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Doing the Robot: Dancing with Xbox

So last night I went around to my friends’ house and we all played this game I’m pretty sure is called ‘Xbox Dance Like That Uncle at the Wedding’.  Now, I always score really low at XDLTUW, which usually elicits extra laughter because I have a PhD in that sort of thing.  And I might have written a book about it.  Or two.  (For the record, there was no performance element to my PhD, but try explaining that to your drunk friends.  They’re worse than your dissertation committee for analyzing every little tiny thing to death. )

Anyway, my contribution to that second book I just shamelessly promoted above (which I didn’t write on my own, I should mention–I co-edited it, and it is chockablock full of fabulous essays from scholars all over the world) is a chapter on digitized representations of belly dance.  In particular I was looking at belly dancing avatars in the online game Second Life, but my analysis of the challenges around digitized representation of dance (some of which is known as the “uncanny valley effect,” a hypothesis which grew out of robotics) could also be applied to the Xbox dancing avatars.

The way XDLTUW works is as follows: one or more of you stands in front of the Xbox waving maniacally until it recognizes you’re there.  Then you pick a song.  Then, animated dance avatars show you what you’re supposed to do while you copy the moves.  There are also little cards on the side of the screen with the names of each dance move (Sunset?  The Mindi?  Suspenders?) which are supposed to help you, but which I personally find confusing.  You are scored on accuracy and timing.  Hijinks ensue.

The dancing avatars do the moves perfectly every time (of course they do, they’re designed to), but they don’t exactly look like people.  As one of my friends pointed out, the joints between the legs and pelvis of one of the avatars in particular resembles the way a Barbie doll is constructed much more than it does a human.  Uncanny valley effect.

Without speaking to the programmers I can only speculate, but I also believe that the Xbox is only designed to process certain kinds of moves really well.  It appears to me that the dance routines are all designed to focus on a series of clearly defined shapes, rather than on fluidity of movement, for example.  The routines are also all pretty much standing in one place rather than traveling, which makes sense.  Can’t have Xbox consumers blithely crashing through windows following overzealous grand jetés. The movements also have to be fairly obvious: subtlety won’t help you in XDLTUW.  The tiny lifts, mastery of balance, and little pauses that ordinarily distinguish the good dancer from the great dancer aren’t going to help you here.

It also occurred to me later that my belly dance training might be serving me in poor stead for XDLTUW.  In many (indeed, most) forms of dance, emotional expression isn’t just achieved in the body but also in the dancer’s facial expression, something the Xbox isn’t taking into account.  You’ll be a more precise dancer technically but not necessarily a better one after playing XDLTUW.  (Or you would be if there were belly dance moves on there.  I’m not sure.)  Further, one of the big skills that the belly dance teachers I’ve had all go on about is not rushing the music–in belly dance, you shouldn’t necessarily be trying to hit every single beat.  If anything, you should be following a tiny tiny bit behind.  Otherwise you can look a little like a John Philip Sousa marching band, or like a dancing marionette: all jerky, wooden movements.  Even if your movements aren’t particularly wooden, they can still give this impression if you’re adhering to the major rhythm too assiduously.  As world-renowned dancer and dance researcher Shira put it recently on Facebook, if you’re going at it with everything you have, you can look like you’re beating the music to death.  You want the audience to be savoring the anticipation of what’s coming next, not glued to their seats in terror of your military precision.

At least, that is my excuse for why I always score so consistently low at XDLTUW, and I am sticking to it.  Trust me, I have a PhD in this.

7 thoughts on “Doing the Robot: Dancing with Xbox

  1. Another great piece! Out of interest, what dance styles suit the kind of moves this game is designed to process? Realise I’m missing the point here slightly, esp given your point about timing – but is the set-up more suited to, for example, line dancing or 70s disco-style shenanigans, since they seem to involve sharp movements within a relatively tight area?

  2. Lovely, what a wonderful, funny blog to read on this bright Saturday morning. I laughed out loud at that “uncanny valley effect.” How did you find that phrase from a 1990 Japanese engineer’s work? Fantastic! Loved it! Such good humor you have in expressing complicated and evolved ideas.


    Love, Mom

    On Sat, Mar 30, 2013 at 6:42 AM, Caitiewrites

    • Thanks Mom! I knew about it from my prior computer science studies with Dr Siff at Sarah Lawrence–came in handy for my analysis of belly dance avatars in Second Life as well. I’d like to do some more research on it, so I’m trying to think of ways to put the Xbox to use!

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