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Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance by Kiri Miller (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 1, September 2013
pp. 104-107 | 10.1353/not.2013.0107

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The notion of video games as art has become a deeply controversial debate in the last decade, most notably stirred up in 2005 by Roger Ebert. The renowned film critic later clarified his position on his blog, saying that “the real question is, do we as consumers [of video games] become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them? Something may be excellent as itself, and yet be ultimately worthless” (“Games vs. Art: Ebert vs. Barker,” 21 July 2007, available at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070721/COMMENTARY/70721001, accessed 15 March 2013). The National Endowment for the Arts seemed to disagree when it included provision for interactive games in its guidelines for 2012 grants (“FY 2012 Arts in Media Guidelines,” http://arts.gov/grants/apply/AIM-presentation.html, accessed 15 March 2013), and New York’s Museum of Modern Art affirmed the same by adding video games to its collection in 2013 (Paola Antonelli, “Video Games: 14 in the Collection, for Starters,” Inside/Out (blog), MoMA, November 29, 2012, http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/11/29/video-games-14-in-the-collection-for-starters, accessed 15 March 2013). Enter Kiri Miller’s Playing Along, a book exploring the roles of video games and digital media in new modes of experiencing music and performance (in its broadest sense). Miller does not directly engage the video-games-as-art debate, but she does imply a certain amount of acceptance that indeed they are. As a part of the Oxford Music/Media Series, Playing Along features an accompanying Web site (http://www.oup.com/us/playingalong, accessed 15 March 2013) containing multimedia supplements to augment the book’s text. The volume itself contains a number of illustrations and screenshots from the various digital media Miller discusses.

Playing Along is organized into three parts, each containing two chapters. Part 1 focuses on the role of players as virtual performers who oscillate between “immersion and critical detachment” (p. 11) as they navigate the intended narratives of the now famous (or perhaps infamous) video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA). Miller is a self-described “card-carrying ethnomusicologist” (p. 18), so it comes as no surprise that she initially focuses on the socio-anthropological concerns of her inquiry, using the first chapter as a lens through which to view the similarities and peculiarities of tourism, fieldwork, and performance in a virtual medium, as compared to their real-world counterparts.

Chapter 2 addresses more specifically music-relevant aspects of gameplay in GTA. One of the unique features of this game is the ability given to players to tune the car radio to a variety of in-game radio stations. This presents Miller with a unique opportunity to explore players’ in-game music preferences and whether these preferences reflect the preferences of their in-game character (a young African American male living in a fictitious analogue of 1992 Los Angeles). She brings to bear factors of race, era, gender, and popular culture on players’ received perceptions of their character, as well the responsive vicarious performance of their character, i.e., the radio stations chosen by players as contributing to the diegesis of the game.

Part 2 figures as an extension to a longstanding philosophical discussion on the role of music recording and music technology as beneficial or detrimental forces in society. The staggeringly popular incarnations of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video game franchises have created what Miller calls “schizophonic performance” (p. 15), in which participants play in the gap between virtual and actual performance, between prerecorded music and live performance, concepts that until recently seemed to be mutually exclusive. As the author points out, concerns about the downfall of musical art and awareness were equally present during the proliferation of player pianos and phonographs. In spite of the many criticisms Guitar Hero and Rock Band have received from pundits (à la Adorno), mostly centering on questions of creativity, musical authenticity, wanton consumerism, and even laziness (why not learn to play a real guitar?), Miller argues that the games have inspired new modes of engagement with popular music (p. 16).

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