Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Elbows, or Video Dancing

My elbows stick out quite a long way. I’m six foot tall, long-bodied for my height, and long-armed even for my body. If I wave my arms in the air like I just don’t care, I’m not quite a danger to low-flying aircraft, but I am a danger to light fittings, not to mention the heads of other dancers. Basically, my persona is this guy:

No style and no grace indeed. Source
So I don’t tend to dance very much from the waist up – it’s not just that I feel like I look conspicuously ridiculous, it’s also that I have actually injured people and inflicted noticeable property damage in the past (okay, so self-consciousness is also a big part of it).

In fact, in general, I’m not terribly confident of the grace of any part of my body, except for one. I’m happy with my hands. Whether on keyboard or gamepad, or at the piano, and of course with a Guitar Hero controller, I feel much less awkward[1].

Video games, at least those controlled mainly with buttons, extend my fingers into a whole digital body, often one hard-programmed for grace. I love games about movement – (‘pure’) platformers, endless runners, driving games. I get frustrated with ‘walking simulators’ because of how little they often have to do with the actual act of walking (but on the other hand, if you made a first-person flying simulator that was just a camera with a little bit of physics behind it, I’d probably never play anything else again).

And yet I haven’t seen any critical work relating video games to dance. Plenty about the relationship between games and theatre, games and music, games and architecture, all of it important and valuable, but nothing about dance. Now, I’ve not been around that long and maybe I’ve missed it or it’s passed me by – please let me know if that’s the case – but we’re in a medium where Chris Crawford can say something like this:

“The problem with artistic expression in games is that the games are fundamentally spatial, and the means of expression available to the player are very limited.”

It’s an old clip and this next one isn’t, but the means available to these dancers don’t seem very limited in expression:

Or these:

(okay, some of that is Ginger Rogers being a fantastic actress, but also the dancing)

Or this:

Of course, because I don’t dance and I’m pretty much terrified of trying to learn where anyone might see, I’m the last person who should start writing about the link between video games and dance, but there’s got to be something we can say about this:

Or this:

Or even, perhaps too obviously, this:

I like games about movement, when I’m not obsessively focussed on games as story-delivering systems. Even there, it’s often the ability to direct my own motion through a story that most engages me, and increasingly I find the lack of the same in film and TV to be a turn-off. It’s part of why I talk so much about travel in my games writing.

When I dabble in making games, it’s usually to convey something with or through movement. When I play games to unwind, to relax, to feel good rather than Deeply Engaged, I’m almost always seeking new forms of movement. Not my movement – I feel safest and least dangerous with my scarecrow body confined to a chair – but the movement of my dancing digits.

[1] The mouse is another matter – to move a mouse you pretty much have to use your elbow, and I hate that. I feel like my mouse control is about a tenth as reliable as using the keyboard, and if a game relies on mouse control I’m much less likely to play it/stick with it for very long.


  1. I'm going to start with an apology for this comment, since it's more me thinking out loud than providing anything useful. I'm in the middle of reading Graeme Kirkpatrick's Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game, and it strikes me there's a lot of overlap between his argument and what you're discussing here. Essentially, Kirkpatrick argues that our focus on meaning and interpretation in critical discussions about videogames have meant that we don't pay enough attention to how a game feels, in terms of the physical and mental responses a player goes through while playing. In fact, he draws on the games and dance connection too: "In Chapter 4 the centrality of manual controls to video game aesthetics is explored further through the thesis that gameplay is a form of dance. Players dance, mainly with their hands, in response to games as choreographic scripts and it is through dance that they derive the pleasures and frustrations of form. ... They both involve the body in ways that are problematic for power, especially the power associated with gender norms, and they both involve strange paradoxes of intelligibility and illegibility that are unsettling to an academic culture centered on interpretation" (7). Sadly, I haven't read the chapter yet, so I can't provide much more than that. So far, I don't agree with Kirkpatrick 100%--he's a little too dismissive of cultural theory for my tastes--but I appreciate that he's really digging deep into what we mean by aesthetics, and what a "game feel" consists of.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I might have to look into the Kirkpatrick, that sounds right up my alley.


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