It’s Halloween night and I am a pirate, with gold rings in my ears and a wide, unwieldy hat on my head. I’m paying no attention to the colorful characters that surround me at the costume party–the SpongeBobs and Joe the Plumbers. Nothing matters except the plastic guitar in my hands, the color-coded notes streaming down the television screen, Betty Crocker on drums, and Richard Simmons on vocals. Deaf to the din of party conversation, my ears are trained on every note of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”
We go on that way all night, the characters swirling in and out of our imaginary band. I play every part. My bandmates are Alan Moore’s V, Richard Nixon, Cupid, and a sexy ladybug. I don’t need to know their real names–the camaraderie is there the moment they pick up their instruments. When the party thins out, I look up to find that it is 4:00 a.m. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when you play Rock Band.
Produced by Harmonix, a Cambridge-based company founded by Alex Rigopulos ‘92, SM ‘94, and Eran Egozy ‘95, MEng ‘95, Rock Band and its sequel, Rock Band 2, are hugely successful video games that simulate the experience of playing in a band–and they’re just the latest examples of high-profile games that can trace their roots to MIT. Rock Band players use plastic drums, guitar, bass, and a microphone to play along to such songs as “Gimme Shelter” and Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So”: the guitarist, for example, hits the guitar’s plastic strum bar while holding down sets of colored buttons on its neck in simplified chord patterns, guided by color-coded notes on-screen. The game can be set to different levels of difficulty, but whatever the setting, the accuracy with which the player presses the buttons in time to the music determines how good the song sounds. Correct play triggers the full guitar solos in the original recording; mistakes interrupt the song with silence and sour notes.
The core concept of breaking down songs so that nonmusicians could meaningfully control them was at the heart of a research project that Egozy and Rigopulos began at the MIT Media Lab. It eventually morphed into Harmonix’s first hit, Guitar Hero. (Harmonix sold the rights to Guitar Hero to another company; one of the game’s latest iterations sold 9.8 million units to become the top-selling video game between 1995 and 2008.) In developing such broadly appealing games that can serve as the center of social events, Harmonix has redefined expectations for the gaming industry, which racked up $9.5 billion in sales in 2007 and has assumed a prominent place in modern life and culture in just a matter of decades. (Sixty-five percent of American households now play computer or video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association.) And Harmonix’s products are hardly the first MIT-influenced games to shake things up. A look back at MIT projects from distinct eras in gaming history shows that the Institute has played a big part in shaping the industry from the very beginning.