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.