a fantasy that I remember having as a kid, and, eventually, I went ahead and did it. Pretty much everybody else I know has that fantasy, too—even the people who have no interest in learning to play an instrument. I think that dream of performing for a cheering crowd is probably something that unites most people. Even if many people don’t act on that dream, they’ll still enjoy a bit of virtual tourism into that world. But my version of the fantasy is inextricably associated with my perceptions of what a band looks like: Drummer, Bassist, Guitarist, Vocalist, and Maybe-There’s-A-Keyboardist-If-It’s-Rock Band 3.

I’m in a band with a very 1980s line-up in terms of the instruments we play, so I’m clearly a washed-up has-been by any high schooler’s standards. So, I probably shouldn’t be the person advising Harmonix about their Rock Band 4 choices, because I’d probably tell them to put in a banjo or a MIDI pad or something since I have no idea what kids today might enjoy. But even a has-been like me can tell that popular bands today don’t look anything like my favorite Rock Band line-ups. There’s no Iron Maiden, no Joan Jett, and nothing like The Who—and that’s fine! Musicians today have found other cool shit to make their music on. There are a lot more laptops and loops involved. Sometimes even Game Boys.

When I talked the Rock Band 4 rumors over with my drummer tonight, he piped up to say that he felt like those games had always been great teaching tools for drummers—but we both agreed that the games aren’t really about teaching people how to become musicians, much to Harmonix’s disappointment. As the Rock Band games delved closer and closer towards “real” instruments, my non-musician friends seemed to become less and less interested in them—and, I admit, so did I. I can already play the piano, and if I want to learn how to cover a song, there are easier ways to do it than Rock Band … like, uh, sheet music. Sorry, Harmonix.

I don’t think it’s that Rock Band never inspired people to become musicians; I’m sure it did inspire some people to go take some music lessons. But for most people, these games were about living out a fantasy that they didn’t care to pursue in real life—and that’s actually fine. The dream that Harmonix was actually selling wasn’t “learn how to be in a band” so much as “feel like you’re in a band.”

For three wonderful years, that worked. I remember spending 2007, 2008, and 2009 in a whirlwind of Rock Band fever; I wasn’t in a band at the time, but I was writing a lot of music and performing, and Rock Band seemed to be at every single party I attended. It bridged between all of my groups of friends: my antisocial friends loved it, my musician friends loved it, my theatre friends loved it. Even my Dad invited me back home for a weekend to teach him how to play the game so that he could play it at his young coworkers’ parties. This game had somehow crossed generational and musical lines to bring everybody together on the strength of the same fantasy: we’re all in a band together. Musically competent people could finally play alongside friends of theirs who had absolutely no interest in learning a single jot of musical notation. And it all actually sounded good! And it was just difficult enough that it even felt a little bit—just a little bit—like being in a real band.

Somewhere in 2009, that feeling ran dry for me. Maybe I was just burned out because I had played too much. Maybe it was because I don’t really like Green Day or even The Beatles. Who knows? Playing real music hadn’t lost its luster at all, but somehow, the virtual version did. The weirdest part of all was that everybody else seemed to get sick of these games at exactly the same time that I did. Parties quietly became about other activities. Everyone’s virtual instruments collected dust and then, slowly, migrated underneath futons and into closets. I’m still not entirely sure why. Did we all just go way too hard on virtual rock-outs during exactly the same time period? Is the band ever going to get back together?

I realize that as a columnist it’s my job to give you an explanation for what happened, or at least to offer some sort of entertaining theory, but I’m pretty much stumped. It does seem like no one particularly wanted to continue with Harmonix’s “Pro” line of real-ish guitars, and it also seems like nobody really wanted to keep buying DLC packs of songs ad infinitum either.

But we all still want to be in a band, right? … Right?

I think it might be too late for the people who already played way too much Rock Band (i.e. me and everyone I know). But it’s not too late for the next generation of college students who are now throwing their own rowdy house parties. Rock Band is way cheaper and way more fun than karaoke, and I still think the inherent structure of cooperation and musical participation could sweep the hearts of youths today all over again, if Harmonix hit the right balance.

The problem remains, though, that the other Rock Band games relied on a specific type of band nostalgia that is fading fast. Maybe now people would rather have a combined dance-and-singing game that makes them and their friends look just like 4Minute (wait, that’s actually a good idea, Harmonix are you writing this down). Or maybe it’s just that much of music today is already created by simulations, loops and—dare I say it—gamified and digitized methods of performance. Plastic guitars already won. So now we don’t need them anymore.

Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.