Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Guitar Zero

Stop being a dick and pick up a real guitar

Why are so many computer games violent? I always thought the answer was obvious: because they allow you to do things with impunity you can't do in the real world. And violence is one of those things. If you could drive through a city the way you can in GTA3, why would you play that game?

If you could build cities, raise armies, and attack neighboring states in the world you actually lived in I daresay that Civilization 5 wouldn't enjoy the success it currently does.


If one could easily swing from vines through Mayan ruins, shooting giant spiders and sporting fake breasts it's most likely the case that people wouldn't play quite as much Tomb Raider as they do.

If it was quite easy to lead a quarrelsome troupe on a series of near-suicidal missions through exotic locales bristling with tooled-up and trigger-happy mercenaries, then I expect that sales of 'Battlefield 2: Bad Company' would suffer as a result.

Flickr photo
FlickrGuitar Hero, by cantsaynotohope. Yeah! Rockin' HARD!


But last time I checked you can pick up a guitar and play it. So what's the point of Guitar Hero? Seriously - pick up a guitar. No-one is stopping you. You might even get laid. I met my wife playing the guitar in the back of a pub in Clifden, on the west coast of Ireland, so I know what I'm talking about because I subsequently got laid.

Imagine the same company that made 'Guitar Hero' made 'Artist Hero' where you had to pretend to paint an Andy Warhol, or Piet Mondrian, filling in templates with a fake paintbrush. Why wouldn't you use that? Ok, it wouldn't be much fun. But there's something more: you'd feel like a child, right? But why don't people feel really stupid playing a fake guitar? My kids have a Wiggles guitar. They played it for a while and got bored of it. Why don't people who play Guitar Hero feel really childish? In the bad sense of the word, that is.

I recently argued with my developer friend Brad about Guitar Hero, and was surprised at how strongly I felt about it. In fact I think I pissed him off. We were all just talking about what games we were playing. Brad comes out with something like "I just got to level 6 on Hard on Guitar Hero", and I immediately thought: "That's great. What a waste of either good videogame time, or good guitar-playing time."

What about the wretched argument that playing Guitar Hero encourages people to pick up and learn a real guitar? Does anyone other than the makers of this game believe this for a second? Listening to Jimi Hendrix will make you pick up and learn a guitar. Wanting to impress girls (and other guys, it has to be said) will make you pick up a guitar. Those are excellent motivations. But why would pressing buttons on a bit of plastic in time to an Aerosmith riff as the screen lights up with all sorts of eye-candy make you want to pick up a guitar, which is a piece of wood with a hole in it? Learning a guitar is hard, and it takes a while to persuade any sort of a decent sound out to come of one, so it strikes me that the instant gratification of Guitar Hero definitely would have a powerful effect on people in terms of learning the guitar, but it'd be an inhibiting, discouraging, and ultimately disappointing one.


Ages ago I got guitar lessons once a week from John, a gigging musician and alcoholic. He must have been. He would light a cigarette, put it on its end, and have me transcribe 'Lullaby of Birdland' into my songbook while he swiftly repaired to McDonagh's Public Bar for a stiff one, leaving me to my work. He taught me plenty, old John of Dalkey, and he had plenty of hard-won, practical advice that I sucked up eagerly.

Flickr photo
FlickrMcDonaghs Pub - Dalkey, by PhilPankov.com. Where John, my guitar teacher, used to nip off to for a swift one

Years later, I'd find myself wandering home from the pub under a clear western sky with Finke and Mannion, back to the kitchen in the gallery in Clifden. We'd put on the kettle, pick up a couple of guitars and make a half-cut stab at 'Paranoid Android' or '1979'. There's simply no way that if we had something like Guitar Hero within arms reach that we wouldn't have wasted at least some of that time in playing it.


Here are some things that will never happen to you if you play a computer game about playing a guitar instead of playing a guitar:
  1. You will write a song, play it with all your heart, and your friends will be so touched they will immediately want to know what type of strings you use.
  2. You will walk along the streets of a small town, carrying your guitar to a gig, and feel as if you have crossed oceans of time to become a wandering minstrel in France or somewhere medieval.
  3. Women will come up and talk to you in a bar despite, or perhaps because of - no actually, despite the fact that you just pantsed Pulp's 'Common People'.
  4. That period of time between going to bed and falling asleep at long last becomes a productive one, as you compose lyrics to accompany your music.


