Video games hit the front pages

Check out today’s front page of the New York Times: Seth Schiesel turns a year-old story on West Virginia schools using Dance Dance Revolution for P.E. class into A1 stuff. To be fair to Schiesel, this is an update of sorts. It shows that West Virginia’s experiment has wildly succeeded — most of the state’s 185 middle schools already have DDR, and the rest of the 700-plus schools will have it by next year — and that it’s catching on elsewhere: “at least several hundred schools in at least 10 states are now using” DDR, he writes, and “more than 1,500 schools are expected to be using the game by the end of the decade.”

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal goes A1 with a more esoteric gaming story: Wiimote hacks. My favorite bit: “Some people are using their remotes to play Laser Tag — where players shoot one another with infrared light beams — while others are using them to strum a virtual guitar.” I want to learn how I can play Laser Tag with my Wiimote!

I’m probably being too cynical here, but while the stories are interesting enough and it’s good to see them get such prominent play, they’re both examples of what I think of as Freak Show stories. That is, they’re not so much concerned with the games as with the oddity of games in a given situation. With games as something to gawk at but not really understand or care about. Like: “Look at this video game — schools are actually using it to teach! Can you believe it?!?” It’s like those front-page stories about people camping  out for new systems or big first-day sales: “Look at this video game — it actually made $120 million on its first day! Can you believe it?!?”

It’s not that Schiesel or Jamin Brophy-Warren are disrespectful or condescending about games. But I wish more stories got prominent play that actually dealt with the game part of video games rather than the ancillary stuff. In practice I’m not exactly sure what I’m talking about; most prominent movie or music stories are about something other than the art itself. But reading Schiesel’s story, you don’t really get a sense of why kids really like DDR. So you get lines like “Incorporating D.D.R. into gym class is part of a general shift in physical education, with school districts de-emphasizing traditional sports in favor of less competitive activities.” And this anecdote:

“My oldest son, Sean, used to have love handles; he was kind of pudgy, and I’ll be honest: we were worried about it,” she said. “We had heard of D.D.R., and I got it for him for his birthday. We put limits on the other video games he plays, but we told him he could play D.D.R. as much as he wanted. And now it’s like he’s a different kid. He’s playing sports and running, and we see D.D.R. as like his bridge to a more active lifestyle.”

That’s all well and good, but if I were reading this with no first-hand DDR experience, I’d be flummoxed as to what the fuss is all about. We have the what — DDR is popular and becoming a P.E. mainstay — but not the why.

There should be a paragraph or two describing what it’s like to find your legs moving in a rhythm you didn’t know you had; what a rush the techno songs are that you wouldn’t otherwise listen to; how impressive it is to watch really good players as their legs fly about like a crazy Twister-hopscotch hybrid game, so fast that you can’t follow the steps much less the dizzying river of arrows on screen; how satisfying it is when something clicks between your eyes, brain, and feet and you can apply the tactic you learned watching the 14-year-olds DDRing in perfect synchronicity at the arcade: don’t bring your foot back to the center each time, instead make each step a new center point and pivot from there. The photo with the story shows one of the most surprising yet mesmerizing aspects of DDR: kids standing behind the two active players mimicking each step on the bare floor in real time. There’s something weirdly poignant about it. But you don’t get any of that from this story.

DDR isn’t a narrative video game with an epic story or a serious game trying to teach people to end hunger or stop disease epidemics. So I can see how it would be hard to talk about it in an aesthetic sense; plus the annoying boundaries of “objective journalism” don’t allow Schiesel to interject and explain what the heck is so awesome about DDR. But the game isn’t just a utilitarian P.E. activity that’s caught on because it’s less traumatizing than dodge ball. It’s something fun. It actually brings people joy. It would be nice if these kinds of stories tried a little harder to convey that part of the gaming experience, too.

— April 30, 2007

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