Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Gaming the System: Gender Performance in Dance Central

I'm happy to announce that my new article on gender performance in Dance Central is now available from the journal New Media & Society, published online-before-print. Once the print edition is published, I'll be permitted to post a link to a full-text version for those who don't have subscription access to the journal. Please note, this is a very short article by my standards (I struggled with the journal's strict word-count limit). I have a lot more to say about this topic in future work! Comments are very welcome.

Miller, Kiri. 2014. "Gaming the System: Gender Performance in Dance Central". New Media & Society, http://nms.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/01/21/1461444813518878 (published 9 January 2014).

Abstract This article investigates how the Dance Central game series (Harmonix Music Systems) invites and persuades players to experiment with gender performance. Dance Central uses the Xbox 360 Kinect, a motion-sensing interface, to teach players full-body dance routines set to popular club music. This study offers evidence that performative, constructivist gender theories informed the development process for these games, and explores what happens when designers enlist players in putting theory into practice. Dance Central stages visceral encounters with gendered choreography, generating both embodied gender work in the course of gameplay and reflective gender discourse in public-sphere social media. Grounded in qualitative ethnographic research that gives equal attention to interface affordances, game design, player experiences, and game-related discourse, this article offers a case study for understanding how digital media become enculturated as technologies of gender.

Keywords Dance, design, digital games, embodiment, gender, gesture, interface, kinesthesia, play, social media

Thursday, April 11, 2013

PAX East 2013 & Dance Central player survey

After a long blog hiatus, I thought I'd get back in the swing of things with some notes from PAX East. I could only get up to Boston for a few hours (on March 22, 2013), so I spent all my time hanging out at the Dance Central booth on the exhibits floor and attending the "Rock Band Behind the Music" panel. The Harmonix folks posted their own Dance Central PAX recap, including some fantastic cosplay photos. I didn't take too many pictures, but here's one great crew in action.

I was struck by the diversity of the players who chose to get onstage (and who waited in line for quite a while for the privilege). They were diverse in terms of conventional demographic categories like age, gender, and race/ethnicity, but also things like sartorial style, dance expertise, and prior knowledge of the Dance Central repertoire. I saw several pairs of dancers in which one person knew the choreography cold while his/her friend was mostly freestyling along, without any concern for earning points. A toddler who clearly had some DC experience was having an awesome time at the edge of the stage; her mother was waiting in line to dance, and told me that at 17 months, her daughter already knows some game moves. A tween boy gave an incredible solo performance, starting with striking a pose with his back to us -- he reminded me of the Guitar Hero virtuosos who play with their backs to the TV. (He danced solo by his own request; usually people without a dance partner were joined by a friendly Harmonix staff member.) A late-middle-aged, conservatively-dressed white couple stood out from the crowd in this context; as they were preparing to go on stage, the husband (I assume) said it would be the most humiliating three minutes of his life, but he got up there anyway. Meanwhile, I kept an eye on my #dancecentral twitter feed, and caught some related commentary.

A few more observations:
  •  a couple turned to orient themselves toward each other (away from the screen) during freestyle
  •  most people seemed to have a favorite avatar, or at least took the trouble to change characters before they started (hard to know whether they were making choices on the spot or had a go-to choice established)
  • a few people were singing along or lip-syncing along as they danced
  • there was some evidence of minor confusion from learning moves from two-dimensional images: for instance, actually holding one's elbow with the opposite hand during the lasso moves in "Gangnam Style" vs. just keeping arms close to that position (I can't say for sure whether this was based on visual confusion; it could also be an effort to self-constrain the arms into the angles that will earn credit for the move). I've observed a similar issue for snapping fingers in some songs (you can't hear the finger-snaps in the game, so some people just register it as a way of holding the hand). 
  • PAX players also exhibited the extremely common DC practice of keeping their heads up and eyes oriented toward the screen, even when the on-screen dancer is doing otherwise. "Gangnam Style" offers a prime example of this, too, especially for the down-on-the-floor section -- see for example this excellent player in Brazil:

After spending an hour or so at the Dance Central stage I headed up to wait in line for the Rock Band panel, which was popular to say the least. Here's what the hallway line looked like, from maybe 3/4 of the way back (and 20 minutes before the start time).

