I am Bon Jovi

photo / sklathill 

I’ve played guitar for about two years now. My favorite songs that I’m working on are The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” and The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” I’ve played the drums in Rock Band for all of 30 hours. My favorite song is Jon Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.”

I’ve never liked Jon Bon Jovi.

But Rock Band does something to you. It’s possibly the best realization of pure play that can be packaged into a box and sold at Best Buy. I don’t simply mean that it’s a good video game. I think it’s damn near transcendent.

One of the first theories of play came from Johan Huizinga in his 1938 book Homo Ludens. One of his main ideas that’s been passed down is the notion of a play space as protected by a “magic circle.” The areas we play in are separated from the everyday world and vice versa. In other words, they’re safe zones.

Even though we set up rules to play games by – you’re it if you get tagged or you’re dead if you get tagged – they’re different rules from the normal world. In life, you rarely get $200 for passing go, and if you jump head first into a floating brick, it probably won’t supply you with a magic mushroom that makes you get bigger. Usually.

In most games that we play as adults, there’s a sort of medium for interaction. There’s the controller or a board or a set of cards. When you play as a child, your body winds up being that medium as often as not. You run, jump, or playact.

But as you get older, it becomes weirder to play without some sort of interface. The only 20-year-olds you see playing Red Rover are the quirky kids. I’ve been there. It feels great, but you draw a fair amount of looks. If you add in a ball and a net, though, the game becomes more acceptable.

Rock Band obviously comes with an interface: a set of beautiful plastic instruments that are proudly strewn across my living room right now, more easily accessibly than my actual guitar and amp – but the tools the game gives you manage to make you forget that you’re playing pretend.

photo / samirakhan 

Once you hit the groove, you’re no longer aping a rock star. You are Jon Bon Jovi. I am Jon Bon Jovi.

The group of people I played with has a range of musical ability. Some of us have never touched an instrument; some of us jam together with real instruments on a quasi-regular basis. When we jam with actual instruments, it’s a light affair usually mixed up with beer, but there’s still a need to try something new or catch that one groove. And then you hit it, and you feel like a rock star. But it works because there are no rules – it’s musical brainstorming.

In Rock Band, you can get that feeling within five minutes. And it works only because it’s chock full of rules.

To say that jamming with a real guitar and drum kit has no rules is inaccurate. The basics of music theory take a long time to boil down to instinct and intuition – I’m not there yet. But in Rock Band, the rules are made up of a series of flashing colored lights that cue the user when to hit a specific plastic fret, tap a neon drum pad, or sing a specific pitch into a mic.

The entire game is a set of streaming rules. And it’s incredibly liberating. The rules are set to re-create a real-world experience of master tracks and arena rock. Because your movement matches some level of strumming or drumming, you feel like you’re both playing a game and playing an instrument – it blurs the line. All that changes, though, when you pick up the microphone.

The instant you take over the singing role in Rock Band, you’re no longer using an interface to play the game. Sure, there’s a microphone, but it’s a real microphone. There’s no toy aspect to it at all. And it’s not a simulated guitar. It’s your voice.

That makes it a little bit more awkward. If in any other game or any other instrument in Rock Band you mess up, there’s the ability to pass it off as a problem with adapting to the tool. It takes a bit of adjustment to drum on a fake kit, but it’s your own voice that you have to use to accompany the instrument.

That magic circle is pretty much toast.

And yet, somehow, the brains behind Rock Band make it feel okay. People are still reluctant to show off their own voice, but they’ll do it. And then they get that moment of pure play, where three people are jamming together, two on candy-coated instruments and one on a very real mic.

Inhibitions are shed. Adults are sitting around playing, not like they’d compete in Halo or Super Smash Brothers, but in the same collaborative, goofy way they’d play tag as five year olds.

And then – oh boy – then they play some Jon Bon Jovi.

photo / sklathill 

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