This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar
I tried taking lessons. I tried reading guitar tabs online. The only thing that worked was Rocksmith.
Music has long struck me as a kind of magic. In terms of my life essentials, it ranks only just below oxygen, food, water, shelter and love. For 11 years I have been attempting to conjure some of that magic myself by learning to play guitar.
Yet for most of those years I practiced fitfully, and at some point I stopped improving. When my progress plateaued, so did my enthusiasm. Despite the pleasure I derive from watching a person with a six-string plugged into an amplifier, plucking and strumming to elicit beautiful noise, I seemed destined to never fully master this iconic instrument.
But then I discovered a video game that rekindled my obsession. It’s called Rocksmith, and it is designed specifically to teach people to play guitar. Earlier games, namely Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had shown that tens of millions of people could become hooked on playing fake, simplified instruments while fake, simplified musical scores scrolled down their televisions. After clocking in several jam sessions, many players even began to sound competent. But that expertise evaporated the second the game shut off.
Laurent Detoc, the North America president of Ubisoft, a game development studio, hated the gulf that separated actual and simulated musicianship. In 2011 he told the San Francisco Business Times, “I just could not believe the amount of waste that had gone in people spending so much time with plastic guitars.” His company had assigned some designers to figuring out how to make playing real guitars just as fun for gamers as jamming on a plastic replica. What they came up with is, to my mind, the purest demonstration of the power of gamification — using the principles of game play to make actual learning feel addictive. Case in point: I’ve learned to play more songs in two and a half years with Rocksmith than in the previous eight years of lackluster progress combined.
My attempts to learn guitar followed a path familiar to many teenage rock enthusiasts. They began with an acoustic guitar my parents gave me in 2004, for my sixteenth birthday, and weekly lessons with a tutor. My teacher — a bookish, chubby, middle-aged man who looked nothing like Jimi Hendrix — was prescriptive in his instruction. He told me that my left thumb must remain pointing skyward against the back of the neck, regardless of the notes or chord shape required. This dictum puzzled and infuriated me, as none of the popular musicians I’d seen in music videos were so staid in their playing; rather, they were fluid and catlike. I wanted to be like them.
Learning to read music was an unwelcome chore, too, especially when my setlist consisted of nursery rhymes to be wrung out one note at a time. I wanted to learn guitar because an expert player sounded and looked cool, yet there wasn’t much that was cool about my tutor’s dry approach. So I quit lessons.
Many of my favorite songs — from bands such as Tool, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine — sounded thin and bloodless when ineptly fretted on an acoustic guitar. Eventually, my wallet lined with money saved from my first job as a dishwasher at a Sizzler restaurant, I acquired the desired technological upgrade: an electric guitar — a handsome, dark blue copy of the classic Fender Stratocaster — and a 30-watt amp.
Like millions of guitarists before me, I began trying to play by reading free online guitar tablature, which show where notes and chords are positioned on the fretboard, and how to play them. For a time I thrived on this self-directed learning. I’d sit in front of a computer screen for hours, mp3s blasting as I glanced between tab and neck, teaching my fingers how to grip the wood, earning the knowledge note by note. On weekends I’d jam with my more talented friends, hoping that I’d absorb their superior abilities through osmosis.
So it went for several pleasant years.
And then I became frustrated. I didn’t know how to improve my skill set, and I lost motivation. The instrument sat untouched for months at a time. Years, even. My guitar became a piece of home decor.
It would take something special to lift me from this funk. In August 2012 I discovered a video game disc marked Rocksmith, which came with what looked like a regular guitar cable. Most people haven’t heard of the game — it’s sold a few million copies worldwide, but unless you were browsing in a store or happened upon a review, you wouldn’t know it existed. The graphics look nice enough, but there’s nothing astonishing about the game’s mechanics. But I don’t care.
Here’s why: learning guitar is fucking hard. There’s a reason that millions of people start studying it but few stick with it. The learning curve is steep, and it can take years before you sound anything but incompetent. To have a game with an intelligent, intuitive design that supports and motivates this difficult act is one of the most extraordinary achievements in the history of video game design.