The panel was all about copyright and licensing issues for the Rock Band song repertoire, which is a fascinating, incredibly complex, and legally sensitive topic; they asked people not to record/tweet/blog the details of the presentation, apparently because there was some concern about somehow making trouble with artists/labels who could be important partners in the future. I counted the rows of filled seats and estimated at least 800 people in attendance. (I think my own academic talk audiences have maxed out at 200 at the very most -- thanks, Texas A&M! Always healthy to get a reality check in terms of who's doing the work of educating/influencing the public on issues like intellectual property and how licensing works.) In accordance with the wishes of the panelists, I won't give more details on the panel, except to share the incredible stats that over the life of the Rock Band franchise to date, there have been over 130 million song downloads and over 23,766,000 gems authored by the audio team (the "gems" in Rock Band notation tracks are the equivalent of individual notes on printed sheet music -- most of them are hand-placed, based on painstaking listening and transcription work). My takeaway from the panel was that Harmonix wanted to give players a sense of the incredible amount of work (legal, musical, coding, etc.) that went into producing the Rock Band repertoire, explaining why "we're not a short-order cook", i.e., why they couldn't immediately license, produce, and distribute all the specific songs requested by players over the years.  The audience seemed appreciative, and not a little wistful, since this was all coming shortly after the announcement of the end of Rock Band DLC releases.

In other news, I've been working away on my Dance Central research project and just put together a player survey. Web-based surveys played an important role in my previous research projects on Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero/Rock Band, and I'm hoping to learn a lot from this one as well. Please spread the link around to anyone who might be interested in sharing their experience. This isn't really about making a claim to "hard data" or reaching a statistically significant sample of DC players (though that would be cool). Instead, it's another way to learn about the diversity of player experiences, and to check my own ideas against as many other sources as possible.

Happy spring to all!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Playing Along -- now in print!

I've been so busy with the new semester that I failed to announce my own book launch! Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance was published earlier this month by Oxford University Press. Here's the official publisher page and the Amazon page (available for Kindle!). The awesome cover design is by Benjamin Shaykin.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Virtual Transmission, Visceral Practice: Dance Central and the Cybershala [SEM 2011]

I presented this paper at the joint meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the Congress for Research on Dance in Philadelphia, PA (November 17-20, 2011). The Dance Central section represents my current research project (still in its early stages); the cybershala section is condensed from a longer treatment in my new book, Playing Along.


Virtual Transmission, Visceral Practice: Dance Central and the Cybershala

screenshot from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPFr27b86tE

screenshot from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jS9ceH1xssk

Interactive digital media technologies are gradually transforming the face-to-face, body-to-body transmission contexts that have always played a crucial role in music and dance pedagogy. YouTube, blogging platforms, and other online social media forums have given rise to countless virtual communities of practice. Meanwhile, digital game developers are seeking to bridge the gap between virtual and visceral experience by creating new kinds of controllers, motion-sensing devices, and gestural interfaces (e.g., those employed by the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect). Despite the limitations of current technologies, millions of people are turning to online media and digital games in the pursuit of new corporeal skills, experiences, and knowledge.

Today I’m going to present two case studies in techno-mediated transmission. First I’ll address the “cybershala” created by yoga bloggers, a web-based community of practice that sometimes comes into conflict with traditional authority. Then I’ll turn to Dance Central, a videogame that teaches players full-body choreography routines set to popular club music, offering real-time feedback using a motion-sensing camera peripheral. While time limitations will prevent me from doing justice to either case study, I think it’s worth our while to consider how they inform each other. These examples illustrate some new possibilities for the transmission of embodied practice, for converting virtual social connections into visceral common knowledge, and for imagining what it’s like to live in someone else’s body.

Cybershala: The Ashtangisphere Never Sleeps
One day in the summer of 2010 a friend posted a comment on one of my Facebook status updates, asking how my backbends were coming along.

 My friend and I both practice ashtanga yoga, a method codified and popularized in the twentieth century by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009) through his Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. Ashtanga is a “flowing” yoga style, in which most asana (postures) are held for only five breaths; fluid transitions between asana are an integral part of the practice. The simplest explanation of what makes ashtanga distinctive is that practitioners always move through the asana in a particular order, matching their movements to a particular breath pattern. The prescribed sequence of asana is broken down into a structured curriculum: fundamentals, primary series, second series, and so on. Students learn each series through cumulative repetition, with the teacher deciding when a student is ready to add a new asana or begin a new series. In “Mysore-style” classes, the teacher does not instruct the whole group and rarely demonstrates asana. Instead, she or he moves through the room giving physical adjustments and working with students one-on-one as they each proceed through the series. [Hey ashtangis, I know this description is woefully incomplete, but this talk could only be 20 minutes long!]

