Maybe you’ve seen it at a party or a family gathering: groups of people crowded around a TV screen—some wielding various toy instruments, vamping, jumping around. Players follow along with prerecorded songs, trying to match their respective parts as perfectly as possible, perhaps injecting a bit of style into the proceedings. They do it for points and the roar of a virtual crowd.

These video games—two competing ones, Guitar Hero and Rock Band—offer players a chance to experience musicianship without ever having to practice an instrument. Or even leave their living rooms. Is this creative? Is it cheating? What does it mean for real-world musicianship? Why don’t these players just pick up a real guitar already?

Ethnomusicologist Kiri Miller, R.I. ’11, a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and an assistant professor of music at Brown University, tackles these and other related issues in her current research; she’s writing a book about it, Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). On Wednesday, Oct. 6, as part of the Radcliffe Fellows’ Presentation Series, she presented some of her research in a lecture titled, “How Musical Is Guitar Hero?”

The musicality of Guitar Hero has been hotly contested since the game’s introduction. Clearly, the players aren’t really making the music—but they’re not just listening, either. “We don’t really have a big working vocabulary to account for forms of musicality that fall between musicianship and listenership, between production and reception,” Miller points out.

Is a player just an automaton, or does he or she bring creativity to the game play? With a video excerpt, Miller introduced her audience to Freddie Wong, a video game virtuoso (he played Guitar Hero and Rock Band professionally for a stint) whose YouTube performances have garnered millions of hits. Whatever one thinks of his musicianship, the performative aspect of his game can’t be denied.

Miller conducted ethnographic research—including interviews with players and game designers and a Web-based survey—to explore how virtual performance is changing what players think about creativity, musicality, and performance.

Only time will tell whether Miller’s “virtual virtuosity” will prove to be what James Parker of the Atlantic called “another coup for the forces of unreality.” In the meantime, though, what 36 million players agree on is how very fun these games are: They continue to pick up their plastic guitars in the name of rock.

Some of them may even learn to play a “realtar.”

Read more about Kiri Miller’s work on her research blog, Playing Along.