The Game-ification of Dance: The Future Is Now


By Boris Willis

Imagine this as the dance class of the future: You are digitally tracked and gain experience points for every exercise you do. For instance, 10 points for showing up 10 minutes early; 10 points for warming up before class; 15 points for keeping your heels down every time you plié; 10 points for keeping your shoulders down in every port de bras; and 10 points for balancing one second longer than in your previous class. Or, for example, holding your balance 3 seconds longer awards you a level 2 “Master of Balance” achievement trophy. Getting this virtual trophy unlocks a side quest that challenges you to do three double pirouettes in a row, which, if successful, gets you a clothing upgrade for your avatar. Perhaps improving your timing in the phrase you did last week gets your overall class score high enough for you to move up to the intermediate technique class. Finally, every time you reach 1,000 points you win free tickets to a show, get a free class, or get a discount at a retail outlet. Because accomplishments could be tracked and stored on a computer and sent electronically, they could immediately be utilized to show areas of strength and weakness.

Imagine being able to instanteneously send these statistics to a choreographer you might want to work with who then offers you a chance to audition. In the dance class of the future every student gets documented feedback on everything she does using the same technology found in today’s video games. The implications for the game-ification of dance are exciting and offer a glimpse of a future that marries artistry, gaming, and digital communication together.

There are some interesting parallels between the art forms of dance and game design. In either field, as a beginner you might feel foolish, lost, or frustrated that you don’t fully understand what is happening or how to proceed. However, as you  improve, your confidence grows. You might try something that works some of the time and then make mistakes and fail. Oftentimes you are inconsistent and learning on your own feels slow and awkward. Because you fail over and over, you can either stop or try harder to succeed. If you decide to focus and learn, you will more than likely get better. You begin to learn how to combine actions and invent new ways to explore. Eventually, you start to gain mastery over one task and as you practice that task repeatedly you feel successful. At some point, you are put to the test and rewarded for your accomplishments. Feedback is constant. Eureka moments happen. You discover something about yourself and excel. If you are good enough and/or lucky enough, you might be able to have a career as a dancer, choreographer, or professional gamer or game designer. Yet still, your parents may say that you are wasting your time and need something to fall back on to get a real job. Fortunately, the knowledge base and cognitive skills for being an accomplished dancer or gamer have value beyond the stage and the computer screen.

Computer games have evolved into a 21st-century art form in a world that is more socially connected, and more technologically advanced than at any time in our history. Like choreographers, game designers are artists who are primarily concerned with creating an engaging experience. Crude symbology games with obvious gameplay like Pong have evolved into photo-realistic worlds of art, music, storytelling, puzzles, and interactivity. Today’s video game worlds allow you unique experiences that involve fantasy, competition, and social interaction, but there is more to gaming than fun.

Until recently many people only thought of video games as toys, but, in fact, game technology and concepts are evolving. Game hardware, such as the Wii Remote and the Microsoft Kinect, have been hacked and used for motion tracking and image capture. Serious games such as “World Without Oil” and “Saving Darfur” deal with simulation, education, and training and teach real information about important subjects. Gaming is used extensively in medicine and the military in a variety of ways. Online games like “Foldit” have helped scientists understand how proteins fold while the online game “America’s Army” teaches young people about life in the military. Although these games can be very difficult, players dedicate themselves to 50 to 100-plus hours of game time to complete them. Because of this self-motivated learning, educators have been looking into increasing games and game processes in schools.

Something important about learning to play a game is the process of failure, which fortunately results in acquiring the knowledge that leads to eventual success. Solving puzzles in a game is just like learning new movement in a dance class. Every time you make an attempt, you gain a little more knowledge about what to do before eventually figuring it out. As you progress and your skill level increases, you also gain the strength and ability to recover when an unplanned event happens. If you fail along the way, you also learn something new.

Dance video games are among the most popular gaming titles available to the general consumer market. With the introduction of motion controllers such as Nintendo Wii, Playstation Move, and Microsoft Kinect, dance games can now teach someone to follow simple steps and then rate how well each player’s movements are timed with the game. Today’s dance video games are iterations of the popular rhythm game, “Dance Dance Revolution” or DDR. Released in North America and Europe in 1999 by the Japanese game company Konami, DDR was not so much a dance game but a game based on moving your feet with exact timing. You step on pressure-sensitive pads and keep in time with arrows on a screen that lined up with the hit location. Today’s dance games, however, provide full-bodied dance steps where each body part can be tracked with a motion controller. Just like when you take a dance class, you mirror the instructors on the game screen getting a prompt slightly before hand so you know what step is coming next. Like DDR, you need to execute the timing correctly to succeed.

