DDR Ethnography

The Trip

The hour-long drive has come to an end. The boys have finally reached their destination. Traffic was worse than usual on this particular day, but that doesn’t stop them from their weekly ritual. They have traveled to the Bavarian Inn Lodge in Frankenmuth, Michigan, for a single purpose: Dance Dance Revolution. They exit the car and head towards the hotel, making sure they have the essentials. Water bottle? Check. Towel? Check. Dance shoes? Check. Tokens? Check. They make their way through the hotel, down to the arcade, towards their final destination - the DDR machine. There is already a crowd gathered around the machine, both spectators and players alike. They sift through the crowd, finally reaching the machine, only to place a token next to the screen, indicating their place in line. There are a few people ahead of them, so they will have to wait for their turn to come. They wait eagerly, impatiently, enthusiastically. They haven’t just been waiting since they arrived to the arcade. They’ve been waiting through the traffic, since they left the house. They’ve been waiting all day, until they were done with school. They’ve been waiting all week, until they had the fulfilled all prior obligations, and had enough free time to dedicate to the trip. They spend more time waiting than actually playing, which makes the moment they finally step up on that dance pad all the more satisfying. This isn’t just a video game to them, nor is it just a hobby. It’s a way of life. It’s an escape from reality. For these kids, it’s so much more than what is even capable of being put into words. But simply put - this is DDR.

An Introduction to DDR

What is DDR? DDR, short for Dance Dance Revolution, is a Japanese music / rhythm-based video game in which players stand on a “dance platform” and hit colored arrows with their feet, laid out in a cross formation, to musical and visual cues. You can find DDR in arcades all around the world, as well as on home gaming systems such as Playstation, Xbox, PC, etc. There is a wide variety of people that enjoy the game, young and old alike, from casual players to serious gamers. But DDR is more than just a video game. There is an entire community of players surrounding the game as well.

Why the DDR Community?

I chose to research the DDR community for several reasons. The main reason is that I have personally been a member of the DDR community for over ten years. I have enjoyed the game, both at home and in the arcade, and have made numerous friends through my experiences within the DDR community. I enjoy the game itself, as well as meeting new people and making friends through community involvement. It is because of these experiences that I was able to easily gain access to the community, seeing as how I was already a member myself. I was able to further research the DDR community through observational arcade visits, as well as interview members of the community whom I’ve come to know through my community involvement.

I felt I still had much to learn about my own community, as being a member of it for so long has given me a limited view of the community in its entirety. I wanted to learn more about the DDR community, as well as its members. Why do people choose to play DDR? What draws them into the community? If you play DDR, does that automatically make you a member of the community, or is there something more to it? What exactly classifies someone as a member of the community? These questions, and several more, have been in my head for quite some time, and I found myself even more interested in researching the community the more I thought about these questions.

The DDR machine is not just a video game. Any arcade that has a DDR machine becomes a meeting place for members within the community to congregate and socialize. It is similar to that of a watering hole found in the African Savannah, in which all creatures come together, seeking out a single resource.

I had some initial thoughts and stereotypes about the community before I conducted my research. Not necessarily my own personal thoughts and views, but being a member of the community for this long, I have come to find that outsiders of the community have developed their own stereotypes about DDR players. Often times, people will stereotype DDR players as being “nerds,” even going so far as to call them social outcasts. Some people feel that DDR doesn’t fit in with mainstream American culture, as it is a Japanese video game.

DDR tends to appeal to a specific audience, and I have personally found that interests among DDR players can often times be very similar. Interests in Japanese culture, as well as Japanese / electronic music, and Japanese cartoons (referred to as “anime”), are a few of the similarities shown by some community members. Through my experiences, I have found that not all DDR players are the same, nor do all DDR players share these same interests. However, these have become stereotypes that others have cast upon DDR players. I wanted to explore the DDR community more in-depth, in order to be able to dismiss these stereotypes, and put them to rest.

A Personal Address to Community Members

For the purpose of this ethnography, I believe that DDR and ITG (short for In The Groove, another video game similar to DDR) are related enough to fall into the same general category of “dance simulation games,” and are often times seen as the same game by many outsiders. To truly discern the differences between these two games would stray away from the purpose of this ethnography, as the communities that surround these two games are basically one and the same. If one was so inclined, you could break it down even further and say that they are two separate sub-cultures or communities, but the truth is that a large majority of the members of each community are the same as the other. Because of this, DDR and ITG players often just group the two games together, referring to themselves collectively as the "Dance Game Community." But since DDR is more commercialized and well-known than ITG, it is easier to just describe it as the "DDR Community" as opposed to the "ITG Community" or even the "Dance Game Community." Some people have at least heard of DDR before, perhaps seen it in arcades or even on television or in films, where as its younger American cousin, ITG, is mostly just known to the members of the community, and the term “Dance Game Community” is primarily used only by insiders of the community.

