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So you think you can rock?

October 23, 2008|DAVID SARNO | Sarno is a Times staff writer.

Probably the biggest knock on video games is that no matter how much time you devote to them, the skills you acquire while playing don't much translate back to real life. It's always a little sad to hear about the guy who won the Madden NFL challenge, earning the title of best video quarterback in the nation, or the kid who cannot be outflanked in the newest army game. Champion or otherwise, get them out on a real gridiron, or a live battlefield, and it would be game over before the end of the first scream.

That's why it's so strange and compelling to pull up a YouTube video of Lee Olson playing virtual drums on Rock Band, one of the class of smash-hit music games -- in which gamers play along to real songs with simplified instruments -- that's remaking gaming culture and giving a huge revenue boost to the music industry. His hands are a blur as the drumsticks flash around the pads to nail the beats, rolls and fills in perfect time. And equally difficult to see is the line between this virtual drumming and the real thing.

The idea of Rock Band is simple: The game delivers the notes of each song to the player in the form of a conveyor belt of colored dots. To keep up with the song, players must "strike" the note on their toy instrument at the moment it's about to fall off the end of the belt.

Think about it a minute, and you realize how well drumming is suited to video game simulation. A Fender Stratocaster has six strings and 21 frets -- that's 126 individual notes and tens of thousands of chord combinations, a variety not quite represented by the Rock Band guitar's five oversized buttons. A standard drum set, however, only has about eight surfaces. The Rock Band set has five. And unlike stringed instruments, horns or winds, you don't need to learn complicated fingerings, or how to breathe, blow, bow, strum or pick. All you gotta do is bang.

Olson, 30, plays on the game's expert setting, where the player has to hit most or all of the notes from the real song. In a metal rock cut like System of a Down's "Chop Suey," that means hitting 1,232 notes in a little more than three minutes.

A badge of stardom

And that's exactly what Olson does. Flawlessly nailing 100% of the notes in a Rock Band song is called an FC -- for full combination -- and in this game, that's the badge of stardom. Olson, an experienced drummer in real life, has FC'd about half of the nearly 500 songs Rock Band has made available. Many of those performances are archived on YouTube, where Olson's videos have been viewed close to 6 million times.

"There are a lot of really great drummers online -- famous drummers," he said from his home in Virginia, referring to drummers who play "irl" -- in real life. "But I'm getting a lot more views than most of them. And that's just the weirdest thing."

Yet it makes sense if you think about it, he said. "It's a deadly combination. People love video games, and they love drums. Even people who don't play are fascinated."

Which about sums up the weird brilliance of Rock Band, a new form of entertainment that plugs into two major culture currents at once -- video games and pop music -- by giving people who'd never pick up an instrument the illusion of being a long-haired axmaster for a day. It's air guitar turned up to 11.

But Rock Band drummers won't let their instrument be dismissed with a rimshot.

"It's easy for people to say it's not real drumming -- it's just a plastic drums set. But it's a lot more like drumming than most people like to think it is," Olson said. "It really completes a lot of what you'd need to learn how to play for real."

Ian Drennan -- gamer code name v1g1lance -- is proof positive of that assertion. Drennan bought Rock Band last November and began playing at the medium difficulty setting. After two months of practice, he'd hit the expert level and decided he liked playing enough to buy a set of real electronic drums. (E-drums are the equivalent of an electric guitar or electric keyboard -- same basic shape as the acoustic kind.)

"As much as I like to say I would've eventually bought a kit," said Drennan from his home in Atlanta, where he's a software designer, "I don't believe I would have, had I not actually picked up the game and started playing it."

Rather than seeing the game as a substitute for the real thing, Drennan sees it more as a tool to speed up learning, and make it fun. "I don't think learning drums in Rock Band will make someone a good drummer. But it's a really good way to build that initial limb independence, timing and coordination that you need to become one.

"If you play a song in the game enough, you get the muscle memory down," he said. "So when you take it upstairs to the real kit, you're just changing what you're hitting, you're not changing when you're hitting it."

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