The idea behind Rocksmith is simple: to improve on Guitar Hero and Rock Band by plugging actual guitars into a gaming console. The technological insight that made it possible was Ubisoft’s ‘real tone’ cable. The cable plugs into the guitar to capture audio from the instrument, converts the signal from analog to digital, and sends the result to Rocksmith through a USB connection. Rocksmith then detects the notes within the instrument’s signal in real time, and displays that data on the screen as a ‘hit’ or ‘miss.’
The software leans heavily on the work of Ubisoft’s ‘note-trackers,’ such as Brian McCune. On McCune’s first day in the San Francisco office, in November 2010, he played an early build of the game for seven hours. McCune powered up the game, plugged the real tone cable into an electric guitar jack, and selected ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way,’ the catchy 1993 hit single by Lenny Kravitz. The song’s lead riff is played high on the guitar neck, a feat that demands ample string-bending dexterity. At the time McCune felt competent as a musician, but mediocre as a guitarist. “This thing took me to the next level,” he says. “It was unreal.”
He noticed how Rocksmith’s ‘dynamic difficulty’ feature intuitively offered him a sparse stream of notes that scrolled gently down the screen. As McCune successfully matched the notes and chords as they appeared, the notes came faster, before the game ultimately revealed the full mechanics of a song. “I could tell, from day one — this thing really works,” says McCune. “I was so excited at the implications of this technology, and how so many people were going to be given the avenue to achieve something they’ve always wanted, but didn’t know how to get there.” He remembers thinking on that first day: “This is my job? Are you serious? This is fantastic!”
He describes the role he was hired for as “the detailed analysis and transcription of music.” “We transcribe every note and nuance of any guitar or bass that appears on the recording. That’s step one,” he says. “The next step beyond that is to break down the performance into small iterations of each musical phrase.” In effect, this means that for every five seconds of music, the note-trackers prescribe at least one note for the player to attempt to fret on the guitar; if the player succeeds, more notes are introduced seamlessly. McCune, a bearded 31-year-old, is uniquely suited to this specialized role — he had spent many years arranging music for competitive high school marching bands, in addition to playing throughout the United States and at Carnegie Hall in New York City as a classically trained percussionist, orchestrator and composer.
McCune and his team of note-trackers listen carefully to each song and laboriously transcribe the individual notes and chords into Ubisoft’s custom-built software program. They slow down songs, isolate specific frequency ranges and look up live footage to see where on the fretboard the musicians are playing. “We’re hearing everything at once,” he says. “It requires a lot of meticulous, fatiguing, nuanced slowing-down of musical sections.”
After tracking all the notes, the next step — the most time-consuming — is to work on each song’s dynamic difficulty levels. “It’s this interesting style of adaptive learning: we want to make sure we’re introducing to players the path of least resistance to learning a music phrase,” he says. “It’s kind of like a giant puzzle: you have to unearth all the information, and then showcase an intelligent way to present the information to someone who’s never seen it before.”
Rocksmith is a video game, but its goal is to solve a real-world problem. There’s a name for this process: gamification, a word coined in 2002 by British computer programmer Nick Pelling when marketing his consultancy, which helped hardware manufacturers “evolve their electronic devices into entertainment platforms.” It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the term was popularized as the application of game mechanics and rewards to less obviously game-like contexts.
The smartphone exercise app Zombies, Run! — which encourages reluctant joggers to imagine that they’re being chased by zombies using audio prompts — is a fine example of this premise. So too is Minecraft, the enormously popular sandbox exploration game which offers precious few instructions to new players, instead encouraging free thought, experimentation, problem-solving and asking for help. When I wrote about Minecraft’s popularity among young children in 2012, one Australian parent — who enjoyed hosting a private server and playing alongside his twin 11-year-olds and their friends — told me, “It’s almost education-by-stealth, in the guise of a video game. It’s like hiding cauliflower in mashed potato.”
