Last month, I finally bought Guitar Hero III. With a used guitar from Amazon and an old PC copy, I was able to load up and play a game that I had never actually owned, but nonetheless had held enormous sway over two years of my gaming life. Rhythm gaming disappeared almost as quickly as it rose to prominence, so Guitar Hero III, for me, remains the untarnished pinnacle of that genre.
At first, I played it as a way of revisiting childhood experiences. I completed the career mode on medium without much difficulty in a few hours, enjoying the songs, style, and healthy nostalgia trip. After completion, I almost immediately packed up the guitar and left it to lounge in my closet. But two weeks ago, I picked it up again, this time playing on hard mode as Judy Nails, a punk rock girl who emanated goth culture and 90s grunge. This didn’t change the gameplay in any way, only what avatar was displayed rocking out on screen. Overall, it wasn’t that different from my first playthrough.
That was until the second stage of the game. My band had just completed their first real gig, playing a set of songs in a run-down bar to a small but energetic crowd. As we closed the last song, a 3D-rendering of Tom Morello, a guitarist from the angsty, rap-metal band, Rage Against The Machine, emerged to face off against my character in one of the game’s iconic guitar battles. I knew and guiltily enjoyed the song, so I prepared myself to play. However, before the battle began, something caught my eye. The camera panned left to focus on a leather-clad woman, clearly a stripper, as she walked onto the stage in the beginnings of a T-rated, but clearly suggestive dance. The crowd went wild, and the game took a slice of time out of my performance to focus on hers, which continued throughout the song. I had played this game dozens of times at friends’ houses in the past, and once again a week before, but somehow I hadn’t given this section much thought. Yet, for some reason, even though it had no direct impact on the game whatsoever, my position of playing as Judy Nails made this stand out to me.
I unconsciously began to wonder how she would have felt about this. Seeing another woman that blatantly objectified must have been alienating, unsettling and disorienting. This stripper, and the way the crowd and camera treated her, established women as an object. Judy Nails’ role as the protagonist made her a subject. The two were clearly in conflict.
But that wasn’t how I framed those thoughts. This wasn’t a removed defense of Judy Nail’s emotions. No, this bothered me. I felt alienated. I felt objectified. And I was pissed off. I was about to battle against an incredibly skilled guitarist, in a head-to-head that would launch my character’s career into greatness. Yet the game chose to focus on a stripper, something that, yes, likely would have made the fictional Judy Nails uncomfortable, but, more confusingly, made me feel uncomfortable, in a way it hadn’t every other time I had played the game. How could I fight my way to the top of rock ‘n’ roll, if this stripper was standing right in front of me, with others dancing in cages behind her, symbolizing a level of unapologetic objectification that held women back in the medium and in the world? These weren’t the empathized feelings of Judy Nails, they were my feelings.
I didn’t have time to process this, nor the myriads of other problematic presentations of women I would soon notice in the game, because seconds later, a torrent of notes came flying down the game’s virtual fretboard. Both the computer-controlled-Morello and I played wickedly difficult progressions, producing a chaotic ballad of record-scratches and distorted guitar riffs. The song was difficult enough that it consumed all of my attention, leaving none to consider The Stripper and the implications of her presence.
But I was angry, not in a way that was clear and focused, but cloudy and saturating. This let me reach a level of flow in play that balanced detachment and engagement, shaping my actions to a reflexive perfection I rarely experienced. As the song barred forward, with us neck and neck in points, I slowly began to accumulate more of the game’s power-ups, special abilities that would mess up the opposing player, and I used them sparingly.
This wasn’t conscious strategy, but an automatic response. Before, I had seen guitar battles more as a special stage to perform on, instead of a battle with a clear opponent. But this time, I had an enemy. It wasn’t Tom Morello, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, it wasn’t Neversoft, the game’s developer, and it certainly wasn’t that stripper. It was something I couldn’t clearly define, certainly not while playing a song on a difficulty level I had absolutely no reason to be playing on. But I was angry at something. I couldn’t define it, but I knew it when I saw it, and I knew that I needed to defeat it, not for someone else, but for me.
And I did. As the digitized Morello began his ending solo, signaling the beginning of the “death drain”, which would lose me the battle, I thrust my guitar into the air, activating my carefully curated power-ups. Digital Morello’s difficulty level was increased to expert, each note he had to play was doubled, all of which flashed on and off of the screen sporadically. He failed the song in a matter of seconds.
I shouted an adrenaline-filled cry of victory. I had defeated an honest-to-god bad guy. I didn’t know what that was, or what it meant, but I knew I had done something.