I understand that some of you reading this may refer to yourselves as either “DDR players,” “ITG players,” or “Dance Game Players,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, you must understand that to the general population, which I have intended to be the primary audience for this ethnography, DDR and ITG may appear to be the same game. That isn’t their fault, as we dance game players know these games are similar in style, and only trained insiders of the community are aware of the various differences and distinctions between these two games. But do the differences between these two games change the facts surrounding the cultural implications of said communities? In some regards, yes, but overall, I do not believe so. To put it simply, splitting these hairs and debating DDR vs. ITG would stray away from the focus of this ethnography, which is exploring the dance game community as a whole.

Personally, I grew up on DDR, as that is where I have my roots within the dance game community. Over the years, I have come to appreciate both DDR and ITG for what each game brings to the table. Although I may primarily play ITG these days, that doesn’t change the fact that I played DDR for several years before ITG even came into existence, and have learned much about the dance game community through my early years and experience with just DDR alone. That is why you will find DDR to be the main focus of this ethnography, although there are many instances within this ethnography where you can use the terms “DDR” and “ITG” interchangeably (significance of arcade machines, insider language, gamer stereotypes, etc).

The DDR Machine

There are several different artifacts one can explore throughout the DDR community. I believe the most significant of these artifacts would be the DDR machine itself. Casual and serious players alike love the game for various different reasons, but most players agree that in order to engage in the truest and most enjoyable DDR experience, you must play it in the arcade, on a DDR machine.

DDR Machine
An example of a DDR machine, comprised of its two main parts - Cabinet and Dance Pad.

DDR arcade machines are comprised of two main parts: One part, the cabinet, which houses the monitor, game hardware / software, lights, speakers, game marquee, and so on. This is often referred to as the “guts” of the game. The other part, the dance platform, acts as the controller for the game. DDR can often times be confusing to some, as it is quite different from your average video game. The most notable difference is that the controls are manipulated with the players’ feet, as opposed to their hands, like most video games people are familiar with.

The dance platform consists of a total of eight arrow panels, four on each side, placed in the same cross formation for each individual player. Up to two players can play together simultaneously, or one player can choose to play alone, choosing between either four panel mode, referred to as “single,” or eight panel mode, referred to as “double.” The difference between playing “single” or “double” is just one of the many examples of insider language found within the DDR community. But we will get to that later. For now, let's focus on the importance of the actual DDR machine itself.

The DDR machine is not just a video game. Any arcade that has a DDR machine becomes a meeting place for members within the community to congregate and socialize. It is similar to that of a watering hole found in the African Savannah, in which all creatures come together, seeking out a single resource. Visit any arcade with a DDR machine on a Friday or Saturday, and you will often find a gathering of DDR players within that local DDR community. They may see each other outside of this time and place, but the DDR machine is often times the reason why they have come to know each other in the first place. Some people make friends at work, or at school, or other social outings. Members of the DDR community generally make friends at the arcade, while playing DDR.

This is just one of many examples of what sets the DDR community apart from most other video game communities, that sense of social interaction that is found from actually meeting other people in person while playing the game. This is different from sitting at home and playing video games online with other players. You may become familiar with these other players that you engage with online, but do you see them face to face and fully interact with them in any other realm outside of the game? Often times, that is not the case. Also, the competitiveness of online gaming often times takes away from friendly social interaction within said game. Gamers playing online tend to focus too much on winning / beating other players, and forget that they are engaging with other human beings, which often leads them to engage in “trash talking.” Although DDR is by definition a video game, and may suffer from the same negative implications due to it being a video game, you generally don’t find as much “trash talking” amongst DDR players as you would in other video game communities.

