Guitar Games: Limits and Possibilities of Instrumental Teaching Through Video Games

Lecture held during the ludomusicology-conference at Utrecht University (abstract)

Until very recently we were forced to use special controller in video games like Guitar Hero. These times are over. Now it is possible to bring your own electric guitar, connect it to video game console or computer and turn it thus into the essential part of the game. The graphical user interfaces of these games mirror primarily the neck and strings of the guitar, while dynamically placed marks indicate what users are expected to play and what they actually do play. Users respond to the musical forms displayed on the screen, and software continuously monitors their performances with regard to timing and pitch, awarding points for successful interpretations of songs. In this sense, these games both continue the tradition of classical notation and adopt it to include new elements from video games.

This presentation focuses on Ubisoft’s Rocksmith, which is the most popular example of this new video game genre. This game not only allows users to choose from a broad variety of well-known rock songs, but it also tries to match precisely the sounds of users’ guitars and the sounds of the original recordings. These new possibilities offered by sophisticated video game technology raise numerous questions: What are the obstacles with regard to the transmission of any users own instrument into virtual space and with regard to the virtualization of individual styles? What are the limits and possibilities in such methods of gamification? To what extent do guitar games represent a continuation of traditional notation and instruction? Is this kind of software able to recognize and assess virtuosity?

To answer these questions on the one hand references are made to music didactics and media technology and on the other hand songs or selected riffs by guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix are presented live with electric guitar in applications such as Rocksmith. This approach will reveal the limits of guitar games, especially with regard to their discrete grids and limited presets, but also suggest the potential for gamers and musicians alike.