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From across the food court, you spot a teenage boy drenched in sweat. He's breathing heavily, stumbling a bit on his apparently weakened legs. Beads of sweat roll down his face and neck to his already soaked shirt. More sweat drips from his long, disheveled blonde hair. His facial muscles are tensed—not in a grimace, not in a scowl, but spread in a wide, full grin. What is this kid doing in a mall? You look up at the sign of the establishment he is stumbling from. Surely it must be some athletics facility opened since you were here last—a martial arts studio, perhaps, or maybe a rock climbing wall, a fitness center, or ... a video arcade? Surely your eyes must be deceiving you. You maneuver across the crowded hall and approach the perspiring teen. You inquire as to the cause of his condition. “Why are you so sweaty .. and so happy?” you ask. “I just double A'ed Healing Vision on Heavy,” he replies, out of breath, and walks away.

What was this boy talking about? You decide to investigate and walk into the arcade. There seem to be some people gathered in the back left, so you head over there. What meets you is overwhelming— a flurry of lights and arrows, of pumping bass and flying feet, of electric tones and japanese voices, of two synchronized players and a transfixed crowd. What is this? The commotion pauses a moment as a new player steps up and inserts coins. Just as you manage to make out the words on the lit banner above, the new player pushes a green flashing button. An excited, recorded voice announces the words just as you read them—Dance Dance Revolution.

By the time the next round comes up, you are very curious. You ask one of the people coming off the machine wether you can give it a shot. She points out the line of coins and cards forming a make-shift queue on the front of the machine. You place a business card at the end of the line and wait your turn. In the mean time, you intently watch the quick, frenzied yet somehow graceful motions of the players. After watching a couple more songs, you understand the premise—colored arrows come up from the bottom of the screen; when they line up with the corresponding clear arrow at the top of the screen, the player steps on the corresponding arrow on the floor. Feeling relatively prepared you step up to the pad, set the game on a medium difficulty setting, and select a song suggested by one of the spectators as “pretty easy.” The arrows start to rise and you lunge for the right arrow; you hit it, but you can't quite get the timing right; “BOO” declares the screen. A few more fumbled steps and the bar across the top of the screen falls to empty. The words “FAILED” plaster the screen as the announcer voice exclaims “There always a tomorrow!!” You realize that now your legs are tired, that you are a bit out of breath, ant that you too are now sweating from playing a video game. You don't care though, because even as you failed your first song, that was fun!

“Your” hypothetical first experience with DDR (as it is commonly referred to) was not uncommon; most DDR players do not do well there first time through. I know I didn't. As it so happens, the first time I played DDR was at, of all places, a church youth group. Someone had recently acquired a Playstation and the original Dance Dance Revolution (which came to be known as 1st Mix) home game. I only got to play a couple times, and I don't believe I ever got above a C (1st mix used a scale of A-F with S and SS for nearly flawless performances), but I definitely remember enjoying it and being disappointed that I didn't get more opportunities to play it that evening. After that, I didn't come across it for a couple years. In retrospect, this is possibly unfortunate, because this was DDR's golden age—when tournaments with large prizes were commonplace, when people actually had “teams” that got together routinely to play and hang out (some of these times even had serious rivalries with one another, it was not even unheard of for teams to have territorial disputes, playing games for the “rights” to use a particular arcade. Others had the high scores on a particular machine determine “territory”), and Konami was still releasing DDR games with some regularity.

When I did discover DDR, it was by way of my sister's then-boyfriend Jon Pacio. Besides being a generally awesome guy in my eyes (he practiced karate, was a break-dancer, and built computers), he had actually been on a DDR “team” and experienced the DDR trued in full swing. He was a person who probably shaped me in many ways (for example, he guided me through building my first computer), but introducing me to DDR was probably a major one. Once introduced to DDR, it became a frequent activity for me for the next several years. Though I played it frequently in arcades (particularly the now closed Aladdin's Castle at Lynnhaven Mall and various arcades at Busch Gardens) my major involvement was not with DDR proper, but with a program named Stepmania. Stepmania is an open source simulator for DDR written in C++ and distributed for free online. It appealed to me because it was free, it was open source (and I am a big advocate of the open source community), and it had a large, active online community (whereas DDR's had kind of dried up by the time I arrived).

Additionally, it provided a much better approximation of the arcade experience because while every home version for Playstation or Xbox contained but a few songs, the community had created and put up for download literally every DDR song ever created. While these downloads may be of questionable legality, they work wonderfully and are very near to the arcade steps. After downloading Stepmania and a library of DDR songs, I bought some nice Playstation DDR mats and a PS to USB convertor so I could hook them up. Once I had this beautiful setup set up, I used it nearly every day for several months. During this time I got a lot better at the game, moving up from the second-easiest difficulty level, Light, to the hardest, Heavy, which is the level I play at to this day. I played enough and got serious enough that I even bought a metal, near arcade quality metal pad.

DDR was my regular form of stress relief. If I had a tough day, I could come home and sweat it out on the arrows. Playing the game, focusing on the arrows, feeling the beat of the music—during play sessions these are all I cared about. Perhaps it was the concentration required to read the ever faster paced arrows in ever faster songs, perhaps it was simply the increased endorphin levels, but DDR could always grab my full attention and keep me from worrying about anything else. It provided a much needed escape from the worries that I consider all to often.

It still has the power to give this experience, really. Sadly, however, I have played less and less DDR as the years have gone on. This is partially a function of having more homework, partially a function of the closing of Aladdin's Castle at Lynnhaven, and partially a function of a major decline in the Stepmania community (brought on by collapse of several major websites and a legal fallout over a product called In The Groove produced as a derivative of Stepmania). That said, while I play DDR significantly less often, I do still play it at times. There is a DDR machine at the Lynnhaven AMC now, which I sometimes get to play on before or after seeing a movie. Over spring break, I played several games on a machine in Disney's “DisneyQuest” arcade. Interestingly also, there is a DDR machine in the MIT student center. Perhaps when the academic rigor of MIT is getting to be too much for me, I can return to the arrows, and forget my stress in the fun of DDR.