08/31/2001 - Updated 11:29 AM ET

Game fanatics say they want a 'Revolution'

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO Reports have yet to trickle in from Hades about Lucifer's lair freezing over. But what else could explain the staggering scene playing out at the Sony Metreon's video game arcade? A dozen kids cluster around a machine as two contestants prepare for battle. The onlookers have the triple-espresso fidget of antsy boxing fans; the duelists squat, flex and shuffle like two flyweights. The video game begins, yet no one here has that glazed-over Night of the Living Dead look that plagues teens the world over when they mainline a joystick-and-monitor fix. In fact, with contestants and audience both hopping around as if stepping on hot coals, there is more sweat being shed than in a steam bath.

Video It's a Dance Dance Revolution

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"I used to just sit there staring at a screen," says reformed video-game couch potato Samantha Valdez, 15. "Then my dad had me try this. And I am hooked."

Her new drug of choice: Dance Dance Revolution, or, as those in the know call it, DDR.

It works like this: As a generic Japanese techno-meets-bubblegum-pop dance tune thumps over the machine's sound system, players watch a pattern of arrows (north, south, east, west) scroll down a screen. The goal is to step on the corresponding dance floor arrow as it lights up on the downbeat beneath you. A bit like Twister, if you spun that plastic dial four times a second.

Depending on the arcade, each trip to this dance floor can range from less than a dollar to a pricey $2.50. But cost means little to DDR addicts, who as a group defy definition. Here at the Airtight Garage video arcade, part of the massive Metreon entertainment complex, the crowd includes whites, Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans from preteens to adults. And while high school boys may be the staple DDR hoofer, girls are known to tear it up, too.

A monster hit in Japan since 1998, DDR hit California's shores a year later. But only now is the game coming into its own here, as Web sites spread the gospel and trumpet tournaments everywhere from Lynchburg, Va., to Austin, Texas, to Antioch, Calif.

When ddrfreak.com expanded its focus from northern California to the nation last spring, the fan site saw its monthly page views triple to a million. "Every time I think this will end, another machine pops up somewhere," says site co-founder Jason Ko, 22, a software engineer from Mountain View, Calif.

By his site's count, there are 620 arcades nationwide with at least one DDR machine; California tops the list with 218 locations, while Texas (37) and New York (23) follow. Seven states and the nation's capital have yet to capitulate to the craze.

In DDR chat rooms, many players refer to the "DDR diet," for the game's ability to double as a hip StairMaster. "The success of DDR proves that people are sick and tired of passive types of games," says Jason Enos, product manager at Konami, the Japanese company behind DDR. "Parents have always complained about their kids coming home from school, grabbing a Twinkie and hitting the video game for three hours. No more."

While DDR may not spell the end of armchair video warriors, it is causing trend watchers to ponder the resurgence of the old-time arcade, where a premium was put on the interaction between gamer and audience, says John Sellers, author of Arcade Fever: The Fan's Guide to the Golden Age of Video Games.

"When I was a kid, I loved to go to the arcade, beat a friend at Pac-Man and revel in the crowd reaction," Sellers says. "Then came all those years of vegging out on the couch. Now maybe there's a game to cure that disease."

Dave & Buster's, a restaurant and arcade chain targeting adults, has added a DDR machine at each of its 29 locations nationwide. Says cofounder Dave Corriveau: "The trend is definitely toward participation and games that make you sweat. Besides, who doesn't want to see a friend make a fool of themselves?"

If you're a bit shy about hopping on a DDR machine without any practice (the fear is warranted; neophytes risk serious bruises to the ego), there is a home version made by Konami for Sony's PlayStation 2. A new preteen edition featuring remixed Disney songs (imagine a techno version of It's a Small World) bows Sept. 18.

But home is for practice. Serious players head for the arcade.