At the time of our Facebook exchange my friend and I were both partway through learning the second series, 3,000 miles apart and working with different teachers. The ashtanga curriculum offers a structuring framework for online discourse and visceral common knowledge. (Cf. Hamera 2007 on how dance builds "relational infrastructure".) Everyone who practices second series knows exactly what it means when I say that I am working on kapotasana; they have their own sensational knowledge of that asana. If the asana came more easily to them than to me, then they also have a visceral understanding of the differences between our bodies.

I’m not really sure what the Cybershala is but I’ve heard it referred to more and more lately. It seems to be an online community not located at any one site or of a fixed membership. It seems to be made up of blogs, comment threads and forums, corners of Facebook, YouTube, chatrooms, and Skype connections. Anywhere where one’s practice can be posted, discussed, commented on . . .
(Grimmly 2010: part 17)

An overwhelming number of yoga blogs, videos, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and other forms of online social media now constitute a “cybershala” of ashtanga yoga practitioners—many who work with teachers regularly, others who are cultivating a practice as “home ashtangis” (cf. Finnegan 1989 on “hidden musicians”). Yoga bloggers face a challenge familiar to ethnomusicologists and dance scholars: how can one communicate kinesthetic, multisensory experiences without bodily presence and a shared sensorium? Home ashtangis have adopted exactly the same tactics that the anthropologist Jaida Kim Samudra advocates for scholars writing about kinesthetic cultures: first, attempting to “linguistically record the minute details of one’s bodily training” even when this is explicitly discouraged in traditional transmission (2008:670); second, being attentive to one’s own internal bodily sensations in order to better comprehend other practitioners’ experiences (674); and finally, creating “somatic narratives,” which comprise both “the series of actions narrated by bodies during limited frames such as practice sessions, performances, or competitions” and “the stories people tell about what happened to and with their bodies during specific events” (674). Yoga bloggers often combine video, still images, and lengthy written accounts to communicate these somatic narratives online.

As I watched the videos my friend recommended, my body shifted in my desk chair as though operated by remote control: back straightening, shoulder blades sliding together, legs subtly rotating in hip sockets, toes spreading to grip the floor for a vicarious backbend. I heard myself breathing. I experienced the blogs and videos through my accumulated “sensational knowledge” (Hahn 2007), just as I had learned to reenact my teacher’s physical adjustments while alone on my mat—the virtual hand drawing my hip back, the virtual foot nudging the angle of my own foot on the floor, the virtual arm stopping me from taking my legs past vertical in a headstand. It was very much like the experience of listening to music that I knew how to play.

Watching these videos also gave me the uncomfortable feeling that I might be cheating on my teacher. Ashtanga students are not supposed to start experimenting with advanced asana of their own accord. On the other hand, the structured nature of ashtanga makes it particularly well suited to independent practice, amateur-to-amateur pedagogy, and online discourse among a dispersed community of practitioners. Browsing YouTube videos of ashtanga backbends quickly led me to “grimmly2007,” who had uploaded about 300 videos so that he could embed them in his yoga blog

Grimmly is an ashtanga student without a teacher—an impossible contradiction to many practitioners, but one that is getting more possible all the time. He lives in the United Kingdom and works as a repairer of woodwind instruments. In early 2007, Grimmly’s flat was burgled and seven saxophones were stolen. This incident made him so angry, and then so irritated with his own anger, that he decided to take up some form of meditation. In the course of reading about meditation practices, he learned that “a lot of meditators were also doing yoga,” so he looked for a yoga book at the library and found Tara Fraser’s Total Astanga (Fraser 2006). As an overweight 43-year-old man, he was a bit embarrassed even bringing the book up to the circulation desk. On his blog, he wrote, “Going to a yoga class wasn’t something I even considered. A guy here, outside London, might think about going to a gym to get in shape but not a Yoga class, probably not even an aerobic class” (Grimmly 2010: part 1).

Grimmly began learning the sequence of asana from the book, practicing every morning before work, and soon began to order instructional DVDs and search for YouTube videos to help him develop his practice. He started his yoga blog in the summer of 2008, after about a year and a half of practicing at home alone six days a week. His posts often invoke a growing community of hidden “home ashtangis” like himself:

 The blog was originally intended to document his progress on the “jump-back,” a transition between many asana. Grimmly eventually produced 57 posts on the jump-back, many including slow-motion videos of himself and other practitioners.

