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Plastic Heroes 

Guitar Hero nerds leave the basement for the bar.

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On a Friday night in July, Johnny Rotten's, a small neighborhood bar in Middleburg Heights, sits almost empty. The rickety cafeteria tables are occupied by a middle-aged couple wearing matching Ohio State sweatshirts. At the bar, a few men with spherical bellies nurse Bud Lights and glance at the Tribe game. Clunky, 1980s arcade games gather dust by the door.

But one small bolt of activity lights up the glum scene. In a roped-off section, two twentysomething software developers, holding child-size guitars, stare hypnotically at a flashing neon screen. Their fingers race up and down colorful keys on the guitars, chasing the melody of Boston's "More Than a Feeling." The guy on the right, Greg Leppert, taps his feet and bats at the plastic case of his guitar, trying like hell to keep time.

It's not working.

"Fuuuuuckkkk!" he yells. His accomplice doesn't bother looking over.

Curious at the spectacle, some patrons trickle toward the guys, bemusedly elbowing each other. Leppert, his floppy brown hair matted with sweat, feels the audience building and begins vamping it up, tossing his head like a nerdy Steve Tyler. But attention, it seems, is bad for Leppert's coordination. The song suddenly ends. The screen informs the duo that they weren't rocking hard enough to finish the song. However, the screen reports, they did manage to nail 93 percent of the notes, with 89 percent accuracy -- figures that compute well with Leppert.

"All those years of playing air guitar has finally paid off," he says, smiling proudly.

Leppert and his friend are among Guitar Hero's cult of addicted gamers, who've been shredding plastic since 2005. The game, which rewards Tetris-like skills with rock-god status, quickly became a best-seller. Guitar Hero junkies were born. Some even ditched real guitars for fake ones. "I can play much harder songs on Guitar Hero than I can on a regular guitar," says 25-year-old Jared Hodges, who spends hours in the game's faux-rock stratosphere, to the displeasure of his very real wife.

Eventually, a few enterprising bar owners in New York and Boston -- recognizing there was little cachet in playing fake guitar in a lonely living room -- began importing the game to their clubs. They set up makeshift stages and pumped the game's music, which ranges from Ozzy Osbourne to Franz Ferdinand, through bellowing speakers. As in karaoke, DJs invite patrons to come play the game onstage, sometimes just to be publicly humiliated and sometimes for tournament-style competition, with cash prizes for the best rockers. As trends do -- especially ones involving Ozzy -- Guitar Hero nights found their way to Cleveland. Johnny Rotten's and Thursday's, in Akron, have started hosting them regularly. Glory Days, a prime Kent State haunt, will host tournaments starting this fall.

The trend was entirely accidental: Guitar Hero's creators never envisioned bars as training grounds for the game, says designer Greg LoPiccolo. But the setup works. Just as karaoke does for shower-singers, Guitar Hero nights let previously housebound gamers show off their long-practiced skills. But because Guitar Hero has a short song list -- and because no matter how bad the gamer, the songs always sound perfect -- the rest of the bar doesn't have to suffer through whiny, off-key renditions of Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel." Plus, the game always grades your performance, providing the sort of measurable competition that drunks love (see Golden Tee, bar trivia, and the like) and karaoke fails to deliver.

These live performances only fuel players' obsessions. It's one thing to rock the guitar in your bedroom, quite another to play in front of people, who judge not only stats but showmanship. The people want flair. So video gamers are spending even more time with their Xboxes. Performing in front of an audience, says Leppert, makes you aware of your lack of skills. "It's not that you're nervous," he says of his twice-a-month bar performances at Johnny Rotten's. "It's just that you want to be awesome, and you're not."

Though he's never had an actual guitar lesson -- that would take way too much time -- he's started practicing the game during downtime at work. (His office has Xboxes in the conference rooms.)

For some hard-core gamers, avoiding embarrassment means avoiding booze. The laws of karaoke dictate that the more you drink, the more courage you have, and the more fervently you start to believe in the power of your own voice. But liquor, it turns out, has the opposite effect on fake-guitar playing. The drunker you get, the more your coordination depletes, and the more embarrassed you feel. So the serious Guitar Hero doesn't drink.

This doesn't exactly fit the business plans of bar owners. That's why "karaoke nights take precedence over Guitar Hero nights," says Johnny Tedeschi, who owns Johnny Rotten's. At Thursday's, Guitar Hero nights are limited to Sundays. "We don't want this to turn into a total geekfest," DJ Mario Nemr says.

There's also the problem of the game's somewhat limited songbook. Nemr, for instance, has issued a temporary ban on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird. " "It's eleven minutes long," he says, aghast. "You hear it once, and you're sick of it for the rest of your life."

At Johnny Rotten's, this is of no concern -- at least not at the moment. Two hesitant newcomers have taken over the guitars, and they're scanning the song list in search of the easiest song. (It's not "Free Bird.") They finally settle on Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" and start tapping, while neon-colored notes on the screen fly at them like fast-moving comets. The game informs them that they are horribly off-key and out of rhythm. "This is the easy song?" one of the players, wearing tight Diesel jeans and a high ponytail, asks. She looks around to make sure no one is watching.

A minute and a half in, the game stops the women mid-stroke. They hit only 21 percent of their notes -- a dismal performance that draws enthusiastic boos from a digitized crowd on-screen, and silence from the bar. "So much for my music career," the Diesel-wearing one laughs.

With that, she hands the guitar back to Leppert, who takes it eagerly, slinging the strap over his shoulder. His eyes fix on a point somewhere in the distance, and his fingers tickle the colorful plastic. "This is as close as I'll ever get to being a rock star," he says with a sigh.

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