After Pressing Start: How Rocksmith Reinvented the Syllabus

We all know what a syllabus is, right? The syllabus is the content of that first class you started to attend. It’s probably all you are going to do during the first week of school (so feel free to extend your vacations):  to read over the summary of topics some council of elders decided the class should cover. This is the day you’ll find out when the tests are, what the teacher thinks about the students’ presence and the book he will force students to read.

Sadly, many teachers are satisfied by merely reading the syllabus. It’s a pity, for anyone can read the syllabus on their own. No use wasting the teacher’s time with that. What students need, however, is a taste. They need to glimpse the potential that class is going to bring if they apply themselves. This is particularly important given the scarcity of information available about a new class. During my time in college, we had the course’s name, a two-line description and that was it.

Well, fuck that! Let’s have Rocksmith show them how it’s done!

It starts with the game announcer setting you up with your guitar. Ok, professor. I already took my seat, now what?

Well, make some noise!

Rocksmith demands you to strum up and down as loudly as you can, while the screen is filled up with messages urging you to keep on strumming, such as “louder!” and “more”. This is perhaps done to show people where the noise comes from (duh!); or perhaps is part of Rocksmith‘s overall “make some noise; you won’t look like a fool, we promise” philosophy, but the fact remains that this teacher as able to capture the class’ attention. Once that’s done, it’s time for you to set your instrument up.

This is the closest to a syllabus you will see in this game. First comes tuning. After which, the game asks you to play each string so you can hear what they should sound like. There are background applauses after each string played. By the time you play the High E, it’s almost like you’ve just discovered the brown note and everybody shat their pants in ecstasy.

Once that moment is gone, the game continues with the syllabus. “This is a note”. “This is a fret”. “This is an open note”. “This is a little video about how to hold your pick”. The whole instructional takes about 80 seconds (I’ve counted them) and, once that’s over, it’s time for a little test.

This is when it happens: the camera sweeps down and suddenly a whole arena, filled with people, opens up around you. Take your time, the game tells you, and see if you can hit all the notes to complete this riff. There is no other instrument keeping the pace. Only these notes coming from your guitar

Sweeping down...

Sweeping down...

...and here comes the notes!

...and here comes the notes!

And you hit all the notes.

And, as soon as you do that, they stop coming; the other instruments, however, join in and music takes form. The game congratulates for playing your first riff. By now, you finally know what you have just played without even knowing: The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. It’s a moment analogous to finding out you just wrote a short story on your first English class, deducing the reason why the formula for the area of a circle is the way it is on your first Calculus lesson or finding out the independent variables that determine the GNP in your first attempt at Econometrics.

It’s also perhaps the only time Rocksmith tries to sell the dream of becoming a rock star. Chances are that many gamers won’t even reach the point in the game where this venue is actually unlocked, so this may be their only time at this arena – and it’s exactly because it is the only time that it works: the moment becomes special. In fact, it becomes your goal. Yes, you think, this is the untapped potential waiting for me in this class. Now apply yourself and study hard.