Dancing About Dancing - the Art of the Joy of Doing

by CulturalGeekGirl, last updated 09 Jul 2012 23:24

I'm pretty sure humanity as a whole spends more time dancing than they do passively watching dancers. It's not true for everybody, but if you count DDR, Dance Central, sliding across the floor in your socks, jumping up and down at concerts, actual club dancing, traditional hobbyist dancing, and doing the YMCA at weddings… dancing is primarily a participatory art.

Dance is the first art I can remember studying; I took a modern dance and ballet class for kids when I was ridiculously young; four or five. To this day, seeing dancers on TV makes me want to dance, even though I'm really not good at it. I don't have the body, the height, the grace, the balance, the coordination, or all my limbs1, - but that really doesn't matter. Dancing is about the joy of moving through space, often in coordination with music, sometimes in coordination with other people.

My first non-arcade video games were platformers: Mario and Kirby. Most old school platformers of that era are about the joy of moving through space and discovering new ways to move through space, or new ways to interact with the objects around you.

Professional dancing and performance dancing, can be done for a number of reasons. Sometimes you'll get a modern dance or a ballet designed to tell a specific story or express a particular emotion. Tap is often an exploration of rhythm and a showcase of coordination. Elaborate dance numbers are designed to amaze and awe; portraying something that we never see in life but that feels so gloriously within reach. If one person can dance, and two people can dance, and if the music is just there and it feels so natural, then why can't the entire town break out into dance? Why can't everything come together, just so?

You can find parallels to all these things in games: Limbo is movement through space as an expression of despair and helplessness, Space Channel 5 is a steady build of increasingly demanding rhythm and coordination work, and that final perfect run of a challenging course in any movement-based game can create that same feeling of everything just implausibly going right in a way that is simultaneously impossible and correct.

True, not all people experience games that way. People who play games professionally often treat games as more of a sport than a dance. They've developed a skill, and they test that skill against others who possess that skill to achieve victory or suffer defeat. Their emotions come from winning or losing, rather than discovery, expression, and movement through space. For them it's a skill test, a sport, rather than a space in which to find enjoyment from stimuli and interaction. The winning is more important than the experience.

Games are unique, because they lie at the intersection of aesthetics, message, opportunity, and skill testing. It's the only artform that often comes with an objective scoring system for participation, and that induces some people to experience it as a sport. Those people are not wrong.

Games may be the first artform whose artistic status is dependent on the mindset of the secondary participant, the player. If it's being used for skill testing, it's a sport; if it's being used for movement, discovery, or emotional engagement, it's an art. We also need to examine the difference between learning a skill with the primary intent of using it in skill tests and learning a skill with the primary intent of enjoying it in-and-of-itself. It's the difference between learning to play basketball because you want to win and learning to dance because you like to move. Games sit right there in the middle…

Actually, now that I think of it, so does Karate. The purpose of Karate is as much focus and harmony of form as it is hitting people really hard until you win. You can find dojos that are almost entirely about tournament fights, and you can find dojos that are almost entirely about harmony and the joy of controlled movement, but there's always some mix there.

Ok guys… I was wrong. Games aren't dancing. Games are TOTALLY karate.

I solved it. We can all go home now.

I solved the problem of whether or not games are art. They're KARATE. CASE CLOSED.

How many carriage returns are appropriate for a beat where you pretend that you ended the article? Cause as awesome as that comedic epiphany was, I do have some monkeyfightin' discussion and conclusions here.

I usually play Mass Effect on normal, because while I enjoy some of its movement-through-space and evocation-of-danger stuff, I am not very engaged at all in its particular variety of skill challenge. I don't care about getting better, I just generally want to play on the setting where I can do my best, never practice, and hardly ever die. I bring characters on missions because I think the person would want to go, not because I'm good at utilizing their abilities, or because they're effective against particular enemies.

While I know some people play Mass Effect for the moving-through-physical-space parts, I play it for the part where you move through emotional, political, and philosophical space. This is where things get real: while we have arts designed to show you movement through physical space and arts that allow you to move yourself through physical space, all previous forms of art have only been able to show you set arcs of movement through those other spaces. This is the first medium that allows us to direct that movement ourselves. It's like all art in history has shown us dancers doing dances, and this is our first time on stage. Someone else may have invented the steps and another guy wrote the music, but we can go anywhere we want within that brightly lit square.

Sometimes art is more about evoking than it is about expressing. Sometimes it's about putting you in a situation where something will happen to you, where something will be expressed through you. Sometimes art is about making us do something that we really want to do, but didn't realize we wanted to do.

Sometimes art is about leading us do things that evoke instinctual joy. Sometimes art is about making us dance.

Are we human, or are we dancer?

I don't see any reason why we can't be both.

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