Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Connect: Online Avatar Dancing

I've just started Musicophilia, by Dr. Oliver Sacks (author of several great books I have read), and so want to present a first-draft section I have on dancing, specifically why so many people are all about dancing avatars, videos of dancing avatars, and why we like dancing in general.

The footnotes are a bit unclear, but at least Scrivener did the copy (of copy and paste fame) well and automatically included them at the end, in a nice list format. I'll add some title information.

Dancing (draft), from Connect.

Dancing is a big thing on the Internet, especially YouTube, where you can find real dancing (like the music videos MTV used to show), and seemingly pointless but occasionally funny videos of avatars dancing in MMOs like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and There.com. People like dancing so much that MMO companies have built dance moves into the capabilities for avatars. It certainly doesn’t help your level 7 elf battle orcs, but that’s what people wanted.

Not everyone is into online dancing, as the Reuters in-world employee, Eric Krangel, found out. “As part of walking my ‘beat’, I’d get invited by sources to virtual nightclubs, where I’d right-click the dance floor to send my avatar gyrating as I sat at home at my computer. It was about as fun as watching paint dry.”[1] The problem is Krangel wasn’t there for the dancing and the music and the text-chatting. He wasn’t a part of the community that likes that kind of activity. He was there as a Reuters employee to sell the Reuters brand. He could have gotten into it, but that he didn’t isn’t a big surprise.

Dance is a form of ritual, a concept that receives attention from researchers, and as a form of shared and coordinated play it can lead to community bonds. It is a very old human behavior. As psychology researcher Fitch observed, “music and dance are found in all cultures, and have been for many thousands of years.”[2] Lee, writing about the history of ballet, pointed out that, “Throughout the ages, a wealth of documentation in the form of cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphics, description of ancient Olympic games, and Old Testament references have attested to the importance of dancing in society.”[3] Garfinkel, writing about early human dancing, cited evidence for dance in the Middle East and Europe as far back as the 8th millennium BC.[4]

Although we have a lot in common with our fellow mammals and primates, McNeill observed that “community dancing occurs only among humans.”[5] In further contrast to other animals who have behaviors that we refer to as dancing (like bees), humans dance in groups in a synchronized manner to music, which other animals don’t have, and music is “fundamental and central in every culture” writes Dr. Oliver Sacks in his book on music and the human brain.[6] In fact, dancing and music are tightly related in our brains. As Berkeley professor Walter Freeman explained, “music together with dance have co-evolved biologically and culturally to serve as a technology of social bonding.”[7] A shared ritual that fosters community, the two are “the biotechnology of group formation.”[8] The current English word play is related to an older and similar Old English word, but, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, it is also related to the Middle Dutch word pleien, which, perhaps not surprisingly, can mean dance.[9]

Dance is a form of communal play, and is clearly an important part of who we are. Knowing this, we should not be surprised to find it online in some situations where it seems to have no point for the virtual world, as indeed we do.

[1] Neate (2009). ("The biology and evolution of music", in Cognition, v. 100)
[2] Fitch (2006), p. 199. (In The Telegraph.co.uk)
[3] Lee (2002), p. 1. (Ballet in Western culture)
[4] Garfinkel (2003), p. 106. (Dancing at the dawn of agriculture)
[5] McNeill (1995), p. 13. (Keeping together in time)
[6] Sacks (2007), p. xi. (Musicophelia)
[7] Freeman (2000), p. 411. (In The origins of music, by Wallin, Merkur, and Brown)
[8] Freeman (2000), p. 417.
[9] See also Huizinga (1955), p. 31, for more on play and dance. (Homo ludens)