DDR machines are not easy to come by. Though there are hundreds (even thousands) of DDR machines located around the world, the dominant period in which DDR was at its peak has gone and passed. DDR, along with DDR machines, saw its debut in 1998, and had quite a rise in popularity throughout the early years of the new century, perhaps reaching its peak between 2001 and 2003. Since then, DDR machines have been on the decline, steadily disappearing from arcades around the world, while entire arcades have been known to disappear as well due to economic struggles. It has always played a major role within the DDR community, but because of its increasing rarity as time goes on, they become even more important than they were in the past. If a local DDR machine is no longer available to players, they will travel greater distances to seek out the next nearest machine, often times leading them to discover entirely new local DDR communities while doing so. This process only helps extend to the reach of the DDR community, as more and more players come together and meet one another.

The DDR machine holds a dear place in the hearts of many players. Since the machines are becoming more difficult to come by, players take it upon themselves to save up their own money to purchase the machines. Many dedicated community members have purchased machines to either rent out for use in arcades, or for private use in their own homes, though it is not uncommon to see these players invite other local players over to use their machines. Since they have met their friends through playing the game in the first place, they can then congregate at each other’s homes to enjoy the same game they once ventured out to arcades to play. These machines range in price, often times costing thousands of dollars depending on age and condition, but many players are dedicated enough to the game, and the community, and are willing to pay the price for their very own DDR machine.

Community Members

When it comes to the DDR community, it can be dissected into many different facets. Trying to explain the DDR community is no easy task, so instead of trying to go too in depth with all the various different sub-sections of the community, let's discuss the easiest distinction to make among members of the DDR community. That distinction is the difference between recreational players, and competitive players.

There is a community of people that play DDR recreationally / casually with friends. You can find these players gathering together with other players at their local arcade on a Friday or Saturday night, where they enjoy playing the game together as a group, taking turns and rotating amongst themselves, all while socializing in the process. Alternatively, players may opt to have friends over to their home, where they enjoy playing the game on any of the home gaming systems which the games can be found on. The focus for these players is not so much playing the game itself, but more so using the game as a medium in which all of their friends can gather and socialize with one another. They enjoy playing the game, but they aren't too worried about their scores or accomplishments within the game. They just want to hang out with their friends and have fun.

Optionally, these recreational players may engage in playing DDR on a regular basis as a form of exercise. Depending on the individual player, they may or may not discern the difference between if they play competitively or recreationally, and may instead say that they play the game as a form of exercise. However, it makes more sense to group these players under the recreational section, as their primary focus may not be competing with other players.

In addition to this recreational community, there also coexists a competitive community. Players practice the game on a regular basis, pushing themselves to their limits in order to achieve the highest possible scores. They often times keep track of their scores and achievements, as well as sharing their accomplishments on online forums or with other competitive players. Some players enjoy competing with themselves, just trying to raise their own personal scores and garnishing a sense of achievement when doing so. Some players enjoy competition amongst other players, trying to beat opponents scores, and one upping each other.

These competitive communities take on many forms, and it is not uncommon to find that members exist among both the recreational community, as well as the competitive community. Some players agree that it isn't always fun to be competitive, and sometimes enjoy the game from a more casual side. Those same players may also agree that playing the game recreationally can become boring, and it is more enjoyable to set goals for yourself, and try to reach those goals by pursuing high scores or beating other players' scores. The motives and feelings of these players aren't always cut and dry, but most players tend to identify themselves by stating whether or not they are competitive within the community.

As for being a competitive member of the community, it can have its benefits. Players from all around varying locations (city / state / country / world) meet up for competitions and tournaments to see who the best player is. The larger tournaments are known for having company sponsorships which help contribute to hosting / running the tournament, as well as awarding prizes to the top competitors. With prizes in upwards of $10,000 going to the first place participant, what once may have been just a casual game to one person, has just become a very serious sport / competition to another.

Game Mechanics

Was DDR made to be geared towards these competitive crowds? Not initially. So how did a game that seemed so casual at first, develop such a cult following of hardcore gamers and competitors? When the game first came out, scoring systems were implemented to give players a rough idea of how well they did during gameplay. The scoring system implemented in the game was considered by many to be arbitrary and capricious, and didn’t make much sense to most players. As the demand for a more economical scoring system grew, the game designers reacted, implementing clearer grades based on the accuracy in which players step on the arrows in time with the music.