You don't read pretend books, with made-up words inside, so stop playing a pretend guitar. You don't watch fake porn, with people pretending to have sex, so stop playing a pretend guitar. And you don't inhabit a fake galactic supercluster, you live in a real one, so stop dicking around with a fake guitar and pick up a real one.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sopa in Black and White

The evil SOPA is beaten! Let the free movies continue!

Now that SOPA looks like it's been postponed for the time being, it struck me that amidst the near-universal pious declarations of outrage there was something missing from the debate. The drowning in free movies and TV shows bit. Try as I might, I just couldn't summon up the response to this draconian, now-stillborn piece of legislation that I knew I was supposed to feel as a right-thinking web citizen.

My first thought had been: well, I'm far away from the coalface on this one, so who cares what I think? But in reality, everyone who uses sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, Google (and in my own profession, Stack Overflow) - in other words everyone and his dog - is in the mine and at the coalface. In the same way as there is no centre of the universe (try the cool interactive star chart on that page), there is no centre of the internet, so maybe we're all at the coalface.

Sure, the SOPA bill sounds like it would have been scandalously un-nuanced in its approach to penalizing sites that in any way link to piracy sites or unwittingly host dodgy content. Hence the righteous indignation. But equally un-nuanced has been much of the anti-SOPA commentary in response. It seems to me that David Pogue has something with the whole free movies shtick.
"But there’s another group of people with a different agenda: They don’t even agree with the bills’ purpose. They don’t want their free movies taken away. A good number of them believe that free music and movies are their natural-born rights. They don’t want the big evil government taking away their free fun."
For is it not a fact that virtually everyone you know has simply stopped even thinking about it in any other way but that movies and TV shows are theirs for the taking, commodities to be traded in a frictionless non-market like words, mere tokens used to curry favour with our fellow workers and friends or gain acceptance with peers. I include myself in that grouping, by the way. I'm not holding anyone to a different account than the one to which I hold myself.

Flickr photo
Flickrlarry david, by jaydedman. Give Larry his $3, please.

Recently I asked around my circle of friends to see if anyone knew an iTunes alternative on Android where I could buy episodes of 'Boardwalk Empire' and 'Curb your Enthusiasm'. I had unsuccessfully tried converting shows I'd bought on iTunes to play on my Xoom. What I noticed was that everyone I spoke to immediately referred me to some or other free file-sharing service without answering my question which had been about buying shows. I could hardly blame them though. Up to that point, I had shown no disinclination to accept, and indeed pass on on occasion, virtual entertainment of... dubious provenance. But now I don't care if Larry David is richer than Croesus or that somewhere there's a f1leZ-sharing site at which I could get this stuff for free: he makes me laugh like a monkey for 30 minutes. $3 is nothing. Really, what would I rather spend my money on?

If people want to oppose legislation like this on technical grounds as many did, then fair enough. If a bunch of lobbyists and politicans who have not demonstrated an understanding of how the internet works and how their changes would imperil that then they didn't do their homework and the smackdown was justified. It's also been pointed out by many that (apparently) the law simply wouldn't make that much difference to the pirates who can easily route around the SOPA restrictions.

But my hunch is that behind the piety a lot of us are objecting to SOPA on spurious if not actually selfish grounds. That hunch is based on what I observe to be something that's quite important to all of us. Free entertainment. We often complain that the movie industry makes way too much money, overcharging for DVDs, or that they would buy content "if they made it easier", etc. Right. In most of the complaints against SOPA though that I've seen, little admission is made to our habituation to piracy. Because that's uncool on the internet, and anyway we all know who the real bad guys are: profitable corporations. In Jeff Atwood's post on all this, he says at one stage "These bills were pushed through by highly paid lobbyists for the entertainment industry." This is classic well-poisoning: what matters is whether someone is doing right or wrong, not how much they're being paid to do it.

In the end, it's the Greek taxpayers problem: as long as the culture fosters an atmosphere of tolerance, and even respect, for people to be seen to be sticking it to the Man (in this case Hollywood), then people have less incentive to do the right thing. Computer users' culture, as far as I've experienced it, is one where we take what we can get for free, and in fact kudos to the go-to guy with the free stuff who knows how to get it. But much like with the Syntagma Square pavement-slab throwers, we should be skeptical of protests presented in such black-and-white terms.