For a moment in time, one of my best friends was my roommate, and we were often the epitome of “opposites attract.” Deep in the first throes of cordless Virtual Reality (VR), we both reveled in Beat Saber, a rhythm-game where players would slash and cut cubes to the beat of a dance song. Watching the two of us play was night and day: I would try to root myself to one place, hands and arms doing the lion’s share of the work, occasionally bobbing my upper body to the rhythm and chopping in-beat; my friend, on the other hand, was a full-body experience, bouncing his entire body, stepping all which way (whether it served the game’s objective or not) and working up a truly disgusting sweat in my headset.
We would lament each other: “You don’t NEED to do those extra moves for points,” I’d argue. He’d snap back, “Maybe you should move around more, MIKE. It’s FUN.” But I’ve thought about it more: we were both still doing well in Beat Saber, we were just doing it differently. The expression of rhythm in the human experience is not monolithic, whether in traditional dance or rhythm games. Now that more and more rhythm games have been released on VR, and especially as I’ve continued with StepMania on my computer, that thought process lines up more and more. I might not have been dancing as much as my friend, but I still danced by my definition: moving to the beat, with the beat, in response to the beat, even in a way some might deride as stiff or stilted. Rhythm as part of music unlocks something deep-seated in the human experience, while rhythm as a game mechanic serves as one of the most effective motivators and difficulty curves I’ve found to date.
Against the Game: Challenge, Improvement, and Design
Both rhythm games and traditional dance call for a degree of skill and practice, but there is one major split: by design, you can do better or worse in a game, whereas dance is largely subjective, cultural, or artistic in nature.
In Dance Dance Revolution (or StepMania, or similar foot-arrow-based rhythm games), the definition of success is multifaceted: beating previous scores (whether your own or others’), feeling confident to move up to a song’s higher difficulty, or simply completing a higher difficulty song.
On the previously-noted Beat Saber, success is measured by: 1.) moving up in difficulty, 2.) recognizing the designed flow of the song’s boxes and how to move fluidly from one to the next as the designers (hopefully) designed for, and 3.) being able to do it all, but faster (20% faster, then 50% faster). More boxes, more points, more movement.
Pistol Whip, a John Wick-style shooting-rhythm game set to club music, similarly defines success by players finding the optimized “route” to deal with all targets (who appear and attack based on a song’s rhythm). Players also score maximum points by attacking both accurately and on the beat. By recognizing the patterns in the music and the stage, players maximize their score. Once they’ve done as well as they feel they can, they can turn up a series of modifications (melee-to-reload, “bullet hell” enemies, etc.) to increase the challenge and their point total.
Lastly, there’s RagnaRock, a drum-based rhythm game set to metal and various rock songs. RagnaRock excels in the score-improvement definition of success, because it’s the only game I’ve encountered that lets you effectively battle yourself in real-time, using your best previous score as a benchmark. Difficulty, flow, and score are all definitions of success, but the way they personify the score element brings a fantastic layer of self-improvement to the challenge.
All of them excel at what they do because of how they’re designed. It’s all simple design, simple gameplay: step on arrows when they rise to the top of the screen, slash the boxes on the beat, shoot the bad guys and avoid their bullets, and crush the runes as they approach your drums. But even deeper, the mere existence of rhythm and music is peak human design.
Whether on a first listen, or repeat listens, music is a pattern. When we listen to music, any music, people look to what’s next: anticipating the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms to come, based on what they know of the song and what they know of music as a whole. We’re able to enjoy these rhythm-based games because we intrinsically recognize the building blocks of music. Even if we don’t know how the game will twist and turn its mechanics at us at first listen, we still know how music works. We can anticipate and plan based on what we understand: chord progressions, tempo, chorus lines, it’s all just prediction from what we know.
Carla Johnson at MusicGateway explains it much better than I:
“The best way to describe rhythm is as a controlled movement of music in time. It may be related to the division of music into regular metric portions, distinguished from pulse, meter and beats of music.
