A little over a year ago, I decided that it was time to incorporate gaming into my Modern Popular Music course at Florida State University. I had been inspired by two colleagues in ethnomusicology. Trevor Harvey, a friend and classmate at FSU, researches online music communities. He had successfully incorporated this topic into his own teaching on popular and American roots music, and I knew his input could make this a much more illuminating experience for my students and me. Trevor and I had both seen Kiri Miller‘s paper presentation at SEM the previous year. Along with another colleague (a Grand Theft Auto enthusiast), we started an important discussion with our students about what I call performative gaming.
Allow me a brief flashback. The first gaming contexts in which I noticed elements of player performance were games like Dance Dance Revolution and Parappa the Rapper (old school…late 90s). About the time Harvey started asking probing questions about the nature of these interactive performances (and indeed whether or not they are performances at all), Rockstar Games had released several versions of Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero was fast becoming the most popular video game on several gaming consoles. By the time Harmonix Music Systems released Rock Band, it was clear that if the RIAA and other music moguls of yesteryear could not control a measured commodification of and profit from music, gamers could and would.
Even as I was considering this new reality and what it meant for my classroom, I heard this NPR piece. Sometimes teaching materials just fall right in my lap. I knew I wanted my class to read Miller’s piece on GTA (from Ethnomusicology 51/3). The NPR piece offered an ideal prelude to that article that touched on some of the broader issues I had hoped to cover.
Incorporating these articles into our class discussion on popular music and mass music markets, I involved my students in one of the most successful teaching experiments I have ever conducted. They first either read or listened to the NPR piece. Then I brought in the GTA enthusiast to familiarize students with the games in a kind of participatory gaming laboratory. Students participated as gamers and pointed out their own favorite musical features. Not wanting to shape that experience with anything but the game and their ideas about it, I waited until after that day to have them read Miller’s “Jacking the Dial.” They came back to class with so much discussion material that I had to put off the next part of the gaming lab. Harvey came in for that next phase in order to facilitate participation in Guitar Hero and Rock Band for the class. By this time, we were not so much introducing students to games (most had already played them) as we were trying to get them to think critically about their participation.
While I’m happy to report that this experiment worked (insomuch as it provided me with a framework for starting this conversation with students in the future), we also got hung up by the mesmerizing question of whether or not this kind of participatory, performative gaming constitutes an “actual” or “authentic” musical performance. Students on both sides of the issue were passionate and articulate about their arguments, but I think there are more interesting questions at play here.
Last week, Daniel Radosh published an article in the New York Times that begins to reveal some of those questions in a more public way (thanks to wayneandwax and Sandra Graham for pointing me to this article). Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and CEO of Harmonix Music Systems, comments in the article: “I actually on some levels see what we are doing now as a massive historical throwback to the time in which the way people experienced music that they loved was as active participants in the music.” Rigopulos knows what he’s doing. Yes, it’s a throwback to a time when people a) went to concerts where mania over the artist became a standard element of the experience or b) covered their favorite artists’ tunes in garage bands and local dance halls around the country. Yes, both of these things are still happening, but Rigopulos makes the essence of both of those experiences much more accessible than all that. By requiring technical facilities that are much more accessible to a general population than say, creative songwriting or a distinctive vocal sound, participatory performative gaming harnesses the social essence of musical experience, commodifying it for public consumption.
Miller has gone a long way toward pointing out that the value of this commodity has nothing to do with whether it requires musical skill and everything to do with the social essence that gives performative gaming its own authenticity. This is “a new way of musicking,” argues Miller. Whether music purists and “real” instrumentalists like it or not, Miller draws on her survey evidence to point out that this new modality has a major impact on the ways in which people experience recorded music even when they are NOT gaming. It seems that beyond creating communities of affinity revolving around specific repertories, the new generation of media moguls is changing how people engage with musical commodities of all kinds.
In Marxian terms, people like Alex Rigopulos have somehow found a way to re-fetishize musical commodities. People already fetishize musical commodities in that they relate to each other in a variety of ways (production, distribution, consumption, and presently P2P consumptive production) through those commodities. With performative gaming, companies like Harmonix have made a new kind of commodity out of the experience, a capitalistic fetish peculiar to these games through which people relate not only through the commodity, but because of it. Moreover, the commodity goes further to shape the ways in which people fetishize other commodities; i.e. the tail wags the dog. This could explain McCartney’s feeling that fans have some “new” sense of agency within The Beatles’ music that they didn’t have before. Sooo…if a plastic guitar-shaped video game controller can somehow endow users with a brand of fan agency that a “real” guitar can’t, clearly value lies somewhere beyond the instruments themselves. But has Rigopulos gone too far with his latest project?
Consumers have, until now, happily and even passionately participated in elements of performative gaming that allow them to personalize the experience. Drum fills, improvised guitar solos, and the ability to export songs onto other media for other uses have been all but removed from Harmonix’s forthcoming release, The Beatles: Rock Band. “The decision to make the Beatles game a “walled garden” from which songs cannot be exported and added to a party mix alongside other Rock Band tunes,” writes Radosh, “violates the central shuffle-and-personalize ethos of modern music consumption.” Will these restrictions take away the personal experience that adds so much fun to performative gaming, or will we instead see that social essence to which I refer above as the unaltered and ultimately lucrative commodity here? How important will the ability to customize be to communities of affinity interested in this release? Will the absence of this ability reveal a capitalist tendency to commodify social experience that, up until now, had been masked by the illusion of individuality in the experience? Will it allow Beatles enthusiasts to claim an entirely new form of authenticity borne out of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono’s participation in the game’s creation? However consumers answer those questions, Rigopulos and Harmonix continue to pose them in interesting ways.