The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: Dancing with Myself – Kinect Impressions

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor


Anastasia Salter takes a look at the new XBOX Kinect and the world of mimetic gaming.

ImageIn Back to the Future 2, the nostalgic Café 80s holds an arcade shooter in the corner. Two young boys are inspecting it as Marty walks in. Marty McFly picks up the arcade gun and shows off his skills, but the watching boys scorn his “crack shot” ranking–“You mean you have to use your hands? That’s like a baby’s toy!”

The Kinect was released this Thursday, and it seems Microsoft is touting the controllerless revolution. Much-mocked advertising shows adults in spacious living rooms engaged in the sort of spastic movements that YouTube videos are made of.

Perhaps the greatest lure of Kinect is not for games but for interface design. The hand waving and voice controls hold echoes of Minority Report and Iron Man’s gesture based systems. But of course, we’ve had speech to text for a long time with a low adoption rate. Trying to convince my phone to voice dial usually results in swearing, and the Kinect isn’t much further on the evolutionary spectrum. And there’s another reality, a disconnect between the couch-sitting user and Microsoft’s image of the continually active player. Using a physical interface is more tiring, and while Kinect’s greatest virtue might be in getting even more players off the couch, it certainly doesn’t lend itself to multi-hour game sessions: if this is the future of gaming, it is for one niche market.

The Wii succeeded not merely due to novelty but thanks to elegance: it made use of gestures, and the user still had something to hold on to. A good controller is transparent–it extends what we can do without us having to think too much about it. For instance, as I type this, I’m not thinking about the act of typing, just about the content. Kinect claims to be so natural that there is no adjustment period, your body already knows what to do. This claim, at least, is exaggerated–if nothing else, we are conscious of Kinect precisely for its foreignness.

One of the key gestures for the Kinect, the holding of an arm at a 45 degree angle for a length of time to pause or pull up the options menu, is annoyingly sensitive to movement–without precision, and stillness, it resets and the counter starts all over again. Similar obstacles wait on the Kinect dashboard, a control system that requires the user to hover over options and is still frustrating to manipulate.

There is also self consciousness to overcome: ordering the dance game means finding a time and place where you can dance like no one is watching. But even in the quietest of living rooms someone is watching: the Kinect machine itself. Perhaps the most annoying part of many launch titles is the inclusion of photos of the yourself–in Kinect Adventures, for instance, a camera appears in the corner as an occasional warning that a badly lit and unflattering portrait of you waving your hands like a lunatic is about to be taken. In Dance Central, the occasional “freestyle” section replaces the cute avatar with an unflattering video of the player that is sure to paralyze most self conscious dancers with the realization that they are being taped in their efforts to do Lady Gaga’s dance moves justice. These options can be turned off, but they suggest in their inclusion a market that might not be as interested in having their exercise documented as Microsoft thinks. After all, does anyone really want snapshots of themselves at the gym?

Some of the problems Kinect has at launch, like price and precision, will fade with time. Comparisons to the Playstation’s EyeToy are inevitable and not entirely unwarranted. And as for the spatial requirements: yes, living room gymnastics take space, and this should surprise no one. Ian Bogost, noted games scholar, just posted his thoughts on the problems of the living room as a space for gaming. Certainly, the living room has become a space for stationary actions, and as I tried rearranging the furniture for exergaming, I encountered many problems. But given the choice between fighting to get my coffee table out of the way and finding time to drive to a gym during an aerobics class at my level, I’ll take the table wrestling.

Fundamentally, mimetic interfaces can succeed in making dreams feel more real. With Glee, So You Think You Can Dance, and Dancing with the Stars all still overtaking airwaves, the market for games that make you feel like a dancer is obvious. Only so many people get to be performers, or athletes, or adventurers. But games that offer a full experience can immerse players in a narrative, and the first realm of Kinect games has forgotten that new interfaces have to provide the groundwork for fantasies–not just snippets of interactivity loosely chained together. I’ll definitely be watching for the next round of Kinect games, to see if narrative and interface can blend and if we are working our way towards the distant dream of the Holodeck, but we’re not there yet.