Computer Culture / Game Reviews

Edutainment and Lessons "Learned" from Commercial Video Games: Jazz Band Revolution

rock-band“Jazz Band Revolution” …. Trust me, this is a great idea. A fellow EIS labmate recently gave a class presentation about the “Edutainment Fail.”  To its credit, edutainment is responsible for my first interactions with desktop computers.  Games such as Oregon Trail, Logo Writer, some lemonade stand game, and that typing game were widely used in my early primary school years.  I suppose as games became more commercially available, the novelty of games in education were upstaged.  Still, it’s apparent that there is a great deal of learning that goes into playing some of the most popular games today, so it begs the question… Why aren’t games used for educational purposes more? Many bridges are in process being built to overcome the gap between the motivation to be entertained and the motivation to learn.  Similarly, there are many educational avenues from the experiencing to building of interactive experiences– whether it is to learn about the technology itself or to be engaged by the technology to learn.  Let’s be honest, everyone knows that games are more than just entertainment, yet why are they mostly seen as entertainment– If I am willing to learn for the sake of being entertained, surely, I am willing to learn USEFUL things for the sake of being entertained (if nothing else).  Being entertained should be assumed for all games; asking for a game that can entertain is like asking for a drink that will quench thirst.  Albeit, not all drinks will quench thirst, but we have more options than just water to quench our thirsts.  So listen up Activision, Harmonix, and Konami: Games are for more than just quenching my thirst for entertainment.

The main point I’d like to discuss is that games could be far more useful than they currently are.  Now, I can believe that it’s tough for games with non-lucrative purposes to catch up to the popularity of top commercial games today, but is it really that hard to have popular games today with a little more educationally purposed content?  I don’t think so… In fact, it wouldn’t take much to impact or enrich the gaming experience, if only we’d be more intentional about it.

Let’s take a look at the rhythm and music games of today:

ddrDance Dance Revolution. I won’t be displaying my Sandstorm DDR moves at the club, but I appreciate the excercise nonetheless.  The day I’m able to take my moves to the dance floor, I’ll be satisfied.  Till then, I’ll take my entertainment with a side of excercise.

karaoke_revolutionKaraoke Revolution. Anything that involves pitch matching is great for ear training, and if used appropriately, you really are exercising your voice.  It’s great at parties, but there are so few songs per game, that my friends prefer the karaoke bar.  Among the selection I have to choose from, I usually only know a couple of the songs.  In that sense, I did “learn” a number of popular songs.  I learned these songs for the sake of being entertained, but do I find this knowledge useful?…. not really.

guitar-hero-ii-20060517053840543Guitar Hero. I don’t even have anything to say about Guitar Hero.  It exposes me to new songs and trains my sense of rhythm… and it’s entertaining.


Rock Band. I was in percussion ensemble when I was undergrad and took a winterim of drumset private lessons.  For sure, Rock Band trains up the coordination necessary for playing the actual drums– a win for edutainment in a commercial game.  As far as the music selection goes, I only knew 1 or 2 of the songs, and I had no choice but to learn and expand my repertoire of rock music.  Overall, I find that these games are very good at exposing me to music I don’t listen too.  The only thing that bothers me is that it’s likely I don’t listen to a type of music, because I don’t really like that type of music.

Despite not listening much to rock and alternative, I still purchase and enjoy these games.  It’s only fair that if I have to listen to music I don’t know anything about, so should other people.   I’m joking… That’s a terrible reason to make a game; however, a direction I hope could be taken is a game I call “Jazz Band Revolution.”