Despite its name, heavy DDR use does not guarantee one the glorious glide of Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. In fact, most players confess to having two permanent left feet. "I'm actually a really bad dancer," says Erin Lavelle, 19, of Fox Lake, Ill., who routinely drives 45 minutes to the nearest DDR machine. She spent much of a recent visit to San Francisco at the Metreon, proudly displaying a T-shirt covered with DDR arrows. "But when I'm on this dance floor, I hear people say 'Wow!' It feels good."

That comment is typical. DDR players like the challenge of winning a crowd's affection, proof that, given the right motivation, kids will put down the home video controls, head to a harmless social setting and (horrors!) interact face-to-face.

"My friends are all complaining that I'm never on e-mail anymore," says Zach Daily, 19, of Concord, Va. Now that he's offline and dancing, Daily actually has improved his fitness for soccer. "I've been 145 pounds my whole life, and now I'm 135, and I don't have 10 pounds to lose. I check out all the buffets I can."

In fact, a good number of DDR players have lost weight improving their game. Eric Kjellman, 24, of San Jose, Calif., stomped his way down from 380 to 250 pounds. Todd Brown, 25, dropped 35 pounds but got tired of hunting down DDR machines, his exercise equipment of choice. So he recently bought a used arcade version on eBay for $5,000.

"There aren't many things that keep me active, but this does," says the blackjack dealer from Prior Lake, Minn., who posted a message on ddrfreak.com urging any experts in the region to drop by his home. "I just close the door to my garage and go at it. I don't dance and I have no style. It's a workout."

Dave Henkin, 24, of Austin, Texas, has been playing for a year, lost 60 pounds ("my sister didn't recognize me") and figures he has spent a few thousand dollars pumping tokens into DDR machines.

Henkin could soon shell out more money as other interactive video games tearing up Japan make their way across the Pacific. Dubbed Bemani games (for "beat mania"), they include contests that involve strumming guitars, beating drums and playing keyboards. Konami, which makes most of Japan's top Bemani games, is considering bringing Guitar Freaks stateside next. But right now, DDR reigns.

At the Metreon, all eyes are on two machines, DDR 1.5 and DDR USA. (While we have two editions, each featuring different songs, Japan has six.) True players shun USA. "The songs are wimpy," says four-time DDR tournament champion Cesar Aldea, 30, who out here goes by the nickname DJ 8-Ball.

Aldea is tops in DDR freestyle, in which players must hit enough flashing arrows to advance to the next song but are scored mainly on their moves and style. The other category is called "perfect," in which dancers win solely based on the number of times they match a series of steps.

Watching Aldea shake, rattle and roll his limber frame while popping the balls of his feet onto 6-inch squares just as they light up and they light up like a paparazzi flashstorm at his level of play is enough to have DDR petitioned as a new Olympic sport. If this is a video game, then sky diving is just a humble alternative to a jetway.

The crowd is swelling. Moms pushing strollers stop and stare; a tourist with a video camera can't stop filming. A few feet away, a kid is posting a dazzling run on a car-chase video game called Rush 2049. And no one could care less.

"You are a perfect dancing machine!" says the mechanical male voice of the DDR 1.5 machine, as Derrick Ingram, 19, steps off the platform to an excited murmur.

Nearby, Zoila Acosta, 20, tracks Ingram with her eyes. She's a player; in fact, her outfit consists of huge arrows sewn onto her jeans and white T-shirt, her way of recycling her DDR home game after the floor panels broke from excessive practice.

"When I first got on the machine a year ago, I looked like a fool," she says. "But I kept at it. I prefer this to going to the gym."

Acosta pops on her backpack and wanders over to Ingram, sweat pouring off his wrestler's shoulders. A few minutes later, they're still talking, he miming DDR moves, she trying to copy them. Then they're up on the side-by-side platforms of DDR 1.5, bopping in time.

Dance Dance Revolution won't make you rich, brilliant or president. But anyone still clinging to their joysticks should answer this question: When's the last time a video game got you a date?

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