It’s a cold Friday afternoon on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. Classes are finished for the week, and five students gather in a dorm suite to kick off their weekend right. There are no beer bottles in sight — only a big-screen TV with two rubber footpads placed in front of it.
David Frank and Greg Regan slide off the couch and step onto the square footpads, each emblazoned with forward, backward, left and right arrows. They fixate intently on the TV and wait for the music to start.
The teens are about to embark on what likely could be a four- to five-hour binge of Dance Dance Revolution.
Think of the game, imported from Japan by Konami Corp., as karaoke for the feet.
To play the game, participants must stomp the appropriate arrows on their footpads in time to dance steps indicated by corresponding arrows that run across a screen in front of them. The first level starts slowly and deliberately, much like an inexperienced dancer learning steps for the first time. Soon, however, the levels advance to complex sequences and frenzied trance tunes that leave players panting.
The interactive dance game came to the states via California around 2000 and spread through arcades on the West Coast. It soon made its way across the country, building communities of hard-core gamers who held DDR tournaments at local arcades and worshipped the Japanese “DDR gods” whose legendary, er, feats were extolled on the DDR grapevine.
More recently, the game has spread from arcades to homes via Xbox, PlayStation, Game Cube and online versions. The mainstream crossover has made DDR more accessible to those who are not veterans of the gaming world and more affordable for serious gamers tired of paying $1 a game at an arcade.
Back in the dorm living room, techno music pumps through the speakers, and the TV lights up with multicolored arrows that run from the bottom to the top of the screen. As they watch the arrows on the TV, Mr. Frank and Mr. Regan must stomp on the corresponding arrows on their footpads, all in time to the beat.
As the music gets faster, the arrows start scrolling feverishly up the screen, and the young men’s feet fly into a frenzied dance to hit all the arrows as if they’re playing the “stomp the gator” arcade game.
Minutes later, the competition is over. Mr. Frank, 18, has won — as usual. His side of the TV screen lights up with an “A” grade while Mr. Regan, 19, stares dismally at his “F.”
DDR is a highly competitive multilevel game. Players spend hours perfecting their techniques and coordination to hit all of the desired arrows on time, only to find a player who can do the same thing on a higher level.
The sense of competition breeds community, players say. Several Web sites, such as www.ddrfreak.com, give players tips on beating certain songs and host online forums to let players get in touch with others in their area. DDR tournaments and even DDR conventions are held at area arcades.
Brian Gilreath, the best player in the dorm room, says he has competed in several area tournaments. Mr. Gilreath, 20, says when he first encountered the game during his senior year of high school, he thought it was “pretty whack.”
“I was like, ‘What is this, it looks stupid,’” he says.
Once he tried DDR, though, he got hooked. He purchased the game for home and practiced in secret. Then he began going to arcades to practice on the real deal — home pads usually are cheaper and made of plastic, but arcade pads are metal and come with a bar behind the pad that players can use to prop themselves for stability.
Soon, Mr. Gilreath would draw a crowd every time he stepped onto the pads. He says the excitement of having an audience and the desire to improve keep him motivated.
DDR has been popular for years, but recently it has reached new audiences because of its expansion to at-home use. Before, the primary participants were teens and young adults who frequented arcades, but now the whole family can try the game.
Cynthia Tenicela, known affectionately among DDR aficionados as “DDR Mom,” has been playing for more than three years. Three of her children also play and compete in DDR tournaments.
Mrs. Tenicela says she has attended more than 20 tournaments in the Middle Atlantic area with her children.
“When people get it at home, I see younger brothers and sisters playing it,” she says. “Parents are trying it. It used to be people who were already gamers playing DDR, but now it’s more of a crossover.”
Mrs. Tenicela, who has a tattoo of four arrows on her left wrist — a Mother’s Day gift from one of her daughters — says part of the allure of DDR is that it lets participants be active without feeling like actual exercise.
“Because it’s so much fun you don’t think of it as a workout,” she says.
Yet DDR, especially at high level, can make players sweat. Some even have turned to DDR to lose weight.
Mrs. Tenicela, who works as a special education aide, says she helped the West Virginia school system develop a pilot program to put DDR games in the homes of overweight youngsters. “If you have it at home, you can just play whenever,” she says. “You don’t have to go to the gym.”
For serious gamers, though, everything is tangential except competition and self-improvement.
“I could play the same song 30 times and not get bored with it because you can never get perfect,” says Rob Coffman, 18, as he watches Mr. Regan and Mr. Frank compete.
As it turns out, however, some players have gotten perfect. Players began improving at such a fast pace that some started “topping out,” meaning they could beat all of the DDR levels. That trend was halted with the introduction of In the Groove, a trickier version of DDR that comes with options such as diagonal arrows, spinning arrows and moves that make players hit as many as four arrows at a time with their hands and feet.
The University of Maryland’s arcade, called TerpZone, has an In the Groove machine. The boys play In the Groove in their dorm but say the game is better played at an arcade because the pads are more secure and the back rail keeps players steady.
The students head over to TerpZone, where they immediately encounter a group of familiar players. “When you play this, you form a community,” Mr. Frank says.
The community helps keep players motivated, Mr. Coffman says. “Playing with someone better than you ups your game, and the fact that there’s a community makes it more fun,” he says.
“Every toy store, every Best Buy, all the video stores have DDR and the dance pads,” Mrs. Tenicela says. “There’s a whole underground community of kids who have never been to an arcade and who play at home.”