“Rhythm is a pattern of regular or irregular pulses which happen in music from strong and weak melodic and harmonic beats. It is one of the fundamental aspects of music theory. The way music is divided into beats which repeat a specific number of times in a bar at a certain speed/tempo is considered as rhythm.
“In simpler terms, when you listen to music you may feel the urge to move or tap your feet, rhythm is the music component which makes us want to do so.”
Rhythm is designed to be responded to, as far back as ancient rituals, whether by full dance or more passively syncing ourselves up with the beat.
Further, rhythm serves as the backbone for music, whether in a more direct percussive line or beat (found in most of the rhythm-game libraries) or as a more background-serving meter. Johnson also mentions, “Without good rhythm, you will easily get lost in the music and be out of sync.” Dr. Michael Thaut considers similar: “Rhythm is indispensable for music. Whereas rhythm can exist without melody or harmony, melody and harmony cannot exist without rhythm.” As much as it’s the background of music, it only serves to reason that rhythm games catch the traction they have, not simply “music” games.
The mechanics of the game lean into the mechanics of humanity. According to Dr. Andrea Ravignani, “musical rhythm partially arises from the influence of human cognitive and biological biases on the process of cultural evolution.” We, as people, have effectively evolved to recognize and perform distinctive melodies, all across the musical spectra. Even if someone doesn’t listen to club music in Pistol Whip, or the pop music featured in Dance Dance Revolution, there is still a universal quality to all of them that anyone can get behind, whether they enjoy that kind of music or not.
As interactive experiences, there’s a certain degree of consistency that songs need to be enjoyable: in a study by Drs. Andrea Halpern and Daniel Müllensiefen, it was demonstrated that changing the tempo of an unfamiliar piece of music “made implicit tune recognition worse.” This might be a Mike-centric problem, but I hate when a song starts to slow down at the end, or otherwise ramp up at the beginning (looking at you, Everytime We Touch), or worse, play around with that tempo mid-song. To quote Guard from a 2000 cinematic classic, “You’ve thrown off the Emperor’s groove.” For something like Fuser (2020) and the DJ/longform style of music-mixing, the shift in tempo and pitch can work extremely well and effectively: guiding an audience’s emotional state, transitioning into periods of calm and excitement, and generally reading the room. But for an experience contained one song at a time, the shifts can feel abrupt and jarring, no matter how many times you listen and try to play along with it.
Therefore, according to a joint study by Dr. Jessica Grahn, Daniel Levitin, and Justin London, tempo plays a role in emotional interpretation. Even across cultures, slower tempos are associated with sadness or reflection, and faster tempos are associated with activity and happiness. It is, as the most stubborn among us say, just the way it is. Multiple studies have even confirmed that people as young as five years old make the same association: fast music is happy, slow is sad. Mostly, songs in rhythm games adhere to a sense of consistency, but when they don’t, even for a moment, it can be confusing, and enough to “throw off [your] groove.”
All of this has, so far, been in the traditional vein of music: auditory. We hear music, we hear the rhythm. But, in a different study by Dr. Grahn, it’s suggested that a sense of beat (under certain circumstances) can be extracted visually, as well. In our myriad rhythm games, sometimes that’s established by whatever game elements are approaching at what frequency (boxes in Beat Saber, enemies in Pistol Whip, or runes in RagnaRock). But for just a moment in its songs, I think DDR does it the best. Imagine a metronome that wouldn’t “tick” when it reached the height of its swing the first few times. Could you get that rhythm in your head without the sound? DDR pulses the main arrows at the top of the screen in tempo with the song’s rhythm, even if that song doesn’t kick off for another couple seconds. It gives the player the chance to sync their body with the song before it starts, get their body in the groove, and be prepared for the oncoming flood of arrows in the absence of a musical cold open.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Through a game’s mechanics and design, rhythm can be perceived primarily through sound (audibly), and then through sight (visually), but also by touch or sensation (haptically), or otherwise through proprioceptive (physical awareness) and vestibular (spatial awareness) systems. Pistol Whip is the most prominent example, having the option to pulse the beat of the music into the player’s controllers. Again, to maximize score, players must be both accurate and on the beat. These are novel elements on establishing rhythm, but beat, induced visually, is second only to a beat induced audibly.