Concept art for “Jazz Band Revolution”

Jazz Band Revolution addresses the following needs:

  • The desire to play real instruments. If Karaoke Revolution can pitch match my voice, then it should be able to pitch match the notes from my saxophone.  All we need is the horn mic input device.  Similarly, Instruments needing amplification can be plugged into the console via some input cable.
  • The desire to read real notes. Is it that hard to use real notes instead of sliding bars with circle shaped indicators on them?  Notes on sheet music are typically immobile, but I’d settle for sliding staves of notes (which wouldn’t be all that different from how we read rhythm game music now).
  • The desire to know about Jazz. Jazz music is not only rich with history and culture, it’s lineage is quite revered.  As a result, there are set standards that all people who listen to and play jazz would or should know.  It would be as simple as taking Hal Leonards “The Real Vocal Book,  Volume I” and digitizing it.  If you survey all the Jazz standard music books there is a great deal of overlap, indicating that there is a specific set of songs that everyone should know.
  • The desire to voice chords. New challenges, such as converting analog chords from a guitar digitally into its individual notes, would need to be handled, but in the meantime could remain unimplemented and substituted for simpler models of play.
  • The desire to improvise. The drums, in Rock Band, are often awarded a drum fill, but a side from quantity of input produced, everything else is ignored.  It’s not like your rhythmic accuracy and creativity are scored during the drum fills.  Programs, such as Band in a Box, on the other hand, channel the tendencies of Charlie Parker and other Jazz legends computationally using the melodic rules and rhythmic inclinations to imitate Jazz improvisation, and if a computer can be programmed to improvise, then a computer can process and score the improvisation of someone playing a game.

My Real Books


  • “I don’t own any real instruments.” Real instruments are a good investment for many reasons.  My saxophone, for example, appreciates in value with time.  If it isn’t worth it to own a nice instrument, then buy a cheap one, use a kazoo, or just sing instead.  Keyboards and guitars can be purchased for under $100 (and even cheaper if used), serve more purposes than just gaming, and don’t have controller compatability issues as a result of standardized sound input.
  • “I don’t know how to play any real instruments.” There’s learning involved in DDR and Guitar Hero, so you’d learn just like any other game.  Levels of difficulty would ease a new player into the game by limiting the number of notes per song.  Additionally, many Jazz standards have very simple melodies.
  • “I can’t read music.” The same sliding bars and color coded circles would be used just like in the other games.
  • “I don’t listen to Jazz music.” Jazz music is good for your soul.
  • “Real books are controversial in the Jazz community.” Musically speaking, there is a lot of room for criticism in trying to computerize the appraisal and representation of art forms.  I don’t have an answer for this one, except that I love my real book, but I know not to live by it.
  • “Jazz isn’t about rules.” Yea, but you need to know the rules before breaking them.

“Jazz Band Revolution” is just one avenue towards the many possible wins for edutainment, more specifically, musical edutainment.  Parents who want their kids to play music need to realize that piano lessons aren’t fun.  Piano lessons typically aren’t fun because I have to practice everyday to be good.  If I’m a kid, then I’d probably rather be playing with my friends, than playing the same song over and over again by myself.  Basketball is fun.  “Starcraft: BGH Top vs. Bottom” is fun.  Rock Band is fun.  Playing real instruments can be fun too, just like how playing the fake ones are.

JambaIs it really that hard?  I’m no expert, so, by all means, educate me.  Even post mortem, games not originally intended for education have been useful– such as studying the ecomony in MMOs.  I wonder how much a difference it would make, both for the reputation of games and also the enrichment of the experiences, if there were more intentionally educational content worked into commercial games.  Every little bit helps– just think of it as the free boost you get with your Jamba Juice.

I mean, why learn Al Bhed when I could be learning French?


13 thoughts on “Edutainment and Lessons "Learned" from Commercial Video Games: Jazz Band Revolution

  1. I think looking to the classic era of edutainment is a good idea, really. It was a lot broader than the caricatured view that all games were superficial skins on top of arcade-style games, a la Number-Muncher. In fact, the category was so broad that much non-game software qualified. As relates to this post, the most popular music edutainment software of the 1980s was Music Construction Set, a program that was little more than a friendly score-writing app that would play back your compositions for you. Nonetheless, it managed to position itself as edutainment and normal people really did purchase and use it for that purpose, because composing and playing back music on a computer is both entertaining and educational. 🙂 There seems to be a resurgence in that idea, as evidenced by Wii Music, whose most compelling angle is the experiment-with-computer-music aspect (not really the game parts, imo, which feel bolted on).