As Grimmly developed his home practice, some of his choices posed challenges to ashtanga orthodoxy. For instance, when Grimmly blogged about his decision to begin learning the second series of asana, one commenter told him that he should not be learning any intermediate asana before he could stand up from a backbend: “Then and only then you start to add intermediate to your existing primary. Your teacher would give you each new asana as he saw your progress. . . . Traditionally in India, yoga has been learned from teacher to student, not from a book or video. It’s really not right to decide to give yourself postures” (Sophia, comments posted on Grimmly 2008a). 

When making such claims about traditional practice, ashtanga practitioners often invoke the ultimate authority: “how it’s done in Mysore,” at the Ashtanga Yoga Institute. But in this case another commenter offered evidence that the teaching method in Mysore had changed over time. Ursula, a woman from Germany, reported that at the Mysore shala she had been given the first pose of the intermediate series before she could stand up from a backbend. When another commenter suggested that this experience might have been “an aberration,” Ursula responded by invoking the higher authority of her own bodily experience: “Sorry to write this, but what I see is that people hanker for rules, because there is so much insecurity. . . . Why should I not do these softer back bendings which are good for the back? Only because there are rules, nobody really knows who invented them. . . . I listen to my body.” This discussion continued at length, showing how the print medium and time-delayed norms of comment threads have encouraged the development of cybershala discourse. Discussants can take time to craft their replies and cite their sources, which in this case revealed the fluidity of “official” ashtanga pedagogy in Mysore.

After a year and a half of home practice, Grimmly finally decided to try attending an ashtanga class at a shala. He went two Sundays in a row and was “blown away” by the physical adjustments he received from the teachers there. But a week later, he explained that he doubted he’d go back: “All the time it’s just been me on my mat, alone in a room early each morning, my practice…Somehow now, after visiting the Shala, it feels a little like I’m practicing for someone else…I feel more distant from my practice, less involved” (Grimmly 2008b). It’s clear from other posts that Grimmly developed his practice using books, famous teachers’ DVDs, YouTube videos, other students’ blogs, and any other media resources he could find. He often writes about insights gleaned from these sources. Nevertheless, the “live” teaching at the shala somehow alienated him from his practice. While he benefited from the physical adjustments he received, he was willing to forego them in order to maintain a sense of agency and responsibility for his own development: practicing for himself instead of a teacher.

Dance Central: Dancing in Someone Else's Body?
At this point I’m going to turn to another form of home practice: the dance repertoire transmitted by Dance Central, a digital game created by Harmonix Music Systems (the company that brought you the Guitar Hero games). Dance Central teaches players to perform choreographed dance routines to popular club music tracks from the last few decades. 

There is no game controller involved; instead, a motion-sensing camera is constantly tracking your body movements and sending data back to the game software. The on-screen dancer is your instructor and model, not your mirror or your puppet. Unlike a conventional game avatar, the on-screen dancer doesn't do what you do. If you miss a particular arm motion, the avatar’s arm will glow red to show you where you are making a mistake, but the avatar won’t actually perform your mistake.

Like the ashtanga cybershala, Dance Central offers people an opportunity to learn a physically challenging and culturally marked repertoire in private. Many people consider dancing to be a potentially humiliating activity. Those who do dance in public are subject to evaluation: in most social-dance genres, there are established norms for moving your body in a manner appropriate to your gender, sexual orientation, age, and sometimes your race or ethnicity. But what if you could learn to dance from a virtual instructor who objectively evaluates and gently corrects the technical accuracy of your moves, but who can't judge you on your coolness, your body shape, or whether your moves "match" your identity traits? Some players experience this possibility as liberating. Others remain uncomfortable, particularly when the game compels them to transgress gender norms. (I’m going to focus on gender and sexuality examples today, since I have such limited time, but there’s a lot to be said about racialized and cross-racial performance, too.) Let’s take a look at some posts on the official Dance Central web forum: 

[click to enlarge]

[click to enlarge]

After the moderator called attention to the implied use of profanity and requested more “constructive” feedback, xXShadowFrostXx clarified:

[click to enlarge]
[In case you don't feel like clicking to enlarge, here's the last bit:]

I’m sorry for that I just auto-censured myself lol. What I meant is that every songs should have a male and a female routine because as a guy, I do like by example: doing Just Dance routine because it’s one of my favorite but some moves are a little bit too girly to perform. I think it would be a good idea if both male and female routine could be similar but more suitable for our own gender, you know what I mean?

