One of the amazing things about Guitar Hero is its ability to inspire self-indulgent articles about Guitar Hero. Perhaps its emphasis on mind-body coordination and flowing with the music leaves the grad-student part of the brain idle. Psychology boffins can help us understand how getting better at Guitar Hero works, and what that means for Real Life. A pair of profs at Carnegie Mellon (hereinafter referred to as Guitar Hero University) point out that "practice always helps improve performance, but that the most dramatic improvements happens first." It's that first rush of success that gets you hooked, a basic activity-reward good game designers have known about for years. The GHU profs insist that "with sufficient practice people can achieve comparable levels of performance," meaning you too can learn to play guitar like that Zorro guy in the insurance commercials. Eventually.
Problem is, we're fragile, scared human beings. We're afraid to take that first step because we don't think we're "good enough," whatever that means. You have to take that first step. It'll likely produce the momentum for a second step, and a third, moving you steadily toward your goal. Not taking that first step means you get nowhere. If there's one thing you take away from this before you click the forum link to news of the new chimp spear-fighting game for the PS3, it's that you have to put your efforts out into the world. Being "good enough" will come in time. The key is to fake it 'til you make it.
People tend to see their end goal, whether it's to be a rock god or a game designer, and lose hope at the enormity of it. They're looking at the whole mountain rather than the path in front of them. When you're learning, you come across plateaus where it seems you're not making progress. You get to that one song that's like hitting a wall and you never get all the way through before you're booed offstage. You have to walk those barren plateaus. Once you're higher up the mountain, you look back and see how far you've come. The obstacles that almost made you give up don't seem so difficult now. The rock 'n' roll scientists at GHU show us with charts and graphs and scary math that plateaus are eclipsed by the overall learning curve. Helping us stay focused on the path is the fact that Guitar Hero's gameplay is fun (and sometimes more than just fun, but that'll draw on a different article from the GHU Journal of Rockin' Studies).
Fun is the key when you're pursuing your real-life goals. There are, apparently, people with massive amounts of a substance called "willpower" who can do something they don't enjoy, become proficient at it, and make a living doing so. We'll charitably assume that most of you aren't one of these mutants. The trick is knowing what you truly enjoy and being honest about it, whether it's writing, coding, art, or even playing one of those real guitars with strings that hurt your fingers.
Once you have the "fun" part cased, it's time to seek that early success. In Guitar Hero, you start out playing a gig in somebody's basement. Humble beginnings. In real life, you'll start out the same way. You're anxious about what people will think of your short story, your game design, your multiplayer map level. Giving a live performance, where there's no pause button, is even worse. It's like running down a steep hill, with no time for thinking about anything other than what you've already learned to do and may have rehearsed. In Guitar Hero, when you get through a tricky song without having been booed off the stage, regardless of how horrible your performance may have been, you think, "Sweet Jesus, I made it through!" and want to collapse with relief. The same thing happens in real life. You made it through, and you can be sure that no matter what you thought of your performance, no matter what the crowd response seemed to be, you now have at least one fan.
A buddy of mine went to GHU and was in a band with some other guys from the radio station. They played in a small-scale local festival to what seemed like a nasty crowd of skate-punks. The low point was when one beefy future frat boy got on stage, took the no-skateboarding sign the band had propped in front of the drum kit and bent it across his knee. However crappy things seemed during that 20-minute set, though, there were still people who would come up to him even months later and tell him how much they enjoyed the show. The local public-access station had set up a camera way in the back of the performance space, and when my buddy finally overcame his dread and watched the tape, the skate-punks' booing was drowned out by the cheering of most of the rest of the crowd nearer the camera's vantage point. Even if it doesn't feel like it at the time, any genuine effort that's put out into the world is an early success.
Guitar Hero is so popular partly because it feeds into almost everybody's secret desire to be, well, a guitar hero. They may start to learn, practice a little bit, and on one of those long plateaus think they'll either never be good enough or be too old by the time they are. You want to know how old you'll be by the time you learn to play a decent guitar, write a short story, or code a small program? Julia Cameron gives the answer in The Artist's Way: the same age you'll be if you don't.
So get out there. No excuses. They're ready for you to plug in downstairs at 34 Winship St., and there's a computer-rendered GWJ cheering section there just for you.