There are some significant ways that games differ from dance, however. The traditional presentation of dance is mostly linear, while a game is always interactive. The act of seeing dance is almost always passive, while playing a video game is always active. In addition, as games have developed, they have continued to provide more and more information about how to play them, what the challenges are, and what the player can expect to learn. Games contain intricate puzzles, which force the player to stop playing and think, then start again at any point in the future. Dance is presented as a complete moment in a specific time frame and in a specific space without regard to mistakes made in performance or with technical cues. Making a mistake in a video game often means you have to stop and try again. As games moved from the arcade to the home, they have become longer and more complex adding multiple ways to play such as cooperative and online multiplayer modes. There are times when these differences converge. Recently Richard Daniels released an iOS app of his choreographed work. Unlike a performance his “Dances for an iPhone” or iDances is not live and unlike a game it is not interactive but being able to watch Carmen de Lavallade, Deborah Jowitt, or Molissa Fenley dance on my iPad no matter where I am is an idea I find very exciting.

The development of games could be instructive to the future development of dance performances. As games evolved they shifted away from the abstract and the esoteric and guided the player through the experience in several ways. In the 1980s the game company Nintendo assisted gamers with tips and tricks in their magazines and fielded a call-in hotline to advise gamers on how to excel at their games. Eventually, in-game tutorials showed players what to do and gave feedback on how to reach the next level. Knowing what to do did not mean you could easily accomplish your tasks because you still had to become skilled with, among other things, fast and accurate reaction times. You were challenged to find and exploit weaknesses in the game and learn how to apply those skills at higher levels. As time went on, if you did well the difficulty increased. Dance can harness the power of technology and follow the example of the computer gaming industry to make the experience of being in the theater more engaging and watching dance more informed.

While a graduate student at The Ohio State University, I began my research in combining dance and video games. I first had to establish that the work was a live, interactive performance and not simply a dance. To guide the audience through the work I used a game show host, told a story, and included a tutorial that instructed the audience on what was going to happen. The action took place both on stage and in the audience’s seating area. I used video to extend the stage space so that when the performers went offstage, the action continued as if a live camera followed them backstage and stayed with them as they left the theater. Audience members played games as part of the performance and these games altered the activity of the piece based on who won a game. The work was steeped in dance history so that the audience learned about modern dance as the story unfolded. The work did not end in the theater. Audience members could go home, visit the website to play more games, see interviews with me, the performers and my collaborators, and learn about dance history. In this way, games provided a framework that extended beyond the moment of performance. Dance was the primary subject, but abstract stylized movement was not the core of the work. I drew inspiration mainly from performance art, but also from television game shows and the genius of Alwin Nikolais and his concept of “total theater,” however I kept peeling away the mystery of the abstract.

Many of my friends in dance tell me that its beauty lies in the abstract construction of bodies connecting us to meaningful experiences. For many, watching dance is like watching a sky full of color and movement with moments of turbulence, stinging heat, or beautiful light. Technology is only a distraction. For me, gaming, the Internet, and mobile devices have changed the way the world works and changed who we are and how we access the world. I don’t think that live performance will ever go away just as I don’t think that e-readers will make the paper book disappear anytime soon. But gaming technology can create powerful new experiences of live performance and develop ways to keep us engaged in a work long after the show is over. Gaming technology can change the way we train dancers, give them feedback and motivate them to achieve. The games industry has learned some important lessons over the past 40 years, which allowed it to grow into a multi-billion dollar industry. While earning billions may not be on the path dancers take, I say let’s not ignore the possibilities. Interactive gaming is here to stay, it may be time for dance to embrace this technology and play!

Boris Willis is chief artistic officer of Boris Willis Moves and an assistant professor of dance and computer game design at George Mason University. He is the founder of the blog www.danceaday.com. He has performed with Liz Lerman/Dance Exchange, Streb, Jacob’s Pillow’s Men Dancers and many Washington, D.C.-based choreographers. Willis has an MFA in dance and technology from The Ohio State University, a BFA in Dance from George Mason University and a diploma in contemporary dance from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He is the recipient of the 2003 Kennedy Center Local Dance Commission and a Virginia Commission for the Arts Fellowship in Choreography.

Top: Boris Willis, by Neil Adams
Playing the Michael Jackson Experience, courtesy Boris Willis
Boris Willis, by Alan Kimara Dixon

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