Back in Guitar Hero 3, video game developer Activision began including various well known guitarists, both living and passed on, as unlockable characters within the franchise. In the series’ most recent iteration, Guitar Hero 5, which was just released on September 1st, deceased rock legends Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain were including alongside living rockers Carlos Santana, Shirley Manson, and Matt Bellamy. Now while those still with us had complete control over their likeness being used in the game, Cash and Cobain’s legacies, both real life and digital, are in control of their respective estates.
Tabloid darling Courtney Love was left in control of Cobain’s estate and with that came his digital likeness. Recently, someone brought to Courtney’s attention this video that has been floating around YouTube of her deceased husband in what she and others consider a less than flattering light singing and dancing in the roles of various other musicians like Bon Jovi and Public Enemy.
After seeing this, Courtney vented her frustrations with a more than seventy post-tirade on her Twitter account @courtneylover79 with statements such as, “FOR THE RECORD I DID NOT APPROVE KURTS AVATAR FOR GUYITARHERO5” and threatens to sue just about anyone she could think of who had been associated with the project. Seeing the decision to allow Kurt, who was adamantly anti-establishment, to be placed in the role of other acts that would have disgusted the singer in his life, former bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic issued a statement on Grohl’s band, the Foo Fighters’, website: “It’s hard to watch an image of Kurt pantomiming other artists’ music alongside cartoon characters.
Kurt Cobain wrote songs that hold a lot of meaning to people all over the world. We feel he deserves better,” and adding that they feel Activision should patch the game, locking Kurt Cobain as a character only available for Nirvana tracks. Activision’s response was short and simple, stating they had, “secured the necessary licensing rights from the Cobain estate in a written agreement signed by Courtney Love to use Kurt Cobain’s likeness as a fully playable character in Guitar Hero 5.”
All this leads to the two simple questions, “Is it okay to use the likeness of someone no longer with us in video games?” and “If so, is it okay to have them doing things that would be considered out of character?” When thinking about this question, you have to remember that video games are just another form of media, no different really than television or radio except that it is a younger technology. Some people feel that video games need to be looked at differently because a player is actually controlling the action but that is another debate entirely.
While some people may be offended by seeing Cobain portrayed in what they consider a negative respect, we also have to remember that this has been happening in media since print began with political cartoons. For more than a century, various political leaders have been shown looking ridiculous or used as a way to hock wares in advertisements. Now I don’t know about you but from what was taught in history class founding father George Washington never seemed like the type who’d want his image used for a President’s Day car sale.
Even our most recent Commander in Chief George W. Bush had not one but two different Comedy Central series dedicated to ridiculing him. But is there ever an uproar about this calling for the defense of the Presidents, both past or current? No. Was there ever a lawsuit against the Simpson’s creators for including a joke about John F. Kennedy possibly being a Nazi? No. So why should the likeness of a musician be any better protected than that of a former leader of the United States?
I was very surprised the first time I saw Jimmy Hendrix featured in a previous Guitar Hero but since I had no close personal attachment to him, I brushed it off and didn’t think about it anymore. When video came out promoting Guitar Hero 5, I was extremely surprised to see Johnny Cash used as he never seemed like the type who would be in a video game. But the video looked like it paid proper tribute to the legend. Even The Beatles: Rock Band was a huge shocker for many people but after seeing it in action and how it was careful to show the Fab Four in the proper light with respect to their career and had the involvement of the two remaining Beatles, the spirit of Beatlemania was properly captured and no complaints were issued by myself or anyone else. But seeing Cobain placed in the game, even regardless of the above “You Give Love a Bad Name” video, just feels wrong in many respects.
While not everyone will agree with this statement, as great as an artist Cobain was in his life, he made a lot of terrible decisions that shouldn’t be repeated by anyone including his drug use and his eventual suicide. By promoting him as a character in Guitar Hero 5, they are not only focusing on the music of Cobain but on the person himself. World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon recently was forced to handle a similar situation with the Chris Benoit murder suicide from 2007. When asked about it, McMahon said that there is no denying Chris Benoit’s legacy in the ring but that the company did not feel it was right to use his likeness to promote products that they would profit from. Promoting Cobain in Guitar Hero 5 would be similar to WWE putting Benoit as an unlockable character in their next SmackDown vs. Raw game.
Love’s outrage over what she now feels was a mistake by allowing Cobain’s likeness to appear in the game will likely give it more publicity than ever before as people from across the media circus zero in on the “controversial” game. When recently interviewed with the BBC, Bon Jovi said, ” “I had the paperwork; they wanted me to be on that game, and I just passed… But no one even broached the subject with me that I would be singing other people’s stuff. I don’t know how I would have reacted to that. I don’t know that I would have wanted it either.” While the debate will rage on about how those not with us anymore should be used anywhere in the media, there is one lesson very clear after seeing the fallout of Courtney Love’s decision: Read the fine print… Because obviously, she didn’t.