    The interesting question is whether there are compelling middle grounds between free play with instruments/composition, and something more like score-following a la Rock Band. Wii Music’s attempts in that direction don’t seem particularly compelling to me. Actually, though I agree your proposal for a jazz-improv-scoring system could be useful and even entertaining, is that a “game”? It sounds more like a computer tutor/critic that listens to your solos and tells you how good they were, according to some set of criteria; analogous, if more fun, to one that listened to your French and scored your pronunciation and grammar. Of course, you could argue that for Rock Band and Guitar Hero too: playing their plastic instruments is a musical performance, and the “game” simply scores the fidelity of the “player’s” performance to the score. So maybe it doesn’t matter.

  2. It’s a great idea – I especially like the fact that it would contain REAL information, use real instruments, and contain real music notation. Now, if it were coupled with a REAL music education curriculum (like the one one we have at for example) it would surely be a winner! Hey, we’re open to that partnership and since our software is already html based, we could have entire communities of JazzBandRevolutionitesd! Bop on!

  3. Mark,

    As far as ‘game’ goes, I’d settle for the functionalist perspective of: if it has game-like interactions and reactions, then it is a game. I find that the motivation of why people play games is quite powerful, and well, powerful enough to motivate me in learning how to play StarCraft (and feel disappointed that I’m not very good at it). I’m interested in the motivation that compels me to gain mastery over the skills in a game and why it’s necessarily different from that which compels me to contribute toward society. Industry knows how to motivate its consumers, now we just need some game engineers to make the technology available for different uses. I’m certain that educators trying to use games may have more uphills than games that also educate.


    I’m glad you like the idea, but it’s going to take a company like Activision or Harmonix to make the dream come true. When it does happen, I hope that they do take pedagogical advice from music educators. Maybe from the other end, we could have “Band in a Box” for xbox 360.

  4. An interesting idea, but I think you’re missing the point that Realism>Simplicity=Less-fun. If I have to buy a saxophone, know how to play it, and have friends who own and play their own instruments, why do I need a game?

    One unexpected educational aspect of the Guitar-Hero genre of games is that the players develop better taste and critical skills in the process.

  5. Eric, music can be broken down into simple actions. My first real jazz improvisation was playing the blues scale to some blues song. Start with 3 notes… start with 1… possibilities are endless. I don’t think there is a big difference between ‘Rock Band’ and ‘Jazz Band.’ We just need to figure out the *magic* in one and apply it to the latter.

    Second thing.. b/c the game takes in sound input, it doesn’t matter what the instrument actually is… so if people didn’t want to play or buy something…. they can sing or use what they have. The program can transpose as necessary. If it does help, then creating a plastic saxophone game controller could be done in place of getting a sax and mic’ing it.

    Third thing… “Band in a Box” is great b/c it offers that ‘friend’ support. My hope is to take the technology even further.

    That’s a really good point in regards to music games. It definitely makes you think about the tunes in different ways.

  6. While I agree with the general gist of the comment that more educational games should be created (it’s part of what I am doing this summer ;), the problem with many of the examples of games is there is no explicit teaching aspect to the games. Playing guitars on Rock Band don’t actually “teach” rhythm, rather they just give you an opportunity to practice or test knowledge with constant feedback on how you are doing. This does not necessarily translate well to more complicated things to learn than rhythm. So for games to work they will instead have either 1. not pretend to actually teach the material but instead provide a way to practice material already learned from somewhere else or 2. have an additional teaching component that might not be as “fun” as the testing or practicing component.

