Posted by: bracehare | September 11, 2011

Skill and salience

This weekend, I attended NDK Denver, an anime convention that has been held annually in Colorado for the past 15 years.  As has been the case for me for the past several times I have attended, I spent the bulk of my time in the DDR room.  DDR, or Dance Dance Revolution as it is known in full, is a video game in which a player steps on specific panels located on a pad beneath their feet, in time to music and in accordance with arrows on the screen that indicate which panel the player is supposed to step on at any given moment.  There is a fairly large difficulty curve to the game.  The easier difficulties feature very few arrows, essentially allowing the player to jump around on the pad and hit the arrows in whichever way comes most intuitively to them.  Harder difficulties, conversely, heavily encourage the player to reduce or eliminate all motion that isn’t specifically aimed at stepping on a given panel as directed (such as moving back to the center), which generally encourages the alternating of feet and eventually, at the highest levels, the use of the bar for support (in the case of arcade cabinets, at least, which feature a bar located behind the pad).

A DDR arcade machine

As there was a fairly large line for play for the duration of the convention, more of my time was spent watching people play and react to play than was actually spent playing.  It is interesting especially to note reactions; they reveal how players who are new to the game view the harder difficulties, and show that they often feel dissuaded from learning the game by what they view as excessive difficulty.

The following statements are representative of the general perspective of new players towards harder charts:

  • “I could never move my legs that fast”
  • “That chart is too confusing” (usually said as it concerns tempo-shifts in the music)
  • “There are arrows which don’t go to the music” (usually said as it concerns 12th, 24th, and to a lesser extent 16th note rhythms)
  • “Yeah, but they’re using the bar though”
  • “It’s not like dancing at all”

To a seasoned player, these complaints tend to come across as either ignorant or immaterial.  For instance, it is not necessary for a player to move their legs particularly fast when playing.  The simple fact of the matter is, the distance between panels on a dance pad ranges from significantly smaller than the length of a player’s foot (measuring diagonally from arrow to arrow), to only marginally larger than it (measuring from the bottom arrow to top, or left arrow to right).  Therefore, the actual speed necessary to get one’s foot into position at any given moment is very nearly trivial; for an experienced player, who intuitively knows the distance between the arrows.  The second and third complaints, meanwhile, pertain to matters of experience; a veteran player is aware of the noises in a song which follow non-standard rhythms, largely because they are more used to arrows being placed in sync with them.  Similarly, they are also more aware of things which might signal a change in the speed of arrows, such as an increase or decrease in volume (corresponding to a speed up or slow down, respectively), or an actual tempo change in the music itself (which is often predictable for those who are genre-savvy in regards to the music being played; after listening to a large amount of music, conventions become obvious).

Complaints such as the last two are deemed immaterial because they show that the player isn’t accepting the game on its own terms.  Instead, they are judging its validity in terms of the raw exertion displayed by players, or in terms of its similarity to some entirely separate endeavor.  The idea of judging a player by their exertion level is especially absurd; at what point in any sport (except perhaps boxing or MMA, and only by the most intractably unintelligent) has the merit of an athlete depended on the amount of effort they exerted as opposed to their ability to achieve the infinitely more tangible “win condition” of the game?

Regardless, all of these complaints demonstrate a serious difference in perspectives between beginner players and seasoned players, and one which is seldom bridged (as the essentially dead tournament scene for dancing games demonstrates).  Quite simply, the game has a way of generating a first impression about its harder difficulties which serves to make the game seem impenetrable and uninteresting.  The most salient aspects of the harder difficulties (the use of the bar by expert players, their “machine gun” sounding steps, etc) are interpreted by those incapable of them as equal parts incomprehensible and physically daunting.  Furthermore, there is nothing in the game itself which dispels these conceptions; the player is left to learn how to conquer the curve alone.  This is, for some people, intensely rewarding.  However, for most, it simply leads to them abandoning the game.

– Jessica Evans


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