11/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Makes People Want to Play Rock Band and Guitar Hero?

In some ways, Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem like the stupidest games on earth. Colored discs scroll down a TV screen, and eager participants mash colored buttons in time with what they see. You press a red button when you see a red disc, a blue button when you see a blue disc, and hold your fire when you see nothing. Rinse, lather, and repeat; that's about all there is to it. Since the sequence and timing are provided by the game software, you don't really even need to know the songs. There's no need to strategize ahead (as in chess); no need for big muscles (as in basketball), and no need to bluff past one's opponent (as in poker). Few games demand less of the player; I suspect monkeys could be trained to play, and know for a fact that robots can cruise through Guitar Hero on Expert.

Yet the two games together have grossed over three billion dollars, and received extensive coverage in highbrow outlets like The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly.

What is the appeal of a game that demands so little of the human mind? Part of it of course lies with the music; the latest Rock Band comes complete with Beatles music, and for people like me, who grew up listening to music, no body of music is more compelling. (For people with rather different tastes, there's Guitar Hero: Metallica and Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, with Steely Dan allegedly on its way, although Jimmy Page swears there will never be a Guitar Hero: Led Zeppelin).

Still, at $60, the game costs as much as 4 or 5 albums, and the game takes more work to play. Why mash buttons on a video game controller, when you could put Sgt. Pepper on your CD player, or learn to play a real guitar? If an alien scientist came to observe humanity, they'd find a lot of things puzzling, but few would be as puzzling as Guitar Hero.

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Some games, of course, could be seen as practice for the real world; Monopoly could be viewed as preparation for a career in real estate, chess for the art of war. Many evolutionary psychologists believe that play evolved as way to ease children into their ultimate adult responsibilities; chasing your friends in a game of tag prepares you for the bison hunt on which your life will later depend.

Whether you buy that theory or not, the plastic "guitars" in Guitar Hero have little to do with real guitars; there are no strings, and no frets, there's no soundhole, and no jack to hook up to an amplifier, either; except for a bit of clattering, the plastic pseudo-instrument makes no sound at all. And there's no room for genuine creativity, as there would be with a real instrument. A real apprentice guitarist must spend hours and hours practicing scales and chords, and learning about the relation between melody and harmony; an aficionado of Guitar Hero skips straight to the songs, and may well never learn the difference between a major scale and a minor.

Economists would be puzzled, too. It generally costs the same amount or even less (once you factor out the costs of the plastic guitars) to buy the songs on iTunes as to get them in a package for your Xbox, and if you buy them on iTunes, you can play them over and over, wherever you want, in the car, or in the gym, and not just when you stand in front of your television set. You also aren't stuck suffering through the abominable mid-80's Hair Metal, in order to "unlock" the next song that you actually like.

What gives? If it's not practice for a career in music, and it's not efficient or rational from an economist's perspective, what is it that drives people to play these games?

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It's a lust for power.

Not, mind you, of the sort that allows one to rule the world, but the sort that allows one to control one's own world.

Dozens of studies over the years have shown that human beings are happier when they believe themselves to be in control. In one famous set of studies, participants were asked to solve simple arithmetic problems while sitting in a room in which sudden blasts of noise occurred at random intervals. One group of subjects had no choice but to listen, the others had a panic button they would be allowed to press if the noise became too much. Though few participants actually pressed the button, the mere feeling of control made the entire experience considerably more bearable. In another famous study, dogs were put in an environment in which nothing that they did correlated with their situation; so-called "learned helplessness" -- essentially a form of depression -- was the result.

Alas, although humans are very fond of being in control, we aren't always so good at telling whether we actually have it. As Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner has argued in The Illusion of Conscious Will, Oujia boards were designed to trick people into thinking they didn't have control when they really did. Guitar Hero is designed to do the opposite.

Inferring control is really an exercise in inferring causality; we want to know whether A causes B, but sometimes all we know is that when A happens, B happens too. In technical jargon, we infer causality from temporal contingency.

Games like Guitar Hero set up one of the most potent illusions of temporal contingency I've ever seen: if the player presses the button at the right time, the computer plays back a recording of a particular note (or set of notes) played by a professional musician. The music itself is potent and rewarding -- Keith Richards really knows how to bend a note -- but the real secret to the game is what happens is that fact if you miss the button, you don't hear the note.

The brain whirs away, and notices the contingency. When I push the button, I hear Keith Richards; when I fail to push the button (or press the wrong button, or press it late), I don't hear Keith Richards. Therefore, I am Keith Richards!

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It's not simply that you hear the songs (which bring pleasure) but that the game skillfully induces the illusion that you yourself are generating the songs. You aren't paying $60 to hear the songs; you're paying $60 to trick your brain into thinking that you are making them. Your conscious mind may know better -- and realize that it's all just a ruse -- but your unconscious mind is completely and happily fooled.

Is that worth $60? If you want to feel like Keith Richards, the answer is surely yes.