I have to admit, ever since I was in junior high, I wanted to be a rock star (or an Elven ranger, but that’s another story). It was hard to turn away from the allure of a supposed lifestyle of girls and guitars. After some careful experimentation with spandex, and the sudden realization that playing guitar is actually quite difficult, my dreams faded, and I moved my efforts from onstage to behind the scenes. Here I am, more than 25 years later, a professional designer and professor, and suddenly I have the itch to become a rock star once again. Why? Well Harmonix’s Rock Band®, of course.

A few years back, music and rhythm video games hit the scene and grew in popularity. One of the first to reach a high level among the video game faithful was the Red Octane and Harmonix game, Guitar Hero. Within a week of its release in 2005, I had worked it into my lighting design curriculum. It wasn’t until a few years later when Electronic Arts released Harmonix’s Rock Band, though, that I realized a video game’s true potential in the classroom. It did everything right; it was the whole band experience in one package.

Let’s face it, video games are big business. It is impossible to ignore the global influence of games like World of Warcraft, Halo, or Tetris. Blizzard Entertainment is currently boasting a subscription base of more than 12 million players on World of Warcraft alone. Numbers like that are hard to ignore. The gaming influence on pop culture is profound. With everything from large-scale advertising ventures (such as Toyota) and celebrity endorsements, like it or not, World of Warcraft is the recognizable face of gaming. I only mention these facts to point out that society has embraced video games on a large scale, and history has shown that attention must be paid to the new gaming environment and culture in which we live.

How can we, as educators, utilize tools that both motivate our students, and, at the same time, allow them (and, in all honesty, us) to participate in the fun of today’s technological advancements? The answer may lie in using unconventional teaching techniques to inspire and inform. When Rock Band was introduced, I knew immediately that it was something special. I had no idea, however, that it would be such a vital teaching tool for me. For the past three years, I have used it to teach concert lighting to my students with astounding success. I think that, as educators, sometimes we need to get hit by a sledgehammer to break us from some of our deeply rooted habits and entrenched curriculums. Who knew that sledgehammer would come in the form of a gaming console and a bit of software?

I do not claim to be the first to use games in the classroom. I applaud those who have embraced the challenge and have excelled. My favorite example of video gaming in education is professors with The Synthetic Words Initiative at Indiana University, who use BioWare’s role-playing game, Neverwinter Nights, to create virtual environments and allow game players to relive the works of Shakespeare. Creativity is one of the core elements of a designer’s soul. Utilizing unconventional tools to motivate and educate students is something we all need to cultivate and refine.

The big question is how does this all work? It starts simply as an in-class project of putting a lighting plot together. A small rock ‘n’ roll platform set is constructed in our main-stage theatre. Students hang and focus the fixtures, run DMX, and install projection screens. A Microsoft Xbox 360 is tied into the in-house sound system and grid-mounted projector. The game-play video is patched and routed, displayed on a screen above the audience seating in the house. Each student is assigned songs to design, and students volunteer to perform in bands, each with a given set list to play. Programming is prescheduled, allotting each student ample time to create "looks." On show day (the final exam), the student bands play the game while the preprogrammed concert lighting "takes the stage." When done correctly, it gives the illusion of a band playing onstage with all the bells and whistles, lighting and haze.

Hidden within the project are the fundamentals of concert lighting, drafting, maintenance, and troubleshooting automation (albeit, unplanned), DMX control, timing designs to sound, moving light programming, and, of course, the embrace of each students inner rock-star. When I first ran the project, I thought it would be entertaining, but I wasn’t prepared for its overall popularity. Before I knew it, students had formed bands complete with costumes that fit a particular music genre. I’ve had students cut their hair, shave their heads, tear up their jeans, design and manufacture elaborate costuming, and wear thick layers of black eyeliner (no new tattoos just yet). All of this in the name of lighting design? Yes, it may be hard to believe, but I have students yearning to take a lighting final exam. I can’t speak for every professor, but I’ve never before had more than 100 people show up just to watch—yes, just to watch—a class final.

Why is this so popular? I suspect my students are much like myself, craving a life that mimics their favorite musical artists. As the project has evolved, it has grown to include everything from projection design created by the digital media design classes we offer, to pyrotechnics and flame effects big and small. I don’t know where the paths of the project will lead us, perhaps to the dark side of the moon (I couldn’t resist). Maybe we will explore a master class in advanced rigging and suspend some cars from the grid (an homage to Willie Williams) or do some sort of international simulcast. One thing is for certain: The Rock Band project will continue to be an invaluable teaching tool, allowing us to explore the dreams that never were, and relive the pasts that might have been.

Price Johnston is a professional designer and theatre professor of lighting, sound, and projection design at Colorado State University.