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“The Most Important Video Game Yet Made” – The Beatles: Rock Band, Debated

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First, if you haven’t heard about it, come tomorrow (9-9-09), The Beatles: Rock Band is released.  In preparation for its receptions, the game has instigated a lively inter-generational debate.  The lines are not so clearly drawn as to which communities or generations rest on which side, which makes it quite a unique situation.

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beatles (1)Many people, including Seth Scheisel from the New York Times, find that in the sense of cultural influence and pervasiveness, The Beatles game is perhaps “the most important video game yet made.”  On the other hand, Ian Bogost can less-than agree with  Scheisel’s radical opinions on what seems to be yet another rhythm game.  The discussion, mostly followed on Ian’s blog (but also on the initial review itself), crosses from game to culture to history and back.  People of different generations and sub-cultures are intermixed and allied in atypical ways.  The Beatles fans are excited.  The Beatles fans who are also gamers are ecstatic.  Musicians are insulted.  Game researchers are unimpressed.  Anthropologists are interested.  Indifference permeates all across the board!

Join the discussion while you still can.  Chris Lewis, Mark Nelson, and I, from EIS, have already contributed our few cents.

Chris Lewis:

From my own viewpoint, at least, I think you’ve already decided that you dislike The Beatles, and that you dislike the NY Time’s over-the-top evaluation, and that you dislike Boomers as well, so here’s a game that lets you hate it so easily.

You don’t have to appreciate the Beatles, just like my Mum doesn’t have to appreciate Grand Theft Auto IV. Providing new ways with which to engage with cultural touchstones (and, as much as you might not like it, The Beatles have influenced a lot of pop music) can only be a good thing, whether that speaks to you or not. Guitar Hero was celebrated for opening up metal music to an entirely new audience, why shouldn’t that audience also have a chance to experience any and all musical genres?

While I agree with your assertion that it is “the present in the past”, so is releasing music on iTunes, and the long tail that goes along with it. So is the re-release of books with shiny new covers. So is renting a movie that was released in the 70s. So is playing Pong as a Flash game. All of these things are positive engagements and a preservation of a culture that might otherwise be lost. We should celebrate those who venture back to see the things that influence our culture today, not lambaste them for taking an interest in the past.

I hope that one day my grandchildren might play Grand Theft Auto IV, yet re-appropriated and represented to them in a manner so that they can engage with it too.

And so it is with Beatles Rock Band.

Note that:
a) I do believe this is very different to the horrible things Courteney Love has done. This game is the wish of the surviving Beatles, and I’m sure Harrison would have enjoyed fortifying his mansion with the money.
b) I don’t really like The Beatles. I passed up on seeing Paul McCartney for Basement Jaxx instead. But whether I like or dislike them isn’t the point!

Mark J. Nelson:

I wonder if some of the commenters objecting to a focus on the game’s cultural/generational symbolism read the New York Timesreview that serves as the springboard for this blog post. Is The Beatles: Rock Band interesting as a game, as interactive art, as anything else of that sort? Schiesel (the NYT reviewer) doesn’t even argue that point. Instead, he argues:

By reinterpreting an essential symbol of one generation in the medium and technology of another, The Beatles: Rock Band provides a transformative entertainment experience.

In that sense it may be the most important video game yet made.

Never before has a video game had such intergenerational cultural resonance.

Perhaps Schiesel’s view of the game is wholly atypical, but if it’s typical, it’s hard not to take Ian’s point of view.

Me:

I’m actually very happy for all the Beatles fans out there, but really, it makes sense that they need to hype it up so much. If they don’t get people excited about it, it’s not going to make a whole lot of money. They’re trying to sell a game that is geared towards the intersection of people who play video games and people who like the Beatles. It will be interesting to see how tough (or easy) the market turns out to be for that. It seems like those two communities might not overlap very well.

I find myself underwhelmed with the Rock Band and Guitar Hero repertoires; therefore, I don’t have much interest in buying their games. With the new Beatles game, I am, again, left out in holding much appreciation for the music. Maybe when they come out with “Jazz Band Revolution”, “Gospel Music Revolution”, or “Michael Jackson Revolution,” I’ll be on the flip side :)

I also think that rhythm games are a bit played out and maybe instead of trying to score profit from the coat tails of the next legendary pop musician, they come up with even cooler forms of rhythm play. The drum set was a step in the right direction, and we should venture forward.

Me:

So, I admit I’m in the camp (called out by MJN) that did not (initially) read the NYT article, but it’s still the case that this game is banking on the hype, _especially_ of the impassioned few. Schiesel needs to stir up the fans, because, I presume, that many people *like* the Beatles… but not enough to celebrate and revere the game itself.