The phrase itself has long been problematic. Hardcore gamers and those within the traditional development industry tend to sneer at the concept. “Gamification is bullshit,” wrote author and game designer Ian Bogost in 2011, defining it as “marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.” Bogost suggested ‘exploitationware’ as a more accurate description of the use of gamification: to make the sale as easy as possible.
Such concerns are legitimate, yet Rocksmith doesn’t feel at all like exploitation. “With Rocksmith, you play it, then turn off your console, and it’s still there,” argues Elliott Rudner, a 31-year-old based in Toronto who runs a popular fan site, The Riff Repeater. “If your saved game gets wiped out, what did you really lose? You lost the game progress, but you still have that ability to play guitar.”
When Paul Cross, the director of design for Rocksmith, joins my Skype call with McCune at Ubisoft’s San Francisco studio, I ask what gamification means to him. After a pause, he replies, “It’s just finding ways to keep people engaged with the subject matter.” Later, Cross added, “a nicer way of saying it might be that we ‘learning-guitarified’ Guitar Hero.”
A key feature of Rocksmith is receiving immediate feedback on your playing: if you hit enough notes in a row, the song will get more difficult, but if you’re struggling, the game will take it easy on you until you catch up. After each song, a male voice-over — known among fans as ‘Rocksmith guy’ — issues statements ranging from “Could be better” to “You’re gonna be a superstar!” Rocksmith guy never tells you that you suck, or that you should give up guitar and try the triangle, instead. This positive reinforcement is mildly motivating; it’s reassuring to see and hear that you’ve done well.
Cross says that between the original release and an updated version, Rocksmith 2014, the games have sold over three million copies combined, and that new users made up about 70 percent of the 2014 audience. “With Rocksmith 2014,” he says, “We had more of an approach of, ‘Let’s make great tools; what do we need to do to empower our main users — the people who just wanted to learn songs, and that’s it?’”
I fall into this category: in the two and a half years since these games entered my life, I have rarely ventured beyond the first item on the menu, ‘Learn A Song.’ (It’s worth noting, however, that ‘Session Mode’ lets players jam with a virtual band, and the ‘Guitarcade’ contains mini-games to practice specific techniques. There’s also ‘Multiplayer’, which requires an additional ‘real tone’ cable to play with a friend.)
New guitarists are also encouraged to sign up for Rocksmith 2014’s 60-day challenge, which asks them to invest at least an hour into the guitar each day while sharing their progress with fellow players online. The game has attracted a large, supportive community through Ubisoft’s forums, the game’s Facebook page (498,000 fans), an active subreddit (11,600 subscribers) and a weekly livestream that features the developers performing the new releases on Twitch.TV. A typical Reddit post, titled “Started in December, this is the result 4 months later,” shows a photograph of a television screen on which a player has achieved a 100 percent rating on a Bullet For My Valentine song after playing it 49 times. “For 4 months in, you’re doing a great job,” replied another Redditor. “Stick to it!”
Ask Paul Cross to name a particularly special moment since he began working on these titles in 2009 and he’ll bring up Audrey Shida, an 11-year-old who lives in Japan. “It’s still mind-blowing, seeing her progress, and go from someone whose guitar is longer than her — and she can play the bloomin’ thing!” he laughs.
Audrey lives with her American-born mother, Heather, and Japanese father in a town an hour away from Nagasaki. She has been playing Rocksmith since she was eight, starting with no musical knowledge. After encouraging her to spend a half-hour playing each day before school, and longer on weekends, her parents began filming her progress and uploading it to YouTube.
In July 2014, Audrey became a viral sensation, after one video showed her achieving 97 percent on the Slayer track ‘War Ensemble,’ while her younger sister Kate gave a spirited attempt at roaring, thrash metal-style vocals right beside her. It’s extraordinary to watch Audrey — then aged 10 — perform such a technical, difficult piece of music with apparent nonchalance, while at times doubling over in laughter at the antics of her younger sister. The juxtaposition of brutally aggressive masculinity and the girls’ amusement makes it one of the most adorable videos I’ve ever seen.
