In 1992, Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi penned a book entitled ‘Flow‘, which describes a ‘mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.’ My own eyes were opened by the book several years ago, but I admit to stooping to lazy journalism by lifting that quote from the Wikipedia entry rather than re-read the text. Essentially, flow is a single-minded focus where absorption in an activity is so great that ego is ignored. I promise I’m going somewhere with this…
Flow is characterised by nine factors, which, when combined produce this intense period of focus. Playing The Beatles: Rock Band and, for others, similar rhythm-action games, produces a state of flow, or at he very least a diluted form of that state. I’ve bolded the ways in which a session with the game achieves the criteria for flow:
- Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high. The goal is simple – hit as many notes in the song in order to achieve five out five stars. Challenge levels are split into Easy, Medium, Hard and Expert to cater for all skill levels.
- Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it). The fretboard in the centre of the screen, and the approaching notes, are all you need to focus on.
- A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness. Although admittedly I’m a huge fan of the source material, I’ve often found myself bobbing along with the song and often singing the lyrics at the top of my voice, even if I’m not playing the vocal part.
- Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered. Five hours blinked past on my first playthrough of the Story mode, as I took The Beatles from their first explosive gigs at the The Cavern all the way up to that famous performance on the roof of the Apple Corps. rooftop, testament to how time flies when absorbed in flow.
- Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed). The cheering of fans, the Bass Grooves, Beatlemania, the ever-increasing multiplier all contribute to the sense of positive feedback. A jarring twang when you miss a note lets you know that efforts need to be redoubled.
- Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult). Getting through a song on Expert may be one thing, achieving five stars or nailing the solo in the same is quite another. At no point does it feel that the challenge is insurmountable. It’s just a case of practice; the same as learning a real instrument.
- A sense of personal control over the situation or activity. Nobody else is playing your part – you are completely in control.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action. Essentially, you are in control of making music. For me, making Beatles music makes it that much more special. I’d have fun with this game even if the star rating and achievements were removed completely.
- People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging. Concentration for me on this activity becomes so focused that I often find my vision swims after I finish the song, although that’s probably not a good thing…
So, The Beatles: Rock Band ticks all the boxes for the achievement of flow. But is it a good game? Well that depends. Do you hate The Beatles’ music? If yes, steer clear. It’s all Beatles here (obviously). Also, don’t expect any major new additions to the genre since Guitar Hero first appeared in our living rooms. Three-part vocal harmonies and unlockable photos and videos are pretty much the only differences with other games in the franchise. But if you are a Beatles fan, you will love this. Every track (bar one, for me) is instantly recognisable, and being able to play each instrument for every track brings new insights into some of your favourites. The presentation lives up to the content too – character models are pleasingly life-like, whilst still retaining a playful aesthetic, and the dreamscapes which colour the backgrounds for the studio recordings are lively and vivid, bringing an extra texture to later performances. Of course, whether you get enough chance to watch them whilst focusing on the fretboard is another matter.
Effectively, the central premise of this, and other music games, translates into the purest form of play. You have one goal – there is no extra fluff here. No collecting for collecting sake. Sure, photos are unlocked as you achieve higher ratings on each track, but it is your determination to master the track for your own enjoyment that will reap these rewards. They are not tacked onto the game for enforced longevity, or for the acquisition of extra trophies – accusations that can be levelled at nearly every recent release. At the end of the day, whether you buy this or one of the other titles in the genre will hinge on your level of appreciation for the band’s back catalogue. Plainly put, if you love The Beatles, and you love videogames, this purchase is essential.