I do agree with Chris on letting them like what they want to like, but I also agree that to over exalt the less-than remarkable technology leaves uneasy feelings with those who are trying to advance the area. It’s sort of like that feeling some people get when they think of that one unnamed sports game that comes out every year, and how much money people spend on it. Admittedly, it’s a lot of marketing and keeping the consumers excited about the packaging instead of the product. (“$hit in a bag” is how I remember one keynote speaker putting it.)

I also agree with Ian and go further in saying that Schiesel, if he is an utterly revering fan AND a game reviewer, should show some mixed feelings with the premier of interactively experiencing the Beatles. In his NYT article, he seems to not mind that “mechanically, it is almost identical to previous Rock Band games.”

Still, I’m an evangelist (in some of the worst ways) and if there was to be a “Jazz Band Revolution,” I would log into my blog and exalt it to no end. Giving a game more than its due annoys me in (self-admittedly) hypocritical ways as a gamer and a listener of music, but as a musician and a researcher of games, I’d feel appropriately cheated.

I can only hope that some day Jazz music can be afforded the hype that Schiesel gives the Beatles. I’d be honored to have that opportunity to be one of the impassioned few.


About the author:  Sherol is a PhD student with interest in telling stories through games. She loves Jazz music, Jesus, and had a crush on Super Mario when she played her first video game at the age of 5. Read more from this author


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9 Comments

  1. Slade Villena
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 1:53 PM | Permalink

    Played this at PAX, during an after party.

    It has one of the most visually stunning intro’s I’ve ever seen.

  2. Posted September 8, 2009 at 2:20 PM | Permalink

    Purely from a game-design or even interactive-art angle, what I see so far is somewhat disappointing. The screenshot at the top is clearly just a Beatles-skinned Rock Band. They haven’t even moved around the screen elements! Surely for something that major, attempting to make a major cultural splash, they could’ve designed at least a slightlynew type of rhythm game, or at least a new-looking type of rhythm game, instead of just giving the Beatles the ol’ reskin? As one of Bogost’s comments said, “one of the points I tried to make but few have picked up on is the irony of the Beatles, the freaking Beatles, getting a more or less derivative game adaptation”.

  3. Posted September 8, 2009 at 11:18 PM | Permalink

    Totally agree with Mark’s post. The game would be without doubt a market success, but already shows desperate lack of creativity. But then, the question is do people want to create art or do people want to create money. I guess there are different answers to that question.

  4. Posted September 9, 2009 at 1:16 PM | Permalink

    I think Grand Theft Auto was the most important video game made. This Beatles Rock Band is just repackaged/rebranded for this particular group. I wonder if Yoko was the driving force behind getting this released…

  5. Martin Jennings-Teat
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 4:03 PM | Permalink

    I’m a huge Beatles fan. But I’m not at all interested in another (probably well-designed) karaoke game – that’s just a personal preference.

    What I’m not entirely buying is the inter-generational cultural importance claimed by the NY-Times article. If it is about “representing and reoffering an entire worldview encapsulated in music” to new generations, then is it very important that it is a video game? The film Across The Universe from a few years back did that in a much more culturally and historically saturated way, though it may not have been as popular as Beatles Rock Band. In fact, though I love the Beatles, I suspect this game is too Beatles-centric to represent a worldview in any significant way – does it show the anti-war movement, the civil rights struggle, the political-economic issues of the time? If it does that would certainly be an important inter-generational cultural connection, but I don’t think a themed karaoke game is.

  6. Posted September 9, 2009 at 8:26 PM | Permalink

    The irony to me, is that we are discussing how little innovation has gone into the latest iteration of the Rock Band series (a legitimate concern), but we aren’t discussing how utterly boring and tame a game about The Beatles is. I continue to ask, “Has nothing more interesting than the Beatles happened within the last 40 years?”

    Admitedly, I’m not a fan of The Beatles music. However, I do appreciate what the Beatles changed, innovated, and accomplished in their time. I don’t want to go back to the 60’s, and I don’t blame the franchise for not revolutionizing the industry with 40 year old pop tunes.

    Maybe with jazz…. but not pop tunes.

  7. Posted September 11, 2009 at 10:21 AM | Permalink

    Is there any info on how much cash Rockband had pay to get the Beatles rights? It must of been a sick amount. My Uncle in his 50s would probably play this game because he is a die hard Beatles fan. Wonder if this game will tap into an older audience?

  8. Posted September 15, 2009 at 1:49 PM | Permalink

    I am a Beatles fan myself and an avid gamer. I’ll be checking out this game and play it.

  9. Posted September 23, 2009 at 2:03 PM | Permalink

    Best Buy had the beatles rock band at the monterey jazz fest. it was a huge hit and people were crowded around the console at times singing their beatles favorites. I wonder how many of them are actually going to buy the game.