Having or Not Having an Experience: The Beatles: RockBand in High Definition

Completion Date: 
2009
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In his seminal 1934 essay Having an Experience, John Dewey, philosopher, psychologist, and straight-faced user of the word inchoate, describes the difference between experiencing things and “having an experience” [1]. He states “experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living” [2]. Thus, everything is experience. Sitting in a chair, parachuting out of a plane, drinking a glass of orange juice, examining one’s cuticles; this is all experience. However, he says that “we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment” [3]. So, parachuting out of a plane would be both experience and an experience, since it can be argued that upon landing safely on the ground, the material of the experience (that being the time spent free-falling from a plane, not to mention the boarding of the plane, the take off, the anxiety of jumping, etc.) has run its course, the user being fulfilled by the comfort of solid ground and the elation/exhilaration of having not died. When Dewey later applies this concept of experience vs. an experience to the notion of esthetic experiences, things get a bit more complicated, umlaut-heavy and inevitably more profound. He presents a staggering number of levels of thought about what constitutes an experience, including the notion that an experience must progress “toward its own consummation through a connected series of varied incidents.” [4] Using these ideas and arguments, let us consider The Beatles: RockBand (Electronic Arts, 2009) as an experience.

The Beatles: RockBand is a video game that allows users to “play” forty Beatles songs (spanning their entire recording career, from 1962-1970) by using either a microphone or instrument-shaped controller (guitar, bass or mini drum kit) to sing or play along to a song. Generally, the user plays one device at a time. The “playing along” is done by using an interface that presents the user with a scrolling grid (see Figure 1.1) of “notes” that move toward the user and which the user must play by hitting the corresponding buttons on his/her instrument at the correct time. For example, if the user is playing “guitar” and the grid shows a blue note, the user must press the blue button located on the “frets” of the guitar and strum the “strum” button at the appropriate time dictated by the game. If the user is playing the drums, he/she must strike the corresponding “drum head” or kick the foot pedal. If the user is successful, the song plays normally and the user is awarded points and their “grid” graphics become more colorful and ornate. If the user fails to “play” the right note at the right time, the part that the user is attempting to play will not sound or will become distorted and/or disjointed. Likewise, when one attempts to sing along to a song, the game measures the user’s pitch and timing and grants points to the user based on the measured success of his/her performance. The user(s) must play to a certain standard of performance (determined by the game and adjustable via skill level) in order to complete a song. This is where the game can become something approaching group interaction/dynamism. People playing the game together, as “The Beatles” must all play their individual parts successfully or the song will fail for all of them; have a person with no rhythm or hand/eye coordination as a Ringo on the “drums” and no one is ever leaving Liverpool.

The Beatles: Rock Band is structured in such a way that the user must start at the beginning of the band’s career, at The Cavern Club in Liverpool, England and successfully complete the songs from that period/scenario before being granted access to the next phase in the band’s career. Thus, there is a distinct path within the game on which the user must proceed. The game is experienced one song at a time. Referencing Dewey, each song is a “varied incident” [5], moving the user forward, through the larger experience of the game as a whole, using The Beatles’ career as a backdrop, to its completion or “consummation” [6], represented by the band’s climactic live performance on the roof of its Apple offices in 1969 [7]. The user experiences playing the music of The Beatles and, to a certainly removed and abstracted degree, what it was like to be them during their time as a band. In this case, the game qualifies as an experience.

Dewey states that “the doing or making is artistic when the perceived result is of such a nature that its qualities as perceived have controlled the question of production” and that “the artist embodies in himself the attitude of the perceiver while he works.” [8] This is particularly engrossing when considering the making and/or authorship of The Beatles: RockBand. The game was developed by Harmonix Music Systems, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based software company. The idea for the game came from a meeting between Dhani Harrison, son of the late Beatle George Harrison, and Van Toffler, head of games at MTV [9]. Toffler introduced Harrison to Alex Rigopoulos, CEO of Harmonix, and the idea was hatched [10]. So, the game wasn’t The Beatles’, or what currently constitutes The Beatles’ (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr), idea; it was one of the deceased Beatles’ son’s and a video game company CEO’s idea. Harmonix programmed the game, certainly, in Dewey’s words, with “the attitude of the perceiver” [11]; it is a user-oriented work. Their main concern during the production process was crafting an enjoyable interactive user experience out of The Beatles’ music. This is where there is an intriguing level of abstraction and possibly where the production of the game differs from Dewey’s definition of the making of an experience; the programmers were creating an experience based on something else. The Beatles’ music and people’s passion to hear and experience it are the reasons why people will buy and play The Beatles: RockBand. The writing and recording of the original music is a more apt comparison to Dewey’s description of the process of production and the idea that the viewer/beholder must create “relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent” [12]. When listening to music, one responds to the composer and/or performer making the music as well as the music itself. When playing The Beatles: RockBand, the user is responding not only to the music of The Beatles and all the emotional perceptions that it entails, but also to the process, again, in a somewhat abstract way, of making music in a band, as The Beatles made music together forty years ago. As Dewey states, “Without an act of recreation, the object is not perceived as a work of art.” [13] What is interesting about the video game programmers’ role in this is that they are, in effect, creating a tool to engender the recreation process.

