Dance Like the Xbox is Watching #crassh3c @kiri_pvd

Creativity, Circulation and Copyright: Sonic and Visual Media in the Digital Age

I’m at the University of Cambridge today, attending a conference about creativity and copyright. As is my habit with academic conferences I’ll be blogging each session I attend and providing links. The conference is hosted by the Centre for for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.

Interior of venue

Kiri Miller (Brown University): Dance Like the Xbox is Watching

Abstract: Dance Central is a digital game series that offers private dance lessons using a surveillance technology. For many players, this embedded contradiction drives the games’ appeal. Dance is a potentially humiliating activity, and dancing to club hits like no one is watching is a high-risk guilty pleasure. But what if only a machine is watching, and the club moves have been choreographed in advance? Dance Central was among the first games produced for the Microsoft Xbox Kinect, a full-body motion-sensing game interface marketed with the slogan ‘You Are the Controller’. The Kinect camera peripheral tracks the motion of 20 individual joints on a dancer’s body, evaluating the technical accuracy of a player’s performance of a routine without acknowledging the aspects of embodied identity that typically inform judgments of club dance performances (e.g., gender, race, sexuality, age, and body type). The dance routines are set to hip-hop, EDM, and pop club tracks; they mix choreographed sections with freestyle sections, asking players to alternate between dancefloor compliance and creativity. This paper investigates how the Dance Central games frame a surveillance system as a safe, private space for dance — including solo rehearsal/performance and social dance with trusted friends — and how the games’ dynamic of seeing-and-being-seen changes when players post gameplay videos online. I discuss Dance Central gameplay as a form of embodied popular music reception that intersects with other forms of popular music/video circulation, social media practice, and dispersed participatory culture.

Kiri opens with a description of the gamer’s (dancer’s) experience when using Dance Central on the Xbox, and introduces us to ‘Bodie’, ‘Mo’ and ‘Miss Aubrey’ – the game’s demo dancers. As the songs progress, the gamer begins to anticipate moves rather than just to ‘follow Bodie by microseconds’. The characters, interestingly, often perform the moves in exactly the same way, but with the dance motion mapped to a different digital skin, creating a sometimes uncanny effect. Chillingly, Kiri describes the game as offering “private dance lessons using an embedded surveillance technology’. This creates an interesting dynamic of personalisation when gamers post their own dances online, animated by the characters.

There are some paradoxes. The game links movement to sound without trying to create the impression that the movement is generating the sound. There are also many layers of IP in the game – the copyright music, the game application itself, and (only arguably) the choreography. Gamers do not always dance within the Kinect’s field of vision, meaning that interaction with the game is varied.

Dance central demonstrates the affordances of the Kinect device – and it is positioned to compete with Just Dance on the Wii. These game,s Kiri says (and she includes Guitar Hero and similar games), draw on the player’s prior cultural knowledge. Marketing campaigns emphasise the game’s authenticity (compared to the Wii equivalent). The player’s motions do not control the character’s motions. If the player makes a mistake the character does not respond. This is partly a design choice and partly a result of the motion capture technology used in the creation of the characters’ moves. The Kinect tracking does not collect enough data to make the player truly a ‘controller’. Is the Kinect an input device (for the player’s actions) or an output device (for the game’s choreography)? Due to the lack of human evaluation of players’ dancing, the game may reduce players’ anxieties about dance prowess, physical body image and sexual identity. Next we watch ‘rehearsal mode’ where the player is only allowed to progress when a particular move is mastered. The voiceover is encouraging even if the player makes many errors. The ‘teacher’ often says ‘I see you! I see you!’ (even though the Kinect does not). This phrase is high praise, conveying empathy and respect, breaking the ‘fourth wall’, transcending the TV screen and Kinect lens. But of course no human can actually see the player – in fact the player cannot even see themselves. Player feedback on the first version of the game suggested that many players do not want to see themselves dancing. An Amazon reviewer is quoted, describing the feelings of freedom and confidence engendered by the lack of player visibility. Many players describe themselves (in Kiri’s interview research) as ‘too shy to dance in the public’). Anonymity is valued; some players feel they can’t dance in public, yet have no problem posting Dance Central videos online (and remember, these YouTube videos do not feature images of the player, only the response of the game mechanics to the player’s ‘input’ from the Kinect).

‘Hiding in plain view’ is an interestingly intimate public/private dynamic. Kiri quotes Kirk Hamilton’s first-hand blog of the experience “On PLaying Dance Central 2 While Male” (2012).

Dance Central 2 is a bit uncomfortable—and I should stress that I’m just saying it’s uncomfortable for me, a fairly straight-laced dude who doesn’t ordinarily dance around his apartment—but it’s also funny, and fun. In fact, the discomfort of the situation is what makes it fun.

Next we see a virtual collaboration between Mexico and Canada.

Players report how the games have changed how they listen to music. Some start to ‘listen like choreographers’. Kiri argues that players are much more than imitative automata who respond to the game. Whena choreographic repertoire and a collection of hit songs travel together, musicality and embodied performance circulate across domains.


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