June 15, 2020

Rhythm & exercise video games surge during restless and manic phases, crash during vulnerable phase, of excitement cycle

I haven't looked at video games within the framework of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, since the last time I regularly played contemporary games was Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and Street Fighter / Mortal Kombat in the arcades. I do try to keep up somewhat with what's going on, out of curiosity, but even there I stopped paying attention around 2015. So, I generally don't have enough fine-grained knowledge to write about how the excitement cycle is reflected in that domain of pop culture.

There is one exception, though -- video games based on rhythm and exercising. Those are straightforward adaptations of real-life physical activities, so their popularity should mirror the popularity of the real activities.

Specifically, they should be least popular during a vulnerable phase, when people's energy levels are in a refractory state. They should catch on during the following restless warm-up phase, when energy levels are back to baseline and people want to do simple exercises to get back into the swing of things, especially if it involves a social setting where they can mix it up with others rather than continue hiding under a pile of blankets. And they should last into the following manic phase, even if they won't be quite so popular because they've already gotten used to the simple-step exercises and now want something more physically demanding, if anything.

What do you know, that's exactly the pattern of popularity across several cycles. And unlike other genres, these two were both highly popular with females as well as males, and were often played in social groups, even in public places.

* * *

The rhythm game genre first hit it big during the manic phase of the late '90s with PaRappa the Rapper and more importantly Dance Dance Revolution, which involves moving your feet onto various positions of a pressure-sensitive dance mat according to the timed sequence of moves shown on the screen, as music blares in the background.

During the vulnerable phase of the early 2000s, the genre nearly vanished. Only two titles are even remotely familiar to a non-gamer like me -- Donkey Konga and Samba de Amigo, which use special percussion controllers. Neither was a mega-hit like Dance Dance Revolution, though. The DDR series itself saw only a couple releases during this five-year phase. Everyone was in too emo of a mood, and their energy levels were negative.

Then all of a sudden in 2005, when the restless warm-up phase began, a mass phenomenon of rhythm games took over the video game world, lasting through the final year of the phase in 2009. Most notable were the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series, which used all manner of special controllers shaped and played like real guitars, drums, and so on. The games test the player's rhythm by having them press various buttons, use the whammy bar, etc., according to the timed sequence on the screen, as the song plays.

Dance games also saw a revival with the Just Dance series in 2009, not to mention a flood of releases from the DDR series.

These instrumental games were so popular that you could find groups of people playing them together in public nightlife places like bars. They weren't just for teenagers playing with a group of friends inside their home.

As the manic phase began in 2010, the instrumental rhythm games were still popular, although less so than during their restless phase peak. The dance games became more popular, as the Dance Central series joined Just Dance in 2010 (plus more DDR games). Perhaps people had become comfortable with simpler rhythmic activities only involving the hands, like Guitar Hero, and wanted to move onto whole-body rhythms now.

However, when energy levels began crashing in 2015 with the arrival of the vulnerable phase, the rhythm genre nearly vanished again, as in the early 2000s. In 2015, the last major installments in both the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series were flops, and they haven't bothered with either series since.

Similarly, Just Dance stopped receiving numbered titles after 4 in 2012, and stopped receiving new system titles after the one for Wii U in 2014. The Nintendo Switch system came out in 2017, but did not get a dedicated "Just Dance Switch". Now they're just yearly updates with more topical songs. The Dance Central series did not last into the vulnerable phase at all -- its four games were released from 2010-'14, entirely within the manic phase. (In 2019, they did make another for a virtual reality system that no one owns.) And the DDR series only saw a couple releases, just like during the early 2000s.

Now that the restless warm-up phase has begun again in 2020, this genre is ripe for revival. TikTok has already shown the (re-)emergence of dance fever, and the rhythm genre hit its peak in mobile games during the last restless phase (the Tap Tap series of the late 2000s). As for home consoles, I have no idea whether kids born after 2004 (and who have no experience with the last wave of instrumental games) would go for the physical instrument approach. But why wouldn't they? And the older Millennials could fuel their late 2000s nostalgia by having mock instruments to play along with -- akin to the nostalgic fitness craze of "adult kickball" in the late 2000s among late 20-somethings.

* * *

Exercise games show the same pattern over time. The Power Pad for the original Nintendo (late '80s vulnerable phase), and the only game anyone played with it, World Class Track Meet, are not exercise games because they don't involve sustained activity. It was not a hit in any case, but I did know one friend who had it. It was basically 10 seconds of furious running in place on the pressure-sensitive mat, then the event was over; repeat a few more times, then turn the game off. Not much exercise. And there was no rhythm to the motions, so it was not a rhythm game either.

Dance is a kind of exercise, so Dance Dance Revolution also made the exercise genre popular during the late '90s manic phase.

Then nothing during the early 2000s vulnerable phase, when energy levels plummeted into a refractory state.

It wasn't until 2005 -- when else? -- that the genre came back to life, with EyeToy: Kinetic. The motion-sensitive camera used for the game had already been released in 2003, so why didn't they do the obvious and make a fitness game for it at launch? Because people didn't feel like exercising in '03 and '04, being mired in a refractory state. Suddenly in 2005, their energy levels were back to baseline, and they felt like moving around more.

By far the most popular examples of the genre, though, were from the Nintendo Wii, whose pack-in game was Wii Sports that had players using motion-sensitive controllers to simulate tennis and other sports. The Wii Fit from 2007 included its own balance board to track the player's center of gravity, and became one of the best-selling games not to be included with a console. Its sequel in 2009, Wii Fit Plus, was also a mega-hit.

