Of Heroes, Trebles and the Performative Underclass

A long time ago I decided that sports videogames were the karaoke of the sportocracy, but over time I have come to modify that opinion. It's not that I have eschewed the belief that both karaoke lovers and sports videogame aficionados desire to engage in acts of post-celebrity culture, but that the material specificities of each communication medium as well as the conditions of their production demand a more nuanced analysis.

A sports videogame is not just about supplying the missing body motions for a complete sporting performance, as karaoke is about supplying the missing vocals to complete a musical performance. Looking at the underlying materiality of the latter medium, karaoke first substitutes out the vocal performance for a recorded song so that an instrumental version may be used, which requires the recording technique of laying multiple audio tracks that are subsequently mixed into a final product. For the instrumental karaoke version of the song, the vocal track is deleted from the final output; or, more correctly, it is translated to textual form, adding yet another term in the oscillating recursion between spoken and written signifier.

Second, if we view the final karaoke performance as the "finished product" we note that production is completed at a location remote from where it was begun, what we might consider a spatial-axis manipulation of the performing body that parallels Kittler's observation of the time-axis manipulation properties available with recordable electronic media. This should be qualified, however, by recalling Deleuze and Guattari's assertion that there is no alpha and omega to the production process ("the law of the production of production"), and hence we cannot look at the karaoke performance dogmatically as a finished product. Nonetheless, the very real effects on the human body of this deferred and recombinant performativity force us to consider such a spatial-axis manipulation; not only does technical reproducibility negate the aura of the live performance, as Benjamin points out, it also negates the requirement for a single unitary body to produce this performance.

Courtesy of NOW magazineThird, there is the question of the "finished product" itself. When karaoke singers perform a tune they are only as good as their own voice. In other words, there is no mechanism at work here that can improve talent. For many participants, much of the experience consists in being bad at singing!

Contrast this with the smash hit videogames Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The player of the game doesn't need to be able to play the guitar as well as the original guitarist — or even at all — in order to complete the performance or finish the product to a relatively decent quality standard. Simply by pressing an increasingly complex sequence of buttons on a plastic guitar-resembling interface, the aspiring gamer-musician may approximate the guitar riffs of real-life rock gods. This is what we might describe as prosthetic talent.

From where is this prosthetic talent generated? We should recall an earlier discussion on sportsBabel about body trebling. In sports videogames, which are modeled after the exploits of professional sports leagues, the athletes themselves serve two purposes: first, their league play provides a steadily growing archive of statistics and other metadata — what I originally termed I3, the images, information and identities of immaterial sportocratic production; second, athletes perform "signature moves" for motion capture assemblies, which are then programmatically inserted into the videogame engine.

But the professional athletes are not the sole motile source in videogame production. In order to get "authentic" movement patterns of athletes in unscripted situations for the game NBA Live, for example, publisher EA Sports brought in a number of anonymous athletes to play improvised pickup basketball in a motion capture studio. In other words, much of the musculature required for the production of these virtual identity-vehicles was outsourced to cheaper labour, from which patterns of movement were abstracted and programmed into the game.

Motion Capture Collage - Courtesy EA Sports

Why is this relevant to a discussion of Guitar Hero and Rock Band? Because a similar economic arrangement is taking place in the production of prosthetic talent for the wannabe home music legend. While most people new to Guitar Hero revel in the opportunity to reprise rock classics that come bundled with the game, such as Foghat's "Slow Ride," the game publishers are increasingly extracting profits from the sale of downloadable expansion packs that are produced and distributed at low marginal cost and high marginal profit. And some of these expansion packs, as an article by Evan Davies for NOW magazine elaborates, are being used to break new talent to the market.

A little while before Protest the Hero's show at the Kool Haus on February 8 in front of a packed all-ages crowd full of the kids you'd expect to find sitting around trying to master GH with their buddies, I board their tour bus. The up-and-coming spasmodic prog-metalcore crew from Whitby recently joined the envied ranks of bands with songs featured in the game.

For a young, hungry band, that's no small beans. In fact, it's a whole lot of big tasty beans, possibly mountains' worth, when you translate the exposure into the lovely, filthy, beautiful corporate cash that comes with it.

. . .

For a smaller band without the resources of the big rock monsters, inclusion in a bonus downloadable three-song pack that includes their song with ones by Atreyu and Trivium bestows the kind of publicity you only get otherwise after your sex tape is leaked online or you bone the governor of New York at 4,300 bucks a pop.

"We're the smallest band of the three, so the fact that their fans are downloading our song because they have to is great exposure," says Miller. "And I've met people who've discovered our band because of GH. It's brilliant, because it forces you to listen to a song until you master it. It's playing in your head whether you like it or not. It's funny how you can get a better relationship with fans and people will like you more because you're in the game."

Interestingly, the intellectual property rights for many of the songs available in expansion packs are not being acquired on a royalty model by the game's publishers. Instead, the publishers purchase the rights to the song and then pay a session band to re-record the music.

Dimitri Coats, singer and guitarist with the hard-rocking Burning Brides, beams with pride when he talks about walking into a store with his mom to show her a demo of his band's song on Guitar Hero.

"The whole thing is hilarious to us, because the version of Heart Full Of Black on the game isn't ours," he says. "They paid to use the song but re-recorded it. That isn't me singing or us playing. It's someone else covering the song. I guess they saved money doing it that way."

In addition to music that is format radio friendly (ie. 3:30 long, vanilla lyrics), future bands wishing to break into the business via the videogame channel will need to develop rock-god guitar riffs that are easily translatable to the Guitar Hero interface — what we might describe as audio signature moves. Ultimately, it is these memes that are purchased by publishing companies and that will persist in the detritus of future music culture.

Much like karaoke before it, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are seductive in their suggestion of carnival-like opportunities to reduce the level of risk required to shed otherwise reticent personalities or repressed exuberance and somewhat make a fool of one's self. The prosthetic talent available in the videogames further reduces the barriers to entry and allows more people to temporarily test drive a new identity-vehicle. But these are not carnivals, at least not in Bakhtin's sense of the word, but rather carefully controlled opportunities for consumption crafted by transnational capital that involve new and very real relations of economic exploitation.

The story [on blogs and tech news sites like kotaku.com] asserts that studio session players re-recording the wailing guitar solos and accompanying instruments, some of them only getting $100 to $150 an hour, are getting scammed. Bear in mind that Activision recently announced an 80 per cent rise in sales for the holiday quarter, translating into sales of $1.48 billion and profits of $272.2 million.

In short, though they share a common basis in desiring-celebrity, sports videogames are less like karaoke and more like music videogames such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band: both sporting and musical forms of videogame use the material capabilities of motion capture and console technology to split the performing body across space in its real and virtual formats; and both rely on a barely visible performative underclass to keep production costs at a minimum.

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  1. sportsBabel » Marginal Notes on Notes on Gesture says:

    [...] Financial gain accrues by capturing and expropriating the gestures of athletes and actors to create identity-constructs that may be tried on like well-made Armani suits. In playing these games, the user reduces [...]