It’s a little weird watching Nathan Drake twerk. When you’ve come to know a character as a treasure hunter who travels across the globe and guns down thousands of people, it seems uncharacteristic to see his booty pop. That’s the strange thing about when characters bust a move. We grow so accustomed to the usual verbs associated with games—run, jump, climb—that when dance becomes a part of their actions, it looks hilariously wrong. No matter how good the animation, Han Solo dancing to a song about himself will always be uncomfortably funny. Luigi dabbing, even more so.
Despite the uncanny feeling when watching humanoid objects perform human tasks, dance has been a usual component in games, even ones that aren’t about rhythm or music at all. The way games like Destiny or World of Warcraft borrow popular dance moves like M.C. Hammer’s shuffle and Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. These are small components to games that can become incredibly significant. It’s one of the ways Black culture finds its way into games. Black protagonists may still be a rarity in games, but Black culture surely isn’t.
Floor Kids is a simple rhythm game about breaking, a type of dance that consists mostly of intricate floorwork and powerful moves. It’s a great game for people who want to relax, listen to some hip-hop, and watch their character perform for an excited audience. The best thing about the game is its sense of magic. It refers to dancers as warriors, bound on their quest to be the best dancer in the city. The player is “armed with formidable dance skills” that must be trained to fully work. Whereas dancing is sometimes used for comedic relief, Floor Kids shows the art of movement. The game’s art style makes each dancer look like a whirlwind of lines. It’s cartoonish, but its depiction of breaking is intricate. It’s part of a tradition of Black dance influencing mainstream culture that stretches back for decades.
Before shows like So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew revived the mainstream’s love for street dancing, before dancers could gain millions of followers on video-sharing platforms like YouTube, breaking found its popularity in Brooklyn in the ‘70s. Black and Latino dancers gathered in the streets, dancing and battling with dance crews. Breaking, as well as other hip-hop dances like popping or roboting, soon started to take over in the streets of New York and California. Popular movies like Beat Street and Breakin’ brought breaking to mainstream media, where it soon earned a worldwide following. In a matter of years, breaking and hip-hop dance could be seen all over the world.
Dance has spread so far across the globe that it’s now found its place in the digital world. In fact, breaking games used to be pretty common in the ‘80s when breaking first found its way into massive popularity. Break Dance and Break Street, both for the Commodore 64, were two early breaking rhythm games that introduced the art of breaking to videogames. Newer titles like The Hip-Hop Dance Experience and Just Dance brought dancing into the modern era, though neither title focuses solely on breaking. Floor Kids is the first videogame in a long time to show what it takes to be a b-girl.
The game emphasizes freedom and creativity through dance. I spent little time thinking about the buttons I was pressing. Whereas other games tell the player exactly which move to perform and when, Floor Kids lets the player decide what moves to execute. There’s no reason to overthink your steps, there’s not even much punishment for any mistakes. It’s really a game that wants to show off the slick moves of the dance crew. I watched my player hop up, left and right before moving to downrock, or floorwork, where she spun and froze, causing the crowd to roar in excitement. I feel more like a part of the crowd than the controller, in awe of the dancer’s footwork and powerful moves.
Floor Kids purposefully instills that sense of awe in the player, portraying Black culture in a powerful and respectful light. How common is it for Black culture to be feared but not respected? I think, very, very slowly, the world increasingly recognizes Black culture as what it is: beautiful. It took a few Kanye outbursts, and a few Black artists to refuse to submit their albums up for nomination before the Grammys finally acknowledged that hip-hop and R&B deserve more recognition. Black dance also deserves more respect, and games like Floor Kids are helping out.
Black dance’s permeation of popular culture can be found in one of the biggest games of today, a game set in space that has no reason to highlight breaking. Dancing is a large part of Destiny’s social dynamic. One of the ways to communicate to other players in the game is through emotes. The most popular ones are dances. In fact, dancing became to integral to the game that Bungie, the game’s developer, added microtransactions to allow players to buy more dance moves.
Back in September, PlayStation Japan released a trailer for Destiny 2. The trailer didn’t have much gunplay, which is the main premise of Destiny. Instead, it was a live-action dance battle between the characters, until eventually they all start to dance together. Black culture played a huge role in the commercial, which featured plenty of breaking, popping, moonwalking, and tons of funky styles that came from Black and Latino youth. Instead of marketing the game with its guns and action, it highlighted what those kids developed in Brooklyn over 40 years ago.
What started in the streets has evolved worldwide. Where language may not connect two people together, dance does. It’s something we all feel, from a small side-step to the acrobatic flare. We should all dance, and our videogame characters should too! But we should also respect the people that gave us that dance to begin with, and that’s something games culture is still trying to figure out.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.