Here’s an example of a male player performing a dance that includes gender-coded moves. As you can see, he has garnered special praise on the Dance Central web forum for “actually dancing” rather than just going through the motions: 

[click to enlarge]
In an interview, another player (RiffRaff) told me that in the case of “Lapdance” he thought the Dance Central choreographers had deliberately included both “male” and “female” moves as a kind of sly joke on players: “It’s funny just how quickly the mood changes from like really rough guy moves to like really girly, girly moves….I thought they were kind of like drag-esque almost. It was a little too exaggerated…When I was first trying out the song, I was like, “What is this?” and I just started laughing because I just found it really funny how they snuck that in there….You already bought the track, so what are you going to do?”

It’s worth noting that players can select among several different male and female avatars for any song in the game. So ShadowFrost could choose to perform songs like “Lapdance” with a male avatar—but he evidently still experiences some moves as uncomfortably “girly”. One player suggested the opposite approach: he told ShadowFrost, “Try dancing with Emilia to those routines; they have become some of my favourites LOL” (Derek555, Dance Central forum reply). This player’s other posts about the avatar Emilia, which focus on the sexy spectacle of her performances, clarify his meaning here: he is suggesting that indulging in the pleasures of heterosexual voyeurism would offer an antidote to the girliness of the choreography, even as ShadowFrost was himself simultaneously performing that choreography. Along the same lines, one female player posts YouTube videos that show not her own dancing, but the performances of her male avatar:

screenshot from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPFr27b86tE
As the player performs stereotypical female “stripper” moves, she can watch her male avatar perform the same moves against his gender type. Her videos are popular, and the comment threads are full of playful sexual fantasy:
[click to enlarge]
 There is a peculiar deferral of agency here: the dancing player submits his or her own body to the will of the game choreographers so that the player can in turn fetishize the dancing avatar. 

But this is only one strategy for approaching the gender politics of Dance Central. Another involves “butching up” one’s approach to feminine moves. In an interview for a player’s video blog, one of the game choreographers offered some tips:

[A quick dialogue excerpt:]

Ricardo: We made sure that it was for y’all [male players] too, so y’all could feel like men after you do it! . . . . Focus more on the arms. Like in "Rude Boy," you definitely see this going on: [moves hips] 

MMC: You can’t hide from that.  

Ricardo: Exactly! But what I do is -- and I still get a “Flawless” score! So I’m giving you guys tips on the game. Guys, just really like move more back and use your arms more. That takes away all of the things that may be uncomfortable for you, but being able to really like whip it down, the Kinect still sees that you’re doing the movement and still reads you as a flawless score….So you can focus more on the arms, and be more of a -- bam! -- masculine, dominant effect rather than being real roll-y.

Of course, some players embrace the opportunity to engage in cross-gender performance: either because they enjoy playing with their gender identity, or because they have unassailable confidence in a fixed gender identity and therefore recognize a satisfying technical and artistic challenge in the task of embodying another gender through dance. 

For instance, this player told me, “I have received a few comments referring to my moves being too feminine or the choreo was too feminine for a straight guy to perform but I don't mind them at all. I considered them as compliments. Comments along those lines confirms that I performed the moves correctly.” Meanwhile, information in his YouTube profile and comment threads shores up his heterosexuality and his masculine cred: viewers learn that he has a wife and small child, and that he serves in the Navy.

[click to enlarge]

I began this section by talking about Dance Central gameplay as a form of home practice, an unprecedented opportunity for totally private dance lessons and performance. So if part of the appeal lies in the privacy factor, why do I keep showing examples of Dance Central gameplay on YouTube? While there are doubtless many players who keep their dancing entirely private, Dance Central has also given rise to virtual communities of practice that look a lot like the ashtanga cybershala. Company-sponsored and fan-produced web forums, Twitter feeds, Facebook groups, blogs, and YouTube videos encourage the production and circulation of game-oriented discourse and performances. Players turn to the web for human advice on the subtleties of tricky moves, and share their excitement about particular routines on Twitter.

Those who post performances to YouTube develop networks of friends and fans, with whom they also share the pleasures of defusing the inevitable “trolls” and “haters” who turn up in any comment thread.

A few concluding remarks

Both the cybershala and Dance Central make it possible for practitioners to learn a physically demanding, minutely codified repertoire without ever interacting with a physically-present teacher. Grimmly and his fellow cybershala practitioners are creating new transmission modalities for ashtanga yoga, from reflective writing to side-by-side slideshows that might reveal hidden traces of corporeal knowledge. Meanwhile, Dance Central players are learning hours of choreography while also working through their ideas about gender identity, public and private performance, and virtual community. These paradigm shifts in yoga and dance transmission might shed light on similar changes in the transmission of performing arts traditions that rely on a lineage of teachers and students, body-to-body pedagogy, and a codified repertoire or fundamental skill set. Dance Central and the cybershala show how professional game designers, home ashtangis, and living-room dancers are all finding ways to use available technology and social media platforms to support the virtual transmission of embodied practice. 