    With all that said the one thing that games excel at is providing a context for learning things, often far better than a classroom, you can build anything you want to. This is what made Oregon Trail such a popular game it provided a way to see history by playing through the history. So actually playing in a Jazz band can provide some more interesting places for the daily grind that is practicing an instrument.

  7. I just imagine “Jazz Band” would be really cool, but then impossible in the later stages. John Coltrane would be that game’s Dragonforce.

  8. David,

    Testing of skills that everyone has (such as rhythm) does make it far more accessible; however, there are games with very specific knowledge (such as StarCraft) which take great amounts of commitment (which is ultimately motivation). ‘Jazz Band’ may appeal to a smaller audience than ‘Guitar Hero,’ but the universal net utility (profit + popularity + contribution to society + etc.) would be revolutionary– Maybe not better, but new and different.

    I do agree that using games like ‘Guitar Hero’ may not be the best example, as they are intentionally less exclusive in design. ‘Jazz Band’ would for sure require being taught or already knowing music. So, I totally think you are onto something with the separation of teaching and testing in games. How do we make people want to learn? Amazing things will happen once we figure that out technologically.

    Please let us know when your game will be on itunes. I don’t even have an ipod, but I’m down to support!


    I didn’t even think of that. It could motivate people to play Coltrane in “Giant Steps”… Charlie Parker (or Jaco) in “Donna Lee”… There could be a feature to slow things down and do it note by note. Why not put the whole “Omnibook” on there. Bonus levels!!

  9. You created the cover art for the game? That is one great cover!

    Well, teaching people to learn music through games looks like lots of fun. But the end result will never compete with the real lessons.

    Sure many people cannot tolerate boring and tedious practices and lessons, but that’s not the case. We have been led to believe that learning music is a hard and dull process. In fact, learning how to play music IS a fun process!

    It’s going to be hard to write everything here, so I’ll just point you to the source of this claim. Just click on the link below.

    Click here to visit the source of my claim.


  10. One of the main reasons that ‘edutainment’ for such topics as one studies in school is that it is very difficult to break into the school curriculum. Curricula are set by national, state or district policy and it is very difficult to crack through those barriers, to get something in that is not ‘tried and tested’ like the same old boring stuff that most schools are made to teach. There are many, many highly educational software programs, and we taught our kids dozens of skills from ABCs and reading, through to aspects of geography on the computer.

    A second reason is that the edutainment business concentrates on what sells, and if one looks at the likes of most of the great multi-million dollar sellers (billions??) they are based on violence, warfare, destruction and blasting the living daylights out of one’s opponent.

    No doubt that over time gaming companies will in future pour more money into more edutainment products but it will take time for these to permeate into the system.

  11. I think this is a brilliant idea. As a music educator I know the effects of Guitar Hero and the other band games that came along lately. No other event has ever created so many guitarists as “Guitar Hero” did. The number of guitar students literally exploded not long after the game became popular. And they wanted to learn the songs they played with the game. That’s a fact I and other educators have witnessed. I am sure your “Jazz Band” idea will have an impact too. Maybe not that big but it will. It doesn’t matter if you learn how to play piano, saxophone or drums virtually. It’s fun and it’s great way to get interested in music. Keep up the good work 🙂

  12. As a jazz lover and Rock Band fan I’m all for this kind of release. Gaming and education should come hand in hand, and what better way to educate yourself in Jazz than with video games.. it would expose the genre to entire new fans.

  13. This article really hits home with me. As most of my family and friends will tell you, I am constantly complaining about the proliferation of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, and the reluctance of many people who constantly play these games to study music and really learn how to play a musical instrument. My experience seems to suggest that most of these individuals are loath to practice, and are really more interested in fantasy and posing rather than music itself.

    Their are electronic games on the market that will enhance one’s musical skills. Most Casio musical keyboards are equipped with the Music Challenge Keyboard Game. Music Challenge is a game that measures your reaction speed as you press keys in response to on-screen keyboard indicators and fingering guide indications.

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