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Edutainment and Lessons “Learned” from Commercial Video Games: Jazz Band Revolution

rock-band“Jazz Band Revolution” …. Trust me, this is a great idea. A fellow EIS labmate recently gave a class presentation about the “Edutainment Fail.”  To its credit, edutainment is responsible for my first interactions with desktop computers.  Games such as Oregon Train, Logo Writer, some lemonade stand game, and that typing game were widely used in my early primary school years.  I suppose as games became more commercially available, the novelty of games in education were upstaged.  Still, it’s apparent that there is a great deal of learning that goes into playing some of the most popular games today, so it begs the question… Why aren’t games used for educational purposes more? Many bridges are in process being built to overcome the gap between the motivation to be entertained and the motivation to learn.  Similarly, there are many educational avenues from the experiencing to building of interactive experiences– whether it is to learn about the technology itself or to be engaged by the technology to learn.  Let’s be honest, everyone knows that games are more than just entertainment, yet why are they mostly seen as entertainment– If I am willing to learn for the sake of being entertained, surely, I am willing to learn USEFUL things for the sake of being entertained (if nothing else).  Being entertained should be assumed for all games; asking for a game that can entertain is like asking for a drink that will quench thirst.  Albeit, not all drinks will quench thirst, but we have more options than just water to quench our thirsts.  So listen up Activision, Harmonix, and Konami: Games are for more than just quenching my thirst for entertainment.

The main point I’d like to discuss is that games could be far more useful than they currently are.  Now, I can believe that it’s tough for games with non-lucrative purposes to catch up to the popularity of top commercial games today, but is it really that hard to have popular games today with a little more educationally purposed content?  I don’t think so… In fact, it wouldn’t take much to impact or enrich the gaming experience, if only we’d be more intentional about it.

Let’s take a look at the rhythm and music games of today:

ddrDance Dance Revolution. I won’t be displaying my Sandstorm DDR moves at the club, but I appreciate the excercise nonetheless.  The day I’m able to take my moves to the dance floor, I’ll be satisfied.  Till then, I’ll take my entertainment with a side of excercise.

karaoke_revolutionKaraoke Revolution. Anything that involves pitch matching is great for ear training, and if used appropriately, you really are exercising your voice.  It’s great at parties, but there are so few songs per game, that my friends prefer the karaoke bar.  Among the selection I have to choose from, I usually only know a couple of the songs.  In that sense, I did “learn” a number of popular songs.  I learned these songs for the sake of being entertained, but do I find this knowledge useful?…. not really.

guitar-hero-ii-20060517053840543Guitar Hero. I don’t even have anything to say about Guitar Hero.  It exposes me to new songs and trains my sense of rhythm… and it’s entertaining.


Rock Band. I was in percussion ensemble when I was undergrad and took a winterim of drumset private lessons.  For sure, Rock Band trains up the coordination necessary for playing the actual drums– a win for edutainment in a commercial game.  As far as the music selection goes, I only knew 1 or 2 of the songs, and I had no choice but to learn and expand my repertoire of rock music.  Overall, I find that these games are very good at exposing me to music I don’t listen too.  The only thing that bothers me is that it’s likely I don’t listen to a type of music, because I don’t really like that type of music.

Despite not listening much to rock and alternative, I still purchase and enjoy these games.  It’s only fair that if I have to listen to music I don’t know anything about, so should other people.   I’m joking… That’s a terrible reason to make a game; however, a direction I hope could be taken is a game I call “Jazz Band Revolution.”


Concept art for "Jazz Band Revolution"

Jazz Band Revolution addresses the following needs:

  • The desire to play real instruments. If Karaoke Revolution can pitch match my voice, then it should be able to pitch match the notes from my saxophone.  All we need is the horn mic input device.  Similarly, Instruments needing amplification can be plugged into the console via some input cable.
  • The desire to read real notes. Is it that hard to use real notes instead of sliding bars with circle shaped indicators on them?  Notes on sheet music are typically immobile, but I’d settle for sliding staves of notes (which wouldn’t be all that different from how we read rhythm game music now).
  • The desire to know about Jazz. Jazz music is not only rich with history and culture, it’s lineage is quite revered.  As a result, there are set standards that all people who listen to and play jazz would or should know.  It would be as simple as taking Hal Leonards “The Real Vocal Book,  Volume I” and digitizing it.  If you survey all the Jazz standard music books there is a great deal of overlap, indicating that there is a specific set of songs that everyone should know.
  • The desire to voice chords. New challenges, such as converting analog chords from a guitar digitally into its individual notes, would need to be handled, but in the meantime could remain unimplemented and substituted for simpler models of play.
  • The desire to improvise. The drums, in Rock Band, are often awarded a drum fill, but a side from quantity of input produced, everything else is ignored.  It’s not like your rhythmic accuracy and creativity are scored during the drum fills.  Programs, such as Band in a Box, on the other hand, channel the tendencies of Charlie Parker and other Jazz legends computationally using the melodic rules and rhythmic inclinations to imitate Jazz improvisation, and if a computer can be programmed to improvise, then a computer can process and score the improvisation of someone playing a game.

My Real Books

My Real Books


  • “I don’t own any real instruments.” Real instruments are a good investment for many reasons.  My saxophone, for example, appreciates in value with time.  If it isn’t worth it to own a nice instrument, then buy a cheap one, use a kazoo, or just sing instead.  Keyboards and guitars can be purchased for under $100 (and even cheaper if used), serve more purposes than just gaming, and don’t have controller compatability issues as a result of standardized sound input.
  • “I don’t know how to play any real instruments.” There’s learning involved in DDR and Guitar Hero, so you’d learn just like any other game.  Levels of difficulty would ease a new player into the game by limiting the number of notes per song.  Additionally, many Jazz standards have very simple melodies.
  • “I can’t read music.” The same sliding bars and color coded circles would be used just like in the other games.
  • “I don’t listen to Jazz music.” Jazz music is good for your soul.
  • “Real books are controversial in the Jazz community.” Musically speaking, there is a lot of room for criticism in trying to computerize the appraisal and representation of art forms.  I don’t have an answer for this one, except that I love my real book, but I know not to live by it.
  • “Jazz isn’t about rules.” Yea, but you need to know the rules before breaking them.

“Jazz Band Revolution” is just one avenue towards the many possible wins for edutainment, more specifically, musical edutainment.  Parents who want their kids to play music need to realize that piano lessons aren’t fun.  Piano lessons typically aren’t fun because I have to practice everyday to be good.  If I’m a kid, then I’d probably rather be playing with my friends, than playing the same song over and over again by myself.  Basketball is fun.  “Starcraft: BGH Top vs. Bottom” is fun.  Rock Band is fun.  Playing real instruments can be fun too, just like how playing the fake ones are.

JambaIs it really that hard?  I’m no expert, so, by all means, educate me.  Even post mortem, games not originally intended for education have been useful– such as studying the ecomony in MMOs.  I wonder how much a difference it would make, both for the reputation of games and also the enrichment of the experiences, if there were more intentionally educational content worked into commercial games.  Every little bit helps– just think of it as the free boost you get with your Jamba Juice.

I mean, why learn Al Bhed when I could be learning French?


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