Monday, 14 February 2011

Far From a Rythm Paradise

It was a bitterly cold evening at Anfield when the announcer rang through the news that Fernando Torres wouldn’t play a part in the evening’s game; for his wife had gone into labour with his second child. When my immediate disappointment had faded and morphed into a congratulatory one, I realised ‘El Nino’ (The kid) was no longer an appropriate nickname for my Spanish hero. Although once applicable to the young, blonde striker captaining his home club Atletico Madrid at the age of 19, at 26, as one of the biggest names in world football, Fernando Torres was now quite definitely not a kid anymore.

It was 2005 when Activision and Harmonix combined to produce Guitar Hero, a new entry into the Rhythm genre that would capture a generation by storm. Since then however, following almost unimaginable growth, the franchise and its twin sibling Rock Band have fizzled into obscurity, plummeting down the sales charts which they had not long ago ascended. This shift in consumer trends has critics and publishers confused. Perhaps it shouldn’t do.

According to an Amazon survey, the 8-12 year old American child’s most wanted Christmas present last year was an iPad. Besides showing that the majority of children these days are greedy, self entitled bellends(not Fernando’s obviously), this study reaffirms the notion that consumer trends, especially within youth culture are completely context driven.

Would these children get much use out of an iPad? Probably not. It doesn’t offer them the functionality and flexibility to perform tasks any better than devices they more than likely already have access to, however for these children that fact is irrelevant, they just want the most popular item of the current cultural context, in 2010, this is the iPad.

As an expensive product, Guitar Hero’s sales largely relied on this hive mind philosophy, whereby everyone must have the latest version of the game to stay within a particular social relevance. Kids were aware of the little coloured buttons on the crude plastic guitar that would enable them to enjoy gaming experiences they could not have anywhere else. A guitar revolution formed, sales spiked, Activision smiled.
Alongside Activision’s yearly reproduction of the game’s winning formula, the consumers who were buying these products were also introduced to real guitars. Of course, this took away from the magical empowerment Guitar Hero produced, and to these consumers some of the air guitar innocence had been lost. They were no longer playing along to iconic rock songs, they were pressing plastic buttons in time with tunes they could actually learn to play themselves without the help of a television screen and an £80 boxed product.

It’s also worth noting that six years on from the launch of the very first Guitar Hero, the initial audience that sustained the franchise growth have themselves grown rather significantly. That puts me at 13 years old when the original released, a young schoolboy, impressionable, fantastical. Now I’m 18 years old and a University student, cynical and stubborn. I can also play an actual guitar with a modicum of success, and am certainly able to string together most songs with enough practise, a feat that would give me more gratification than I could receive from any plastic imitation.

Guitar Hero was a cultural phenomenon. It blossomed within a cultural context that provided the perfect conditions for maximum success. An audience embraced it, an audience which, like the cultural context of today, is much different to that of 2005. They have grown older, the context has shifted and it seems a long time since the idea of a plastic instrument sparked much excitement within the masses who are needed to maintain a degree of financial success the series is used to.

I began writing this article on a train in December of 2010, and since then (It is now February of 2011) a couple of key things have happened. Firstly, Fernando Torres has left Liverpool to join Chelsea, and Activision has discontinued the Guitar Hero franchise. In both cases, a bout of realisation has been made. Fernando accepted that he may not be able to win the trophies he craves at Liverpool Football Club, whilst Activision accepts that Guitar Hero isn’t the franchise it once was on a cultural level. Whilst the logistics behind Fernando’s decision could be called into question (For Liverpool beat Chelsea on Torres’s debut for the Blues), that of Activision’s is without a doubt a smart one. Like Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero is an image of the past, and one which hasn’t translated into the present.

In both Fernando and Guitar Hero’s cases, the phrase “hero to zero” is romantically applicable.