One element of the game that can be seen as an almost purely creative contribution by the programmers is the background visual accompaniment to the songs (see figure 1.2). Early in the game, this accompaniment is fairly straight-forward; we see The Beatles playing in the previously-mentioned Cavern Club (Fig. 1.1), on The Ed Sullivan Show at the start of Beatlemania, at Shea Stadium at the height of it. These visualizations are basically digital recreations of video footage from the period. However, as the band’s career progresses and they stop touring and retreat into the studio to concentrate on recording, the visualizations become more abstract and free-associative. These visualizations, especially some of the more psychedelic montages (Fig. 1.2), are likely the visual highlight of the game [14] and no doubt required a good deal of unique creative energy to conceive, produce and execute (not to say that they aren’t directly influenced by the fairly extensive image/visual branding that The Beatles themselves implemented throughout their career, from the black and white minimalist contrast of the cover of With The Beatles, to the kitchen-sink pop art of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sleeve). However, within the context of the user experience of the game, these visualizations are nearly invisible due to the interface of the game; even an expert RockBand player has to look directly at his/her “note grid” at all times, and thus the user gets only a peripheral sense of the visual accompaniment to the songs. An observer, say, in the same room as people playing the game, perhaps gets a more visceral, all-sensory experience from the game, but is fundamentally deprived of the element of interactivity that is seemingly essential to it being what is supposed to be, as an experience.

As previously stated, Dewey presents many levels and qualifications for whether or not something is an experience. Looking at The Beatles: RockBand from the perspective of whether or not one feels “fulfillment” [15], after the “material” (the songs) has run its course (all of the songs being completed and all of the scenarios unlocked), it would inevitably depend on the individual user. I had the opportunity to experience the game at my sister’s apartment, on a fifty-inch high definition television, with surround sound enabled, the volume up high, and a fridge full of craft beer. These conditions would be fairly close to what I would call ideal, and I would imagine the creators of the game at Harmonix would feel somewhat similarly. So, yes, in that respect, I would consider the game to be an experience as described by Dewey.  When considering it an experience of The Beatles’ music, however, I can’t help but wonder what John Lennon or even George Harrison would make of cartoony digital avatars of themselves being controlled by plastic replica instruments held by oft-tone deaf, rhythm-less but enthusiastic doofuses who don’t know how to play musical instruments. Late in his essay, Dewey states

“Even a dog that barks and wags his tail joyously on seeing his master return is more fully alive in his reception of his friend than is a human being who is content with mere recognition.” [16]

Somehow, this seems appropriate.

 

Bibliography

John Dewey, Art As Experience (The Berkeley Publishing Group, New York, 1934), pg 36-59.

Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles: Recording Sessions (Harmony Books, New York, 1988), pg 199.

Tom Lowry, Video Games: Will The Beatles Rock MTV? Business Week.August 2009. (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_33/b4143026811218.htm?campaign_id=rss_null )

 

Endnotes

[1] John Dewey, Art As Experience (The Berkeley Publishing Group, New York, 1934), p. 36

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 44

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Beatles’ last album, Let It Be was released in May 1970, though recorded in 1969, prior to their penultimate album Abbey Road. After acrimonious-at-best, mainly self-produced sessions led to the abandonment of the Let It Be (then titled Get Back) project, the band decided to record one final “good album” with longtime producer George Martin presiding over the console. After that album was completed, the band hired Phil “Batshit Crazy” Spector to oversee the completion/doctoring/rerecording of the now-titled Let It Be album. MSSRS Lennon, Harrison and Starr participated in these sessions, which dragged on into the spring of 1970 and were mainly solo-overdub-type affairs.a So, the point being that The Beatles’ recording career proper, for all intents and purposes, ended in 1969. (a) Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles: Recording Sessions (Harmony Books, New York, 1988), p. 199

[8] Dewey, p. 50

[9] Tom Lowry, Video Games: Will The Beatles Rock MTV? August 2009. (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_33/b4143026811218.htm?campaign_id=rss_null )

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dewey, p. 50

[12] Ibid. pg. 56

[13] Ibid.

[15] Dewey, p. 36

Ibid. p. 55

Editor’s note: Students were asked to examine a dynamic media object in light of John Dewey's definition of “an experience” which he defines in Art as Experience, Chapter Three: Having an Experience.

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