What Games Teach – Dance

Here is something you don’t hear often. Some time ago I took a Salsa course with my girlfriend. It was the first time I seriously took a formal dance lesson. Throughout the course I frequently had flashbacks of how video-games work, especially fighting games like Soulcalibur.

This is not me. But it’s funny and quite well-made! (1:11 is my favorite part)

Formal dancing is very much about learning and executing a series of moves in rhythm to the music and together with a partner. When you learn a dance, you learn certain routines – pre-set sequences of moves (combos?) so you can concentrate at learning to execute them intuitively. With time, as you learn the moves, you can go on and improvise. You break the routines down into individual moves and arrange them on the fly to a custom performance. Of course, some moves may require a specific stance so you need a good understanding of which moves can be linked together. At some point, a different level of difficulty kicks in – you need to communicate your next move to your partner. This is what you call “leading”. The leading person gives subtle hints to their partner so the partner knows which move comes next.

Surprisingly, this is pretty much exactly how fighting games work. In fighting games, each players can execute certain moves. Each move has a distinct pattern. The other player’s task is to recognize or even anticipate the next move and to execute the right answer to it. Soulcaliubur distinguishes itself by having very long moves that flow into each other, as well as a number of different modes and stances. This emphasizes the similarity to dancing.

This game design pattern isn’t unique to fighting games. A lot of action games use similar ideas. For instance, many games include boss fights that require the player to memorize and react to an attack pattern of an AI enemy.

But there are even more fundamental similarities. The first difficulty in learning to danced is to familiarize yourself with the moves. Funny enough, dancing is not especially complex. It is pretty easy to understand how a move goes on an cognitive level. But to execute that move is something entirely different. When dancing, you don’t have the time to analytically recall where your feet and arms go. So you need to learn the moves on a more intuitive, muscle-memory level. The way to do this is by repeating the moves over and over again until they come automatically. This enables you to fluently move from one move to another and frees up your brain to think about the overall performance. Doing the dance lessons it was fascinating for me to watch myself going from the cognitive to the instinctive execution of moves.

Games are quite similar in that regard. The allure of action games lies in the intuitive control of elements on the screen. As you master an action game, you progressively delegate entire levels of game-play decisions to muscle-memory in order to free up your brain for more strategic thinking. First it’s more about the individual button presses, with time you end up executing entire attack strategies without consciously thinking about them.

Both, dancing and action-games are most satisfying when you stop thinking about and start relying on simply feeling them.

But of course there are some differences. For instance, a big aspect of dance is music and rhythm. While action games do have certain rhythm aspects they are hardly comparable to music. Music and dance are an aesthetic experience. They focus very much on harmony and regularity. Games focus on interactivity and challenge instead.

Expressing yourself is also an important aspect of dance. You could say it is pretty much the whole idea about it. Game systems offer less opportunities for expression. They are challenges and idea is to overcome them. There is often only a very narrow path of “doing it right”. If somebody manages to discover and exploit some wiggle room on that path, it is considered a noteworthy exception.

There is one more obvious difference. Games, especially fighting games, are competitive while dancing is cooperative. That’s why it may seem absurd to compare the two. But the difference is a superficial one. I found this in Rules of Play and it stuck with me: games are by their very nature cooperative, even if you end up killing each other. After all, the participation in games happens on a voluntary basis (ideally). The game also is kept alive by both players actively engaging in the game. It always takes two, no matter if you fight or dance.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

3 responses to “What Games Teach – Dance”

  1. Thomas

    Very nice. I’ve had similar thoughts, but it’s been even more pronounced as I learn breakdancing, because the form has ties to (among other things) old martial arts movies. So fighting games and breaking share some common inspiration.

    Really, though, a lot of this falls into the general category of meta-cognition. I could write much the same essay about learning bass guitar: the process of breaking down complex steps into simple stages, drilling for muscle memory, and mastering transitions around the fretboard and strings, for example. In many ways, the process of learning a game is the same as the process of learning anything. It’s *what* we’re learning when gaming that sometimes troubles me.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Yeah there are also similar structure to be found in the process of learning and speaking a language.

    Here is a follow-up question I have been asking myself: do the similarities stem just from the way humans learn things OR do they stem from the nature of the things themselves. In other words, is this a common strategy we use to learn anything or is this pattern inherent to the things we learn. After all games, dance, music and language are all things that were created by humans and their design may have been informed by common features of the human thinking process. What if combos and bosses are variations on universal anthropological constants?

  3. One A Day Picks of the Week 21st – 27th June « rudderless

    [...] Though we now have fewer regular #oneadayers than ever before, Ian Dransfield’s clearly not going anywhere. Coincidentally enough, he’s written a charming and wonderfully honest piece about places he doesn’t want to go to. Krystian Majewski, meanwhile, offers up another fascinating piece (and perhaps my runner-up for Post of the Week) about the similarities between fighting games and formal dancing. [...]


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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