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Are We Human, or Are We Dancer? The Legacy of ‘Dance Dance Revolution,’ 20 Years Later.

Shame, joy, and dance, all in one special package

Konami/Ringer illustration

Art may largely be a matter of taste, but one conclusion is close to inarguable: 1998 was the best year ever for video games, producing an unparalleled lineup of revolutionary releases that left indelible legacies and spawned series and subcultures that persist today. Throughout the year, The Ringer’s gaming enthusiasts will be paying tribute to the legendary titles turning 20 in 2018 by replaying them for the umpteenth time or playing them for the first time, talking to the people who made them, and analyzing both what made them great and how they made later games greater. Our series continues today with a look at Dance Dance Revolution, an embarrassing and exhilarating demonstration of the human spirit.

The revolution started with a whimper. In the fall of 1998, a roughly 900-pound contraption with blinking lights, blaring music, and a raised platform that housed two “dance floors” was wheeled into a Japanese arcade, then lifted onto another raised platform. Four steps above the arcade floor, the first Dance Dance Revolution machine ever built was the ultimate novelty, a neon temple of uncanny-valley disco that towered over the sea of beat-’em-up sidescrollers and fighting games. Given the bewildered stares on the first day of trial runs, one of the biggest innovations in video game history might as well have been a particle collider.

Only months earlier, in the spring, Konami game producer Yoshihiko Ota pulled the plug on a formulaic fighting game he and his staff had come close to completing. “Deep inside, no matter how many times I calculated things, I couldn’t imagine that this game would sell,” Ota told Japan Close-Up in 2000. He was in search of a more provocative muse. Arcades, once the lifeblood of the video-game industry, were on the downturn with the rapid improvement of home consoles. The industry could no longer be content churning out the same product for a changing market.

Ota needed a wild card and found inspiration in the clubs he’d visit on off hours. It wasn’t long before Ota and his group of 35 core developers mobilized to create an experience that would serve as a spiritual successor to Konami’s first rhythm-based video game, the club-DJ simulator Beatmania, released less than a year earlier. Konami’s music game department soon became known as Bemani (an abbreviation of Beatmania, in the way Pokémon is short for Pocket Monsters). They brought in professional dancers and used available motion-capture technology to break down movements into data points. They eventually established the basics of the Dance Dance Revolution—a system of steps assigned to parts of a beat, visualized as a reverse cascade of corresponding directional arrowsby “having an engineer look at a dance book,” Ota said. No one on staff knew how to dance.

The objective of the game is simple. Players stand atop a dance pad with four separate panels in each of the cardinal directions (up, down, left, and right). Affixed near the top of the screen are four master arrows outlined in a near-translucent white; as the song begins and colored arrows rise from the bottom of the screen, the player must sync each arrow with its corresponding master by making contact with the correct panel on the dance pad. The power of systematic command chains (via rhythmless programmers) compels players into a bad toprock to the beat of a song.

In 2007, nearly a decade after DDR’s initial release, poet Cathy Park Hong published a collection titled Dance Dance Revolution, a nod to the video game series that had inspired a poem that she’d eventually scrap, but whose “cultural zig-zagging” nonetheless aligned with the themes of her work. “I was fascinated by the origin of the game,” Hong told Poets & Writers. “By the fact that the Japanese appropriated Western dance moves to turn into a video game, a game which was then imported back to the West with explosive success.”

Finding new modes of expression in a roundabout manner might just be the enduring legacy of DDR, a game that, 20 years ago, seemed to intuit more about our relationship with technology and each other than society could.

Ota was met with an understandable skepticism from his colleagues and higher-ups after the DDR pitch: Who the hell would want to subject themselves to that kind of public humiliation? “It’s true that there is an embarrassing aspect,” Ota replied. “But don’t you think that behind their feeling of embarrassment, people also have the desire to stand out?”

The Germans have a word, fremdschämen, that translates to feeling embarrassed on someone’s behalf—literally “strange shame.” But is there a word that properly conveys the scene of an inebriated soul crouched on a table in a Koreatown karaoke booth with friends, belting out Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song” in a deep, impressionistic growl, and the elation in the room that follows? What’s the word for when a communal sense of embarrassment sublimates into joy?

Commiseration is a powerful social device, as evidenced by the cesspool of shared neuroses that make up modern social media. Around the turn of the century, DDR became the most effective way for youth to socialize their embarrassment. Some of the first DDR machines to reach America were installed in Southern California circa 1999. My brother, a latchkey kid from the time he immigrated to America from Vietnam, grew up in our old neighborhood arcades, learning the very basics of morality from a few quarters worth of Street Fighter II a day. He discovered DDR there, during his high school years, when social cachet could first be harnessed in a meaningful way. Then he brought it home. We bought vinyl dance mat controllers imported from Japan for DDR’s Playstation port. He threw house parties centered on DDR and karaoke—the two most embarrassing social premises available to teens at the time. I was 7 then; if I weren’t overwhelmed by idolatry, I probably would have cringed.

