Tim Walker: 'In Guitar Hero, a virtual Kurt Cobain can appear on stage with Bon Jovi'

The Couch Surfer : I’m starting to perfect some classic rock-star moves, such as the Springsteen Air-Punch

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Where have Fleetwood Mac been all my life? Or, more precisely, where has the guitar solo at the end of "Go Your Own Way" been all my life?

Since I got my hands on a copy of Guitar Hero: World Tour, I must've tapped it out on my undersized plastic axe a good 100 times or so. I'm now sufficiently competent (on the "medium" difficulty mode, at least) to start perfecting some rock-star moves, such as the "Springsteen Air-Punch" or the "Wilko Johnson Machine Gun".

You might consider rocking out to Fleetwood Mac a guilty pleasure but, guilt-wise, it's nothing compared to one feature of Guitar Hero 5, which is due for release later this week. Like many an axeman before him (Slash, Billy Corgan, Ted Nugent, the list goes on ... ), Kurt Cobain's digital likeness has been incorporated into the gameplay, to render Nirvana's signature grunge anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which will doubtless become a treasured addition to the Guitar Hero playlist.

Cobain is not the first dead guy to be featured in the game. More than once have I taken up my faux instrument and picked through "Purple Haze" in time with Jimi Hendrix's re-animated form. Guitar Hero 5's biggest rival in the music game charts this autumn will be The Beatles: Rock Band, which features at least two late musicians in its line-up.

Will Rock Band, however, do John and George the disservice that Guitar Hero does Kurt? Thanks either to a designer with a decidedly sick sense of humour, or to an unintended quirk of the software, the Kurt avatar, once unlocked, can be used to sing or play along to other songs. Which is why YouTube has begun to fill up with clips of poor Kurt being forced to imitate Flavor Flav, or – worse – join Bon Jovi on stage for a performance of "You Give Love a Bad Name".

If, like me, you're not much of a gamer, you may imagine this all to be a bit of a niche concern, nothing to worry about in terms of maintaining Cobain's memory in the wider culture. But in 2007 Guitar Hero and Rock Band between them made £100m more than all conventional digital music sales from iTunes and its competitors combined. So successful is the genre that even traditionally technophobic acts such as The Beatles and Metallica have succumbed to the guitar game's charms and released their own versions.

The key to its popularity, I would suggest, is the desire of dads with disposable income to see their sons develop an appreciation of, say, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Watching his seven-year-old strum along to Santana is a source of unbounded joy to a man of a certain age. Thus the various editions of Guitar Hero and Rock Band have sold well over 35 million copies.

So Cobain's posthumous humiliation is no trifling matter. Grunge fans the world over will have to watch their fallen idol crotch-rocking with Richie Sambora. It's like forcing Willie Nelson to duet with Jessica Simpson, or Iggy Pop to advertise car insurance. The living are more than welcome to sell their souls to the man – or their likenesses to the games manufacturers – if they so wish. I'll be very glad to strum along to "Paperback Writer" while Paul McCartney counts the royalties. But is it fair to impose the same arrangement on the deceased? Cobain once wrote in a song that he'd "rather be dead than cool". Perhaps he finally got his wish.

***

One of the earliest virals I remember seeing, back in 2005 – or about three generations ago, in internet time – was the (unofficial) Volkswagen ad, "Suicide Bomber". A terrorist pulls up outside a crowded café in a VW Polo and detonates his bomb vest, yet the explosion is nothing but a muffled thump from inside the "small but tough" car. It spread like digital swine flu.

Perhaps this is what someone was thinking of when they created their unofficial commercial, "Tsunami", for the World Wildlife Fund. It begins with a digital re-enactment of the Twin Towers' destruction on 9/11, and goes on to show dozens of planes heading for Manhattan's skyscrapers, to illustrate the vast number of lives lost in the 2004 Asian tsunami. WWF has denied any responsibility for the video, but recently confessed its involvement (along with advertising agency DDB Brazil) in a press advertisement featuring the same scene. Viral ads like "Suicide Bomber" may appear to thrive on bad taste, but they require something other than edginess to succeed: wit. "Tsunami" was, in more ways than one, totally witless.

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