When people think dance pads and video games, they think Dance Dance Revolution. Today I’d like to discuss the dance game as a trope, using DDR but also a lesser known predecessor, Dance Aerobics for the NES. Despite being nine years apart in initial release dates (1989 and 1998), the two have interesting overlap that speak a lot about dance video games as a genre.

Let’s start with the basics: how is Dance Aerobics similar to DDR and other knockoffs and variations? DDR uses a four button pad commanded by your feet, while Dance Aerobics uses a twelve button pad, also commanded by your feet. You step on the mat where they tell you to, and fail if you make too many mistakes. Aside from that, there’s catchy music, increasing difficulty and complexity as you beat levels, and of course a little sex appeal through pretty girls on the screen.

dance aerobics 1

The obvious difference is that one is about actually dancing, and one is about getting a workout – but that difference has withered overtime, with some trying to definitively decide how many calories a game of DDR burns.  And dance games, even now, continue to be more effective for calorie burning than other aerobic partial/whole body games in some cases.

What makes Dance Aerobics a game that has a special place in my heart is that it knew years before others did that, generally speaking, most people who are physically fit are so doing something they actually enjoy, and often a game or competition. Dance Aerobics wasn’t even the only one of its kind in its console era; other family fitness games existed, such as World Class Track Meet, Athletic World, and Street Cop.

One of the reasons for this is that games, unlike just disciplined training, offer little feedbacks that encourage us. Jane McGonigal wrote in her 2011 pop-psychology book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World about many ways games trump real life activities on a psychological level, one of which being regular affirmation and perspective. In real life, working towards goals can yield gradual changes that often seem discouraging if we don’t get results noticeably quickly. But making our workout a game shows affirmation in other ways: level ups in general make a good example, as do specific affirmations like Wii Fitness Ages in the Wii Fit/Sports series.

Disclaimer: it's not always encouraging to know your Wii Fit Age.

Disclaimer: it’s not always encouraging to know your Wii Fit Age.

In many life scenarios – not just exercising, but also job hunting in a tough economy or other activities – we get little detail on how we’re doing. And that lack of nurturing can often lead to someone feeling like the effort is pointless, or possibly not even making positive progress at all. But with games, we get little rewards here and there that tell us we’re on the right track. Then, before we know it, visible results come as well.

Having levels in and of itself also plays a role in the way our mind perceives the exercise at hand, which is something dance games have done well. With the average person’s mind, a task that is too easy is boring and uninteresting, while a task that is too difficult is intimidating and discouraging. Explicitly stated varying levels and difficulty settings that come with a game make the task manageable yet appealing to the brain; those who find the first few levels too easy have the promise of harder material later on, and those who find the game difficult start off with a gradual ease into the process. With a good game, players are never underwhelmed nor overwhelmed.

But at the heart of it all, the tautological truth is that what truly defines this genre is that it turns this into a game. Making it less serious and more fun makes us more likely to do it – let’s face it, who likes doing things they’re forced to do? Many still don’t even realize they’re burning calories playing these kinds of games, and that realization later as a side bonus makes it even better.

With these notions comes a few that link this genre to many other game genres: competitive drive, ambition, and having fun. To these ends, these games are hardly any different than most video games, just with a more real-life practical purpose other than entertainment or satire. That in mind, I’d say they do a good thing. Now, all I need is for game developers to release a “Resume Hero,”  or a “Kid Icarus Drinks Responsibly,” and I’ll have my entire life in order. But for now, I’ll settle for being reasonably physically fit.