But the beginnings of DDR as a nationwide phenomenon can be traced back to Northern California’s Bay Area, where, one of the seminal DDR online resources, was born. In 1999, Jason Ko, a student at UC Berkeley, and Cynan de Leon, a young software engineer, discovered that there was a DDR machine at the Golfland entertainment center in Sunnyvale, California. De Leon, who was a fan of rhythm-based games even before he’d heard of Bemani, learned about DDR by accident. He stumbled upon the Dance Dance Revolution soundtrack while sifting through albums at a video game store in San Francisco’s Japantown. “I was like, ‘This is just some random dance CD. Why is it in the video game section?’ And then I read up on the game and was like, ‘This game will never come to America.’”

But it did. And as soon as Ko and de Leon caught wind, a caravan of three cars full of mutual friends descended on the arcade. Their Friday night venture soon became a weekly ritual, and their circle quickly widened. “Once people started noticing that the same people came every Friday night to play this DDR machine, more and more people started to try it out,” de Leon told me. “We were pulling people in, like, ‘Hey, do you want to learn how to play? Come on!’” It didn’t take much for unsuspecting newcomers to join in on the fun. “There’s a low barrier for entry—you just have to get over the embarrassment,” de Leon said. The appeal, and the impulse to engage (in one form or another), is undeniable.

“You look at DDR, and you’re like, ‘What the hell kind of game is this?’” de Leon said. “It’s this ginormous cabinet, it’s got lights, it’s got music, people are stomping on it, some people are acting crazy on it, some people actually try to dance. The music and the lights and everything about it—there was nothing like it in the arcades. You’re just like, ‘I gotta try it, or at least I gotta laugh at these people making themselves look silly on this machine.’”

Video games have always presented themselves as an escape from reality, but how many can actually promise the sensation of physically assuming another identity for the world to see? Last year, Oscar Hudson, a London director who has produced music videos for Radiohead and Young Thug, released UpDownLeftRight, a short film about a Japanese salaryman who considers his second life as a viral sensation after being secretly filmed joyously dancing on a DDR machine. “I don’t think I’d dance if there was no one left on earth,” the salaryman, dubbed “The God of DDR,” says. “It’s about the other people. I wouldn’t know what to do if it was just me.”

Last month, it was announced that a Konami-approved Dance Dance Revolution movie was being developed, wherein viewers would “explore a world on the brink of destruction where the only hope is to unite through the universal language of dance.” It’s a mind-rotting premise for a number of reasons—one being that it is essentially lifting key plot points from a college parody movie made in 2011 with a $300 budget.

But, really, how far does that synopsis stray from DDR’s actual ascent? Dance Dance Revolution was released in Japan in late September 1998. Only a month prior, the Associated Press published a story outlining the potential ramifications of date-recognition errors in computers at the turn of the century, titled “500 Days to Fix Millennium Bug.” There were legitimate concerns that power-grid failure could lead to widespread blackouts, that financial markets could plummet into the abyss, and that entire national weapons systems would malfunction. Thinking about technology in the macro is like dreaming in a non-native language—the possibilities are clear, but the transmission is garbled. In 1998, the world was preoccupied with the notion that shortsighted technological innovations would spell civilization’s end. Ota’s shortsighted innovation—DDR was created in four months, start to finish—instead proffered a tool to navigate (or at least cope with) the future, step by step.

Machines make more sense than we do, and that’s by design. We build platforms that facilitate and expedite processes in ways that human nature doesn’t always allow for, which means these mechanisms have an internal logic that runs more consistently than our own. We create machines to extend our bandwidth for human communication, but what about the ways in which we communicate with technology itself? I come back to the very origins of the DDR, and how it was programmed not to teach humans how to dance, but to emit its specialized digital language that, if read correctly, will stimulate specific movement in humans. It’s a fremd gespräch—a strange conversation between man and machine, confirming each side’s intent in two completely different languages. “DDR is a machine that was invented with a lot of thought put into communication,” Ota said.

DDR blossomed just as games like Quake, Counter-Strike, and Diablo 2 began to take advantage of multiplayer capability over localized networks, which forever changed the scope of video games—socialized multiplay had never before operated through a virtual hub. Thus, the game, in a way, served as a final frontier. In treating its gameplay as a social spectacle, it established a physical, performative dynamic that was unique to the gaming landscape then and remains unique today. Dance Dance Revolution was a game tailor-made for the nebulous idea of what the millennium could bring us: a virtual reality that, nonetheless, bled into actuality.