The virtual crowd roared in approval at our performance, demanding an encore. Rage Against The Machine’s iconic Bulls On Parade was loaded up, and, before I could reflect on the experience, I was thrust right in. Despite feeling the thrill of an undefined victory, I still felt a simmering anger that permeates many of Rage’s songs. Bulls on Parade is very much a song about fighting the system, and now, I had a system to fight.
For the rest of that playthrough, I wasn’t just embodying someone who loved music with a passion, I embodying someone locked in a battle against a culture. I started to notice characters with the same character model as The Stripper in nearly every other stage, many of them in cages. I started to notice how there were maybe three songs in the game with a female singer. I started to notice how my character didn’t appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes. I started to notice how, aside from the rarely-used female singer, and a briefly-shown TV reporter, there was not another woman in the game. But I still loved the music, and I loved the feel of playing the game. I couldn’t just quit, I had an undefined enemy to defeat! I had to prove, to something equally undefined, that I could love rock but not be the kind of rock that made a camera linger on a T-rated rendition of a stripper. I had a system not just to defeat, but to change.
And I did! Sort of! I played through the rest of the game on hard. I earned money and glory. I bought the coolest guitars and the most expensive punk-rock outfits. I unlocked The God of Rock, Slash, and the Grim Reaper from the character selector. I beat every song with four or more stars. In a conclusion that would have made Jack Black proud, I won a guitar battle with the devil for my soul to a rock rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia. I became a “rock legend”, as the ending victory screen proclaimed me. I played Dragonforce’s infamously difficult Through The Fire and the Flames atop an enormous hell-tower to hordes of cheering demons and devils. I had done it.
But I had already done that a week ago. Sure, it was on medium difficulty, but hard mode didn’t fundamentally change the experience. Yet, somehow, it felt so much more invigorating the second time through. I hadn’t just defeated the devil, the odds, and the hordes of other rock artists on my way to the top, I had defeated…something. Sexism? The patriarchy? Strippers? I wasn’t quite sure. But I had done it. I was a champion of rock, a legend, and I was a woman. I got to play that solo on the top of that tower. But I did not change the world. I did not change the game. I did not do anything combat the industry’s persistent, disturbing, and childish approach to representing half of the goddamn planet. I didn’t do anything but change a few variables on my PC. But that experience had enormous meaning to me nonetheless. I may not have defeated even a sliver of the real patriarchy, but my defeat of an imagined one helped me learn from an otherwise mundane experience.
This story was not written into Guitar Hero III. In fact, my narrative is mostly at odds with the game’s constructed one. But this only made the experience all the more powerful. I felt a beautiful parallel between my journey and Judy Nails’, with me in conflict with, yet in love with the game I was playing, and her in conflict with yet in love with rock music and its culture. I embodied that contradiction, acted on its inconsistencies, and could feel the medium respond to my created story. I could assign meaning to the actions I performed and emotion to the songs that I played. I could treat the game’s sexism as a problem with an imagined world that I needed to fix, instead of a prejudiced choice in a piece of static media, because Guitar Hero is not a piece of static media, it is a game. I can take that game, which I adored unquestioningly when I was younger, and find meaning in it, because it isn’t the same game I played when I was 13; the game has changed because I have changed. Through this, I experienced a story I never could have in reality, because, yes, the game depicts a world created by developers that portrays women in a way that is simply wrong, but I am a part of that world. I can change it.
Despite gaming’s relative youth as a medium, this isn’t some wholly unique experience. In fact, we have a term form it. It’s called emergent narrative, and it shows up in games like The Sims, Dwarf Fortress and Far Cry 2, where the authored narrative is overshadowed by stories the player creates using the systems of the games. My experience with Guitar Hero doesn’t fit cleanly into this definition, but my role as agent in the story does allow me access to a bit of its advantages. I was able to create a story, one that emerged entirely through my interaction with the game’s systems, that was much more personally compelling than the one the developers told. In the authored story of Guitar Hero, the game told me that I was a rock legend. In my story, I felt like a goddamn rock goddess, armed with a plastic guitar in one hand and a confused desire to smash the patriarchy in the other. My real-world gender didn’t make that experience disempowering or emasculating; I had an evil to defeat and an injustice to fight, who cared if I was only a woman in the game world? I’m going to remember that story for far longer than I will remember a couple of animated cutscenes. I have learned from it, and it has changed my outlook on the real world. Because, despite my story’s completely imagined nature, it made me feel like a hero; guitar and otherwise.