'Dancing Arcade Game' Draws Huge Crowds

ByOliver Yates Libaw

N E W  Y O R K, Dec. 4, 2000 -- The video game with the biggest crowd around it at the Bar Code arcade on a recent Saturday night didn’t feature ultra-violent gun battles or buckets of blood and gore — just some slick dance moves.

In “Dance Dance Revolution,” players score points by dancing in time to the music (see sidebar for a complete explanation).

The peculiar game is one of the top attractions in the Times Square amusement center, and it has become a phenomenon in many arcades on the West Coast, spawning tournaments and luring new customers

It’s provided a welcome change for those worried about video-game violence, including lawmakers in places such as Indianapolis, St. Louis and other cities that are battling to bar minors from playing violent video arcade games without parental consent.

The game’s success also offers game makers a compelling reason to find more family-friendly hits, says Timothy Burke, a Swarthmore College professor who studies pop culture and youth trends.

“Kids are saying, ‘I’ve been waiting for something new to do,’” he says.

The game, which has been described as high-tech combination of the children’s games Twister and Simon Says, is clearly a change of pace from the usual assortment of fighting, racing, and shooting games.

Burke calls it “an exotic, videofied form of karaoke.”

“It puts you at center stage, as if you were the star.”

That kind of novelty is providing a welcome boost for the arcade game industry, which has lost ground to home games and other forms of amusement in recent years.

Its total revenue has fallen from $7.3 billion in 1989 to $5.7 billion last year, and pool tables passed video games in revenue in 1999, according to research by Vending Times, an industry trade publication.

Showing His Skills

At the Times Square arcade, the chance to show off in front of the crowd was what turned Rey Diaz on to Dance Dance Revolution.

As the 18-year-old fed his $2 into the Dance Dance Revolution game console and started hopping on the colored platforms in time to the disco music throbbing from the machine, over a dozen people stopped to gather around and watch.

“I’m showing people my skills,” he proclaimed while trying to catch his breath after his routine ended.

The scene at the Times Square-area arcade was only a shadow of the fanatical following that Dance Dance Revolution has already drawn on the West Coast. In cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, clubs and teams devoted to Dance Dance Revolution have sprung up, and some arcade owners credit the game with bringing in a flood of new customers.

The game, known as DDR to fans, was introduced in California in March of 1999, after becoming a Japanese phenomenon of nearly Pokemon-like proportions. There, some arcades had whole rooms devoted to the game, its maker, Konami, reports.

Konami has created a host of similarly off-beat games, which have players scoring points by scratching out beats and noises on controllers shaped like turn tables and guitars. Sega’s Samba de Amigo home game comes with two maracas that plug into the Dreamcast game console.

Dancing Day and Night

DDR caught on within months in West Coast arcades, and was on back order for a time, as Konami, the game’s manufacturer, scrambled to meet demand.

In the Bay Area, players like Jason Ko, a 21-year-old student at UC Berkeley, are responsible for the game’s success.

After playing DDR three or four days a week all summer, Ko said he’s recently tapered back to one game a week. He has a version of the game for his Playstation game machine at home, which lets him practice his routines without the expense of the arcade.

“I was not much of a dancer before this game,” he says. Ko rarely went to the arcade before he discovered DDR, and he doesn’t like violent fighting games.

Now, however, he has a friend he does DDR routines with, and has traveled up and down the West Coast to compete in tournaments.

Ko is soft-spoken over the phone, but the game has brought out the exhibitionist in him.“I like showing off, getting attention,” he says.

His Web site, DDRfreak.com, records about 30,000 hits a week, and he says the number continues to increase as the game’s popularity spreads.

At the Southern Hills Golfland, located in the suburbs south of Los Angeles, Dance Dance Revolution “was an immediate sensation,” says the arcade’s assistant manager, John Bailon.

“And after a while it grew to something even bigger,” he said, with a note of disbelief in his voice.

At the Metreon Arcade in San Francisco, dedicated DDR players gather several times a week, some even coming every day to perform for the crowd.

“We expected 30 to 35 plays a day” when the game was introduced last May, says Metreon spokeswoman Marlene Saritzky. “In the first 30 days, we had 4,000.”

“I think it’s going to be the Twister of the new millennium,” she says. “It’s the new Arthur Murray.”

Many players even cite DDR as their primary source of exercise, and tell stories of friends who have lost dozens of pounds mastering the game.

“This one just kind of struck a nerve,” says Mary Hermanson, a Konami spokeswoman.

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