With A Little Help From My Friends
The lights dim as the drummer starts the count. The crowd collectively holds their breath, waiting for the first note to pound their eardrums. The kick drum kicks, the cymbals ring, the bass player starts his line. Each piece falls into place, the separate parts becoming whole, until there's only one missing ingredient. And right at that crucial moment is when I come in and screw everything up.
The notes I want to make soar over the crowd come crashing down instead, producing the second ugliest sound possible, followed by the first; the crowd's groans and boos. My heart drops through the stage.
I can sense Rachael shaking her head from the couch behind me. Her boyfriend sounds momentarily disappointed. "Start it over!"
The motions are too practiced, too swift. Bring up the menu, down to restart, green button. At some point, I'm going to run out of mulligans.
"This would be a lot easier if I had some help." I say to my crowd -- the ones on the couch, not the polygons on the screen -- but they just laugh. They're here to be entertained, and interactivity is not on the menu.
Ethan Watters writes that people in my age bracket tend to create social circles based around common lifestyles and careers. These so-called urban tribes are the new families for my generation, their members becoming as close as siblings because of shared interests and activities. I find myself smack-dab in the middle of Watter's theories, as I'm spending this holiday season not with my parents, aunts, and uncles, but with my roommates and friends. These people are my new family, brothers and sisters I've chosen instead of inherited. But if I'm going to be responsible for choosing my replacement family, maybe I should have chosen people who aren't afraid of playing video games.
I live in a large rental house in Seattle, one of the techiest towns in the U.S., with four similarly aged people. Some of them are huge IT nerds; I'm fairly sure our consumer-grade DSL line doesn't require a fancy IPCop box with three layers of protection from outside hackers -- if people want to see my porn they can just ask. Everyone in the house has at least one computer, and multiple gadgets. I'm talking about carefree, tech-savvy people. But the idea of strapping a plastic guitar on in the privacy of their own home scares the bejeezus out of them.
The consequence of this is that I've never seen the co-operative mode in Guitar Hero II. I'll often read the listings at GameFAQs, eyeing the elusive and, in my case, unattainable bass guitars and dreaming of a day when I can throw down some low-down. Practice mode is one thing, sure, and playing the bass lines is fun enough, but it's not the same. I imagine the experience Guitar Hero provides is best shared with another person, like a good film, a bottle of wine, or sex.
My tribe will not rock out with me, but they're perfectly content rocking out to me. Roommates bring their friends, dates, and family members over to watch me fumble my way through Freya, and everyone cheers when I tear the roof off this mother during Sweet Child O' Mine. I don't believe they're here to ridicule the funny man with the plastic guitar; rather, watching me play has become something of a spectator sport. Even though I'm not actually playing a guitar, the game itself becomes an instrument. And the music, thanks to the talented musicians at Harmonix, is good. This might be my ego talking, but coming to our house and watching me flail about during solos has become an alternative to going to an actual concert.
So why not take part in the concert themselves? Part of it has to do with experience, I'm sure. Someone who hasn't played rhythm-based games can easily be spooked by the speed of the notes in Monkey Wrench, even if they rationally know that they can start on a lower difficulty level. Another part of the issue might be simple embarrassment, probably the same kind of fear and shame I feel when staring at the DDR machines at GameWorks. I can't dance to those sugary J-Pop songs, no matter how many times I try, and public trial-by-fire isn't my ideal method of learning.
What it comes down to in the end, however, is that it's easier for my friends to let me fulfill the role of gamer in our tribe. I'm the one who pushes the buttons on the controller, and they're the ones who cheer or heckle as the situation sees fit. It's often easier to watch than to do, and as long as they're willing to indulge me while I try to rock out, I can live with that.