Recently my friend, who for this article we'll call "Dan," was over at my apartment for beers and video games. We'd gone through most of the big fall releases—I showed him some craziness from Saints Row: The Third, got across the gist of Catherine, and played some (shockingly fun) split-screen Modern Warfare 3 spec-ops. The Kinect had gotten a go as well, and we'd laughed our way through several levels of Gunstringer and gotten our asses kicked by the surprisingly difficult Child of Eden.
"You know, I've got Dance Central 2 here, let's play that!" I said, pointing to the shiny, colorful box of Harmonix's Kinect-only dancing game.
"Sure," Dan said, though in retrospect he was doubtless entirely unsure what he was getting himself into. And so we played Dance Central 2, two dorky bros in the mid-afternoon, standing in front of the TV and swinging our hips to "Toxic" and "Bad Romance." It was funny, it was dumb; it was uniquely uncomfortable.
After we played for a little while, we took a break to have a beer and Dan remarked to me, "Man, that game is kind of uncomfortable for straight guys!" (I'm paraphrasing—he said it much more thoughtfully than that.)
I agreed, because I knew what he meant—I mean, one plays Dance Central by dancing. It requires an entirely different sort of physical interaction than most other video games. It was as though Dan and I had been sitting around pondering what to do and one of us had said, "You know what? Let's go dancing together, just you and me at the club!" Suffice to say, that is not something either of us would likely ever suggest. We're fairly boring.
(It's been pointed out to me that the above paragraph can kinda be read as homophobic. Rather than just assure you that's not the case (it is not!), I'll clarify and say that I'm picturing me and my friend, alone in a club with no one else around, dancing (which is what we were essentially doing). I meant only to point out how that is very different from sitting in front of a TV playing a video game. I apologize to anyone who was offended.)
In a very cool piece published yesterday at Gamasutra, Dance Central's project director Matt Boch talks about gender and self-expression in his game. "I think what's interesting about dance is that it's incredibly performative," he says, "and it implicates the body in a way a lot of other video game-type interactions don't."
True that. Whatever I've written in the past about the dance-like, rhythmic qualities of great games, playing most video games and actually dancing are two very different things.
But Boch goes deeper than that, looking at both the gendered qualities of dance and the performative qualities of gender. From Gamasutra:
A Harvard-educated artist, Boch has long believed that gender is performance. "I myself consider myself a queer man, and I was not about to sit by... in a situation where only these characters can play those songs, or — god forbid — have male-female designations for each piece of content," he explains.
This idea—"gender is performance"—certainly feels true in Dance Central 2. While playing the game, you have to choose on-screen avatars, and as often as I'll pick the cool guy with the hair or the other cool guy with the other hair, I'll pick the smokin' 70's chick or the groovy hipster girl. The routines themselves don't change to reflect the gender of your avatar, but performing dance routines while represented by a smooth-movin' lady does feel significantly different, and more exposing, than most of my video-gaming.
Video games allow us to explore what it's like to assume a role other than our own. As fun as Dance Central 2 is as a pure party game, it's also an interesting exploration of the "performance" of gender, particularly in how the various dances require more feminine or more masculine moves. When I'm swinging my hips to a Beyoncé song while controlling a female avatar, it leaves a distinctly different impression than when I'm pumping my fist and stomping my feet to some heavy house music. And of course, both are significantly different than holding a controller and kicking ass as either Kratos or Bayonetta.
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.
"These notions of complex identities just resonate better with a broad audience," Boch tells Gamasutra, saying he believes those complex identities allow for "a more fun, ephemeral taking-on of other identities, and add a variety to the play... and often a levity to the experience."
While playing Dance Central 2, I sure do laugh at myself a lot. Especially when the game decides to show me freeze-frame camera footage of myself—one minute, a funky digital street-team is tearing up the dance floor, and the next, some goofy tall dude is waving his sweatpanted legs around his apartment.
I blink, shake my head, and ruefully realize: That sweatpanted dude is me.