When I connect with Audrey via Skype in late March, she’s on a short spring break ahead of starting sixth grade in April. Audrey’s father is an amateur acoustic guitarist, and he thought the game might be a fun challenge for the whole family. “I kinda gave up,” Heather laughs. “It got embarrassing, so I stopped.” Audrey’s dad tried, too, with more luck. He soon convinced Audrey to do the weekly challenge on the forum. “That was a lot of fun, because the people in the forums were so nice,” Heather recalls. “They really helped her feel really good about trying harder every week, and made her feel very welcome. They could have been a whole bunch of jerks,” she says. “But they weren’t!”
Heather explains that the family lives in a rural part of Japan. “We have rice fields everywhere, volcanic mountains on one side, and no one around,” she says. “Which is good; they can be really loud, they can jump and scream and no one cares, but it would be really hard for us to have Audrey learn guitar. We have to travel over an hour each way to town. We’d probably do that once a week…” Audrey interrupts: “Man, that would suck!” Her mother agrees. “But here, you can do Rocksmith every day, and get new music every week,” Heather says, smiling at her eldest child. “A friend of mine has a daughter who is learning guitar the classical way. It’s just so strict: ‘Keep doing that over and over; no, you can’t learn a song yet, you have to do all this other stuff first…’ It’s been great just watching Audrey enjoy playing guitar to a song that she likes, and really having fun with it.”
There’s the keyword that’s often associated with gamification: fun. Making a game out of a task that’s often tedious, or difficult, or both. In many respects, learning guitar is a perfect candidate for this treatment, as it’s a popular global hobby that many people pick up, but few master. Marty Schwartz knows a bit about this. He’s been a guitar teacher for over two decades, and is now one of the most popular online tutors. His free YouTube lessons have accumulated an astounding 468 million combined views in the last seven years, and he has established a prominent business around lessons at guitarjamz.com. A couple of years ago, Ubisoft approached the San Diego-based musician to promote Rocksmith 2014. They invited him to a presentation in San Francisco, where they loaded up ‘Session Mode,’ handed him a guitar, invited him to pick a scale and start jamming with a virtual band.
He liked what he saw and heard, and immediately saw its potential as a practice tool. Schwartz, 40, signed a yearlong contract worth $20,000 to promote the game in a series of videos; the contract has since lapsed, yet he still has only kind words for Ubisoft’s creation. “I could trash the game right now if I wanted to,” he says with a smirk. “But I’m just being honest: I think it’s awesome, and a great tool for learning guitar.”
Ubisoft has always been careful to market the game as complementary to formal lessons, rather than a replacement. Naturally, they were keen to underscore that stance during their early discussions with Schwartz, too. “They didn’t want to go, ‘Hey, we’ve created this thing that’s going to replace you — you want to promote it?’” he says. “But as a guitar teacher, I’d never want someone not to try something — even another guitar teacher. If you want to learn flamenco guitar on the side, I can’t do that, so let me find someone who can. With Rocksmith, you can set your own pace, on your own time, and nobody is judging you. It’s just another tool in the toolbox.”
After the interview with Cross and McCune I powered up Rocksmith 2014 and spent the next two hours learning new tracks and playing old favorites, while alternating between guitar and bass in a variety of tunings and musical styles. Memorable moments included nailing the walking bassline of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Manic Depression’ and the groovy middle eight of ‘Bombtrack’ by Rage Against The Machine; powering through the muscular riffs that conclude Muse’s ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ and the majestic chord progression of ‘Cherub Rock’ by The Smashing Pumpkins; noodling the timeless lead lick of Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take Me Out’ and the eerie, descending riff in ‘My Own Summer (Shove It)’ by Deftones.
Rare is the gaming experience that meshes education and enjoyment so seamlessly and effortlessly. It doesn’t even feel like I’m playing a video game, because the controller is a guitar, and playing it has never felt like a waste of time.
There aren’t many video games whose first menu item offers players the chance to learn a song by playing a real musical instrument. There aren’t many games that allow both budding and established musicians the chance to become actual guitar heroes — in their own lounge rooms, at least. In fact, there’s only one.