Rhythm is the spine that makes up all music. When made prominent and given a way to “play” by the rhythm, these games tap into something we all know, even if we can’t verbalize it. By introducing accessible, and scaling mechanics, players of all abilities (and ability potentials) can rise to the challenge and find an appreciation for the rhythm where they are most able and comfortable…or where they want to be next.
Against the Self: Sweat and the Act of Rhythm
Moving is exhausting. Some of us are capable of more movement, some less. Some are excited to learn and train to move more; others, completely content with whatever their activity level is. Rhythm games simultaneously meet players where they’re, difficulty-wise, challenge players to make the most of where they’re at, and give players every ability to advance past what they thought they were capable of before.
Rhythm begets movement, from the smallest tap of a foot or finger up to full body jumping. This entire experience, small or large, begins with entrainment: “the process by which independent rhythmical systems interact with each other,” or “when our bodily movements lock in to and synchronize with music.” In the cases I’m going on about, it’s the musical source (the game) and the player syncing up, both in preparation for play and during play.
While we may only feel our bodies bobbing before the arrows start flying up, our bodies are also instinctively syncing up: heartbeats and breathing rates ramp up to meet the beat. This entrainment is that much more effective the more pleasant-sounding or subjectively enjoyable the music is: “consonant music may establish a sustained pleasant emotional state, in which attention is globally broadened and readiness to react is heightened.” Doing so helps to influence beat perception and timing accuracy (helpful elements in rhythm games); tapping along to those rhythms even makes more complex rhythms easier to sync up to, in both musicians and non-musicians.
A core element of entrainment to a beat “involves accurate predication of upcoming events.” Music and rhythm are all patterns, made most enjoyable when they adhere to those patterns throughout its run. So, by that whole train of logic, rhythm games are perfect for both catalyzing and experiencing entrainment. Just listen to any of their base playlists and compilations; you can hear it. When we sync up our bodies to music, it’s argued that we’re more invested in it, listening and performing more effectively than we would otherwise. Interestingly, the syncing and movement to music is hardwired to the human experience, seemingly emerging on its own from a very young age. We are wired to move and respond to music and rhythm, and rhythm games serve to amplify that effect, albeit with more structure than free-form or full-body dancing might.
Rhythm games might have an inherent “in” for movement: if players don’t move in beat, they run the risk of a failure/ “Game Over” state, or otherwise a lower score. Given the track selection across the games, it’s not hard; dance music, club music, all the way to high-percussion Viking metal, it’s all high-energy and easy to rhythmically entrain people. But here, I want to revisit my friend, who would bounce and bob and dance even when the game wouldn’t call for it. Might be he was just excitable, or keeping focused in his own way, but it might be that he was also grooving. Scientifically grooving, not just “grooving” all willy-nilly.
According to Levitin & co., the feeling “when the music compels you to move along with it,” more than just tapping toes or fingers, “is the essence of groove.” They continue, regarding a separate study, that participants moved “in the groove” more with high-groove stimuli. Specifically, as though calling out my friend, the study “predicted that high-groove music would elicit more spontaneous movement (emphasis mine) behavior [when told not to perform tapping conditions].” Beat strength and pulse strength (the power of the rhythm) correlate with high groove strength and groove levels (which sounds wild to type out), correlate further with “robust sensorimotor entrainment,” which I can only read as “ascendant dance moves.”
Levitin & co. hit it one more time: “movement — whether observed, felt, or both — can affect the perception of beats, as well as their metric organization.” Movement helps us find our rhythm, keep our rhythm, and maximize our connection to the rhythm. Movement maximizes how much we connect to, vibe with, or groove to the music…as much as I hate to give my friend that much credit. But I still have the high scores in Beat Saber, and that’s really all that matters.