These “timing windows,” as they are referred to, are divided into increasingly smaller zones, and counted in milliseconds, in regards to their location on or around the beat of the song. If you step perfectly on beat with the music, either directly on top of the beat, or a few milliseconds before or after the beat, the game registers the step accuracy as “perfect.” Steps that range slightly outside of that window result in a “great.” Again, steps ranging slightly outside of that window result in a “good.” The step accuracy ratings continue down the line, based on timing, with the worst accuracy being a “miss,” which as the name implies, means the player either completely missed the beat when stepping on the corresponding arrow, or missed stepping on the arrow altogether. Successfully hitting arrows in succession without missing will result in a “combo,” and the game also keeps count of the combo as it grows. The highest combo a player achieves during a song is also counted towards their overall score.

DDR Machine
An example of a DDR screen during gameplay - Arrows scroll vertically up the screen, and stepped on when they reach the stationary grid at the top. Accuracy is displayed for each arrow. In this case, both players scored a “perfect” step for the most recent arrow.

A DDR Player’s Perspective

What’s it like being a member of the DDR community? I had a chance to sit down with Matt Harris, an established member of the DDR community. I’ve had my own personal experiences, but I wanted to hear another viewpoint from a fellow DDR player. I chose to interview Matt because he has been a member of the DDR community for several years, and I knew he would have a wealth of knowledge to share on the subject. He has been a community member, as well as a club and tournament organizer, as has been involved in the DDR scene longer than most. I learned much about his personal history with DDR, as well as got an idea of how the DDR community has evolved throughout the years with the changes that the game and the community have gone through.

I asked Matt, “What interested you in DDR?” He replied, “I was looking for something different. It was a music game and I wanted to try something new. It was difference from most other games I had previously been into. I also wanted to play the game online with other people.” Matt went on to explain that he at first enjoyed the game at home, playing online with other players. He eventually made his way out to the arcade, to experience what it would be like to play DDR on an arcade machine.

I asked him about the differences between playing at home, and playing in the arcade. I asked, “What was the arcade experience like?” He explained, “Back when I started playing in the arcade, the scene was huge. My mom would drive us to the arcade, and we would go and spend a couple hours there at the mall, playing games and hanging out. There were usually at least 15-20 kids there also playing DDR, and there would usually be the same kids there each time we went. They were regulars. At first, we were pretty intimidated by them and how good they were, and how much more they knew about the game than us. We were complete strangers at first, but eventually we learned the ropes. The game would be so crowded, we would only get to play once every 30 minutes, but it was fun to meet new people and be able to watch other people play and see new and different songs.” “So you enjoyed playing at the arcade more than playing at home?” I asked. To which he replied, “Absolutely.”

The Arcade Experience

I wasn’t surprised by what Matt had to say, in terms of the differences between playing at home and playing in the arcade. Many players find the arcade experience to be the most enjoyable. While conducting my research, I chose to observe several different arcades, usually on Friday and Saturday nights. I found that these periods during the weekends tend to be the busiest times, in terms of DDR players visiting the arcades. That is usually because most DDR players tend to be students, and it is easier to go to the arcade on the weekends, when they generally have the most free time.

One arcade I observed regularly is the American Fun Center, located at Oakland Mall in Troy, MI. This arcade has both DDR and ITG (another version of DDR) machines, and is a well known DDR hotspot within the DDR community. I observed here numerous times, both of Friday and Saturday nights, and had varying results. How busy the arcade is tends to fluctuate throughout the day, having differing peak hours for different styles of games. But the DDR players tend to come later on in the day, after school or work or any other daily responsibilities.

The physical space of the arcade varies from location to location. However, there are many amenities that DDR players look for when they choose an arcade. Access to restrooms, water fountains, nearby food / restaurant locations, and good ventilation / fans / air conditioning, are just some of the many qualities that DDR players desire while seeking out the perfect arcade location. They also enjoy when the machines have ample space around them, so they, along with spectators, don’t crowd the machine while watching others play.

Because the DDR experience found at arcades is much more satisfying than that of a home gaming experience, there also comes a price. According to Joanna Demers, author of “’Dance Dance Revolution’, Cybernetic Dance, and Musical Taste,” DDR players have been known to spend as much as $1,000 per year on arcade game-play. Home versions have consistently sold well, but some players consider playing in the arcade a “luxury,” as no home version can ever compare to the feel of an actual arcade cabinet.

Discourse and Insider Language

When it comes to the discourse among DDR players, one term that gets thrown around a lot is “AAA” (pronounced “triple-a”). A “AAA” is the grade a player receives on a song when they score a “perfect” on every step (we went over perfects, and their place among the timing windows, under the game mechanics section). In other words, it is the highest possible score one can achieve in the game, a.k.a., a perfect score. Competitive players often gauge their experience and skill-levels amongst one another by comparing the amount of songs they have achieved a AAA on. “How many AAA’s does he have?” is a common question amongst competitive DDR players.

