Harmonix on gender, self-expression in Dance Central
As mainstream video games gain an all-time high cultural profile, demand for an inclusive, mature medium continues to increase. Many of us would like to see games as experiential and as accessible to anyone, where all identities can be represented. Yet the games industry notably continues to struggle with welcoming broader demographics.
Not so for Harmonix games, which have made admirable strides in bringing culturally-universal musical experiences to the living room. Interestingly, when it comes to Dance Central, allowing players total freedom to choose how they physically express themselves -- including the extent to which they want to gender their movements -- has been a considered and intentional process.
"I think what's interesting about dance is that it's incredibly performative, and it implicates the body in a way a lot of other video game-type interactions don't," Dance Central project director Matt Boch tells Gamasutra. Many Kinect games rely on the player's use of his or her own body, but mostly in purpose-oriented ways; few require movements as total and as physically-expressive as dancing.
The Dance Central games offer the player the chance to select an on-screen avatar that feeds players' performance back to them, versus a literal representation of the player's own self on screen. "We implicate the players' identity in their body in a novel way, in an unfamiliar way, and I think a lot of that experience is what's so much fun about Dance Central," explains Boch.
"But the risk there is you can put people in situations where you might be giving them instructions or content that is unfamiliar to them, or uncomfortable for them, or somehow inconsistent with their own notion of their identities."
In the early days of prototyping Dance Central, Boch noticed some players hesitating on dance moves that felt "sexy" or "hip-focused", or traditionally feminine -- not only male players, but female participants who seemed to feel uncomfortable expressing themselves in that particular way. The design challenge was to find a way to allow players to perform the dance moves without requiring them to undertake certain subtleties that might be at odds with a person's sense of self.
A Harvard-educated artist, Boch has long believed that gender is performance. "I myself consider myself a queer man, and I was not about to sit by... in a situation where only these characters can play those songs, or -- god forbid -- have male-female designations for each piece of content," he explains.
For a while, the team considered specifying for which gender certain dance routines were intended, or mocapping each routine with a male and a female dancer to create different gendered performances. But Boch as well as others on the team undertook a series of conversations fervently devoted to exploring and embracing the idea that dance through the ages has always offered participants the liberty to explore all kinds of identity performance -- including gender-as-performance.
So the core of Dance Central's detection system focuses on allowing players to perform moves with as much traditional masculinity or femininity as they individually enjoy, and the game offers a range of characters that reflect different modes of body language to better enable people to play with these concepts. Dance Central 2's intuitive preview system lets players see what kind of moves might be in a dance before they try it -- without tipping a hand toward "this is a neutral song, or this is a masculine or a feminine song."
"The elements of what I think is great, inclusive design is [the ability to] reveal to the player what the type of experience could be, and then allow the player to make their own choice," Boch suggests. A similar example is The Sims, where the sexuality of a character is legislated only by what the player chooses to have it do with the other characters in the space.
"These notions of complex identities just resonate better with a broad audience," he adds. "They allow for a more fun, ephemeral taking-on of other identities, and add a variety to the play... and often a levity to the experience."
"It's sad to me to think that we're the entertainment industry, and we're the most technologically advanced of all the entertainment industries, and yet we seem to be lacking in a social progressivism that matches our technological progressivism," Boch reflects. "I want to turn that around."