As long as movement is required to play the games, movement will be had, whether in jumping between arrows or flailing through boxes, and it will be as physically challenging as will be dexterously. Rhythm games are no stranger to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow-state: by engaging people where their skill threshold is at (not above or below), an experience maximizes the flow-state, increasing immersion in the activity.
I’ve felt it personally, completely zoning into the music as my feet fly around seemingly independent of my brain, or letting the rhythm guide me through an intense drum solo; flow can manifest, in these kinds of games, by fully giving control to our bodies and, even for just a little while, putting our brains in the back seat.
With their myriad difficulties and various skill ceilings, rhythm games excel at helping players find their state of flow based on where they’re at, and maximizing movement (and sweat) as a result of what they’re capable of. With increased challenge comes increased movement, comes increased connection to the rhythm itself. Of course, that still leaves you with a sweat-saturated VR headset if you get too into it…but it’s worth it! Science!
Against the World: Comfort, Flow, and the Beat
Every day can feel like a fight just to get to the end of it, and that’s a terrible way to live. But when we, rebels that we are, make time for ourselves, we shine a little light on our piece of the world. Through our hobbies, through the people we choose to be around, through art, we are made more whole. And boy golly howdy do rhythm games help to bridge that gap.
Music has always been about a connection, whether to ourselves or to our communities. We synchronize with the world around us (music) or to those around us (people) through rhythm. People crave synchronization, even if it all boils down to “Primal Monkey Brain likes Groupthink.”
Who doesn’t love a good hit of dopamine? That good, good goo that makes us feel happy when we do good things for ourselves, perpetuate our survival, or listen to music? According to science, that music-related dopamine hit is the strongest during music’s emotional peak, resulting in “chills,” a sense of excitement and awe that manifests physically as much as it does emotionally. Even in the most concentrated sense of flow, we’re still taking in music, syncing up to it, becoming as close to it as possible.
Groove, as an actionable concept, is the pleasant compulsion to move with music; it’s not aimless flailing brought about by the simple joy of music, but (from Levitin & co.) a hyperawareness “of the way that our bodies are moving with the music.” A moment, or a time, when we’re not fixated on how much “better,” subjectively-speaking, we could be doing, we’re simply there. We’re in the moment, just existing, just vibing.
In rhythm games, it all comes back to flow: find that sweet spot of challenge and ability, and you ride the natural high of rhythm throughout the song. Small mechanics serve to encourage people towards that sense of flow: do poorly in a song, maybe you hear auditory spikes or “bad noises,” or an announcer starts bemoaning your faltering dance moves. But you do well, then there’s applause, there’s cheering from the announcer, there’s simply more music. The closer a player rides to their flow state, the easier they can jump back into the rhythm after missing a beat. Their feet start to move instinctively to the arrows and the beat. They see the path their arms need to take to hit the cubes in rhythm. They let their body take them on a drum solo. They accept the flow, and for a moment, there is true peace as we align with a pulse in the universe.
The world demands, by circumstances largely out of our control, that we be miserable, complacent, and sad. Rhythm games, and music as a whole, give us an out, even for just a moment.
“You are the perfect dance machine!”
Rhythm games are, at the end of the day, still games. There are skill levels, there are quantifiable ways to identify “being good,” there are scores. But like many other games, they can be, they are, so much more. Where other games are also thematic stories, or artistic experiments, or simulations of real-world systems, or fonts of serenity, or anxiety, or anything in-between…rhythm games are a way to connect us to the world around us. They’re a meticulously-designed challenge, made to engage across a wide spectrum. They’re a scaling challenge for ourselves, always pushing us to be better and improve in ways that video games often don’t compel players to do. They’re a path, even with a thumping bass or a heavy drumline, to find a certain tranquility in a loud, loud world.
They are a gateway to an underlying rhythm in the world that you don’t realize you’ve been ignoring. And once you hear the beat and let it in, you’re hard-pressed to let it fade again.
All Pistol Whip, Beat Saber, and RagnaRock images courtesy of respective Steam pages.