Works cited
 NB: Web materials are directly linked in the main text.

Finnegan, Ruth. 1989. The Hidden Musicians: Music Making in an English Town. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fraser, Tara. 2006. Total Astanga. London: Duncan Baird. 

Hahn, Tomie. 2007. Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Hamera, Judith. 2007. Dancing Communities: Performance, Difference, and Connection in the Global City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Samudra, Jaida Kim. 2008. "Memory in Our Body: Thick Participation and the Translation of Kinesthetic Experience." American Ethnologist 35(4):665-681.

POSTSCRIPT, January 2012
Just as I was finally getting around to reformatting this conference paper for the blog, Gamasutra published an article on gender and self-expression in Dance Central, featuring an interview with Dance Central project director Matt Boch. Clearly these issues aren't new to the folks at Harmonix.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dance Central -- "I *see* you, I *see* you"

This month I've been getting to know Dance Central, the game Harmonix developed for the Xbox Kinect camera peripheral. It seems like the perfect next step for my research: I spent the last few years thinking about virtual and visceral embodied performance in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and recently I've been increasingly interested in virtual pedagogy (that is, how interactive digital media are being used in the transmission of practices that have traditionally been taught and learned in a face-to-face, body-to-body context -- like playing guitar or developing a yoga practice). Dance Central teaches players how to do club choreography routines. It pretty much sidesteps the authenticity questions that bedeviled Guitar Hero and Rock Band; I have yet to encounter a reviewer or online commenter who makes the argument that players aren't "really dancing," and quite a few have noted that people who really get into it seem to score better than those who just go through the motions. (Although any player will quickly discover that the software is pickier about some moves than others.)

Instead of getting into the authenticity debate, some people ask why anyone needs a gaming system to dance around to popular music (alone or with friends). This absence of a controller -- no joysticks, no keyboard, no DDR dance pad, no plastic guitar, not even a handheld Wiimote -- is the big selling point for the Kinect, and it does feel pretty magical to wave your hands in the air to navigate screen menus. (It reminds of the first time I used a mouse, as a small child: whoa, rolling this thing around on the table is making something move onscreen! I recently realized that after several years of trackballs and touchscreens I actually kind of have trouble using a mouse now.) But if there's no controller, what are you paying for, and why would you want to keep your dancing tethered to a screen? The deeper issue here is that despite the "You are the controller" Kinect ad campaign, in Dance Central you are not controlling anything. The on-screen character doesn't do what you do. S/he is your teacher and model, not your mirror or your puppet. This is not a conventional avatar. This fact seems to really offend a lot of self-identified hardcore gamers, based on the comment threads I've been reading as I browse industry reviews of the game.

That's not to say the game isn't interactive. It's certainly really different from teaching yourself a dance routine by watching music videos. The Kinect can see you, and you get constant feedback on your moves. The feedback isn't very detailed -- e.g., I don't get credit for the "Blazer" (a pretty simple move) most of the time, and I can't tell if it's because of the angle of my elbows, the depth of bend in my knees, or what. But nevertheless, it's clear that the game is paying a lot of attention to what I'm doing. As the instructor in the "Break It Down" tutorials says approvingly from time to time, "I see you, I see you!" (The instructor is represented as "an aggressively positive street-talking boom box", which is a whole other fascinating thing to contemplate. Sometimes when I keep flubbing a move he also consoles me with "This game is lying!")

So yes, you could just dance to the radio in your living room, or go to a club with friends. But what you're paying for with Dance Central is a dance instructor -- and maybe even more importantly, for the opportunity to learn to dance in private. Practically every review I saw mentioned that this games requires courage to play in front of other people. That's not because of the nature of the game, per se -- it's because a lot of people believe they "can't dance," and consider it to be a potentially humiliating activity. What if you could learn to dance from a virtual instructor who objectively evaluates and gently corrects the technical accuracy of your moves, but can't judge you on your coolness, your body shape, or whether your moves "match" your gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation? That may be what's genuinely new about Dance Central.

So if part of the appeal lies in the privacy factor, what's up with all these people posting their Dance Central gameplay on YouTube? A subject for another day.