When a player attempts to get a AAA on a song, and misses getting a perfect score on a song by getting a “great” on a single step (keeping in mind that the “great” timing window is the next closest window to the “perfect” timing window), it is referred to by DDR players as a “black flag.” According to Aaron in Japan, a well-known website and resource within the dance game community, the term “black flag” originates from the Seattle-based DDR community, and was coined by a DDR player with the alias “GPF Lith.” The term is in reference to “waving the black flag of death,” which is how some players felt when attempting to achieve a perfect score on a song, but missed it by a single step. It is the absolute closest one can come to getting a perfect score on a song, without actually attaining said perfect score, comparable to a 99% out of a possible 100%. It can be quite a frustrating process, and achieving a “black flag” is often times demoralizing to a player.

Players will often times play a song repeatedly in succession, attempting to achieve a certain score or achievement (passing a song, AAAing a song, etc). This practice is often referred to as “whoring” a song. When a player plays the same song over and over again repeatedly, that player is said to be “whoring” that song. There is a division amongst community members as to whether or not the practice of “whoring” a song in order to achieve a AAA on said song is a true representation of a player’s skill level. A lot of players will argue that consistency is overall a more important asset for competitive level of play, and so if a player is unable to reproduce certain scores they have achieved in the past due to “whoring,” those accomplishments do not hold as much merit. However, other players will argue that it is your choice to play the game any way you desire, and so if they wish to achieve a desired score, they will attempt to do so by any means necessary, which can include “whoring” said song if need be.

Effects of DDR

So, is that all there is to DDR? Stepping on arrows in beat to the music? Some would say that although it is based on this simple concept, the game has exploded in various ways, spawning different play styles, different social constructs, multiple spin-offs, and even spreading awareness by seeping into pop culture, popping up in television shows, music videos, feature length films, and more. DDR has accomplished many things you wouldn’t expect from your average video game, and yet it continues to make an impact on the world around us. Members of the DDR community, often times referring to themselves as just “DDR players” or “dance game players,” don’t pay too much attention to everything surrounding the game itself. They generally just play it for the shear enjoyment, and use it as a social gateway to making new friends.

Personal Reflections and Conclusions

As for me, I've personally been a member of the DDR community for over ten years. I've found myself on both the recreational side, as well as the competitive side. Both sides have their fair share of advantages and disadvantages, reasons why one would choose a particular side over the other. Currently being a member of the recreational side, I often find myself missing the days when I was at the competitive level. However, I personally felt that the amount of dedication required for maintaining that level was outweighing the benefits of being at that level. It felt good to have high scores and be among the best, being recognized by my peers both around the country, and even around the world. But was it truly worth all the money spent at the arcade? All the time spent practicing? The other responsibilities that were set aside for the sake of DDR?

Either way, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Everything that I’ve experienced through being a member of the DDR community, both positive and negative, has helped shaped me into the person I am today. I’ve made friends, I’ve made enemies, and with my own fair share of ups and downs, it’s been one hell of a ride. Although DDR isn’t as popular as it was ten years ago, it continues to draw new crowds every day. People find DDR new and refreshing, simply because they have yet to hear about it.

Despite its age, it continues to be a new and exciting commodity in the lives of many people around the world. It continues to amaze me. Even after all these years, people are still playing DDR, and some find it just as exciting as I did ten years ago. It is truly remarkable that this game has not only spawned several facets and types of communities, but there are also several generations of these communities as well. Who knows how long DDR will continue to be a part of gaming culture? Only time will tell.

Works Cited

“DDR Freak - Dance Dance Revolution.” ddrfreak.com, 2005. Web. 21 March 2012.

“DDR Goes PS3.” mygamer.com, 2010. JPG file.

“DDR Supernova Machine.” amusements4kids.com, 2012. JPG file.

Demers, Joanna. “Dancing Machines: ‘Dance Dance Revolution’, Cybernetic Dance, and Musical Taste.” Cambridge University Press, Oct. 2006. Web. 19 March 2012.

Harris, Matt. Personal Interview. 3 March 2012.

“Welcome to my site, Aaron in Japan.” aaronin.jp, 2012. Web. 20 April 2012.

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