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Harmonix dev: Dance Central's gender-inclusiveness made it a better game

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Gender-inclusive game design made the Dance Central series a more fun and joyful experience for players, according to Harmonix game designer Matt Boch.

Speaking at the Queerness and Games Conference at the University of California, Berkeley this weekend, Boch — who is currently the creative director on Fantasia: Music Evolved — said that he pushed for Harmonix to have gender-inclusive dance routines in Dance Central because it would result in a better game.

According to Boch, during the early stages of Dance Central's development, many of the decision-makers at Harmonix were uncomfortable with seeing male avatars dancing in stereotypically feminine ways. They believed that it could potentially alienate players, and some also objected to motion-capturing female dancers for male avatars and vice versa because of issues like hip ratios. In their resistance, they suggested having gender-specific dance routines for certain songs.

"When you're seeing your friends acting in ways you don't expect them to act, that's awesome."

Believing that this was not the best approach for the game, Boch collected all kinds of data to make an argument for gender-inclusive dance routines. He found examples of male musicians like Michael Jackson, Prince and David Bowie who had diverse gender performances and were still compelling and popular stars. He argued that gender is a performance anyway — we already perform a gender daily — so what is the issue with performing a gender in a dance game? And the icing on the cake was when he motion-captured a professional male dancer performing in a stereotypically feminine way, and no one could tell the gender of the dancer when they watched the avatar's performance.

Boch said that he knows it wasn't his responsibility to change people's minds at Harmonix, but the reason he pushed for the studio to consider a different perspective was because he wanted to ship something that was important to him. And the game was better for it.

"I think the impact on the player experience is the game is more fun," he said. "I think if you look at some of the routines we created later on with the DLC, we started to aggressively play with exceptionally-coded male performances and exceptionally-coded female performances all in the same song, going from one move to the next.

"If you look at a song like Lapdance by N.E.R.D, all the verses have really tough choreography, but when the chorus comes in and they sing, 'Ooooh baby you want me,' it snaps into a completely feminine performance. That is really joyful. And when you see people have that experience, it makes the game more enjoyable. When you're seeing your friends acting in ways you don't expect them to act, that's awesome."