One of my favorite ways to pass a cold New Hampshire evening is to play Texas Hold’em with a group of friends. One Saturday night in late January, I went to spend just such an evening at the home of my good friends, Scott and Tab. As luck (and my poor play) would have it, I was knocked out of the tournament rather early. In most situations when this happens to me, I wait until enough people have been knocked out of a tournament and start a new tournament with those folks (because, really, you can never play enough Hold’em). On this night, however, I went down into Scott and Tab’s basement and found a game I like far better than Texas Hold’em–I found Dance Dance Revolution.
The game is surprisingly simple. A competitor stands in front of a television set that has game console attached to it. Rather than using a joystick or some other standard controller to interact with the game, the competitor stands on a pad that has four arrows on it. One arrow points to the front, one back, one left and one right. A song begins to play and the screen is animated with arrows that keep the beat of the song. The goal of the competitor is to step on the appropriate pad arrow at precisely the moment that the screen arrow hits a designated spot at the top of the screen. The more precisely the competitor steps on the pad arrows, the more points she scores.
Scott and Tab have a PS2 and two dance pads set up on the TV in their basement. As people were knocked out of the tournament upstairs, they came downstairs into a world of dance. When Evelyn came down, she established herself as THE ONE AND TRUE DANCE QUEEN by beating all comers for over an hour (maybe it was two hours–my mind was a blur amid the swirling disco beats). And then came Scott. It’s his game, of course, and so you would expect that with all the hours of practice that he’s had, he would have an easy time beating Evelyn. He did beat her but it was the closest match of the evening. As the new queen, he owned the dance pad for the next hour.
Finally, it was Evelyn’s turn for a rematch with Scott. Before choosing the songs that they would dance to, Scott threw a ten dollar bet onto the floor. Evelyn eagerly matched it. After three songs, she had amassed more points than he had. As the victor, she snatched the $20 off the floor, having now won back all the money she lost in the Hold’em tournament that had brought us all to this place. Unfortunately, we had to leave before a rubber match between Scott and Evelyn could occur so we still don’t know which of the two is the DDR monarch.
So why is this game so addicting? I think the biggest factor has to do with the mode of interaction. The dance pad is a threshold object, an object on the threshold between the real world of our bodies and the artificial world of the game. A movement of the body in the real world results in a satisfyingly equivalent movement of an artifact in the artificial world of the game. The more precise your movements in the real world, the better you will do in the game world. This is a perfect example of a game in which better graphics will not result in a better game experience. Instead, the close linking of real world movements to the actions within the game world result in a greater sense of agency for the player. And this agency results in a more immersive, engaging experience for the player.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.