The genre lasted through the early 2010s manic phase, albeit to a lesser extent than before (Wii Fit U; Nike+ Kinect Training; Zombies, Run!). People had become used to simple exercises, and felt successfully awakened from their early 2000s hibernation.

By the time the next vulnerable phase struck from 2015-'19, the whole motion-sensitive mode of play was over. Energy levels crashed into a refractory state all over again, and people went back into hibernation for the first time in 15 years.

But as with the rhythm games, now that 2020 has seen the beginning of another restless warm-up phase, it's the perfect time for exercise games to make a comeback. There's novelty value for the younger kids, and nostalgia value for the older Millennials, in playing an exercise game with some device that is motion- or pressure-sensitive.

And it would fit in well with the quarantine atmosphere, where people are afraid of getting bed sores from being holed up indoors all day long for months on end. That would re-create the social setting of the original Wii games, where parents and children would play them at the same time in the home.

Who knows exactly what form the revivals of rhythm and exercise games will take, but the demand for them will be shooting through the roof now that people are restless again.


  1. You mentioned in an earlier post about the potential decline of social media with the new warm-up phase.

    Do you see a decline of mob culture (especially SJW mobs) with this decline?

  2. I can remember people playing "Dance Dance Revolution" in my college union center in spring of 2005.

  3. Ring Fit Adventure for the Switch - ever since quarantine started, Nintendo has been unable to keep the game in stock... doing mad sales in Japan as well.

  4. Good call on Ring Fit. Looks like it was already a hit seller in 2020 before quarantine, too (like TikTok). It must be still early in the trend, since the Wiki article on exergaming didn't mention how popular it is, just noting it in passing.

    There was a DDR in my college student union as well, although not getting as much attention. That was the early 2000s vulnerable phase, I can only imagine how much traffic it saw just a few years after I graduated.

    It's not so much a decline in social media overall, but the parasocial usage of it, that I think will fall off during the restless and manic phases.

    Cancel mobs probably tie into the polarizing political cycle more than the excitement cycle, and polarization is not stopping anytime soon. I think it'll be mostly intra-elite fighting for status, as one group of media careerists tries to kill off the competition -- which is anyone over 1000 followers on social media, who is an aspiring talking head, or reacting avatar.

    As Zoomers find Twitter and YouTubers increasingly gay fake and boring, they'll find some other platform to do their thing on, where cancel mobs won't be roaming. Maybe video games IRL or online.

    I've almost never heard of a random nobody kid getting called out, canceled, fired, suspended from school, or suspended from their online video game account, for a heated gamer moment during this whole witch hunt hysteria of the past 5 years. Reason: video games aren't part of the political media ecosystem, even tangentially. Neither is TikTok for now, just pure entertainment.

    Or they'll go more into TikTok and other places where Millennial SJWs don't control everything. And where, if the blue-hairs tried to police expression, the reaction would just be "OK Millennial". Kids born after 2004 like my nephew aren't going to kowtow to Millennial bullshit. More dismissive of it, if anything.

    For that matter, we could see a return of the everyday edgelord, whose last heyday was also the late 2000s, during the anything-goes no-taboos-held atmosphere of a restless phase.

    I didn't see the Boxxy videos when they first came out (only recognized her picture from collections of cute scene girls), but after watching them now, I was struck by her casual use of "fag" to mean a member of some group. "I'm not a Gaia-fag anymore," meaning she doesn't participate in the Gaia Online forums anymore. Also -tard (/b/tard etc.).

    Just based on casual observation of my nephew, born in 2008 (restless phase, akin to early '90s), I don't think the Millennials have any idea what the 15 year-olds are going to be like in a few years.

    They're not fascist -- that's just the right-wing version of the "kids will save us" cope. I mean how they were born in a restless phase, are now going through another restless phase, and how that will parallel the 15 year-olds of the late 2000s who were born in the early '90s. Or the 15 year-olds of the early '90s who were born in the late '70s. It'll be an IDGAF zeitgeist.

    Taboos regulate behavior, and when people are trying to come out of their shells, the last thing they want is heavily regulated behavior that might keep them wary, frightened, and trapped inside. It doesn't last forever -- just a phase -- and ends once people are out of their shells, into a manic phase.

    The whole IDGAF zeitgeist of the early '90s didn't carry over much into the late '90s, nor did the late 2000s attitude carry over so much into the early 2010s. And the upcoming 'tude era of the early '20s won't last into the late '20s.

    Still, will be hilarious seeing the SJW generation getting tossed aside by Zoomers (born after 2004).

  5. Gossip Girl provided the motivation for this post, btw. There's an episode where two romantic rival girls compete as well in a game of Guitar Hero at a party.

    I had no clue what the show was until Heather Habsburg mentioned it off-hand a week ago, and my intuition told me it would be a signature show of the late 2000s. It has not disappointed: literally everything they reference is confined only to the late 2000s. It was hyper-trendy.

    MySpace, blogs, Guitar Hero, phone cameras (but not smartphones), "Nolita Fairytale" rather than "A Thousand Miles" on the soundtrack, the divorced dad with multiple leather bracelets, the hipster with a messenger bag, young people wearing suits, on and on.

    If they referenced it, it must've been part of the restless warm-up phase, not a longer-term trend of the 2000s or 21st century. Wonderful source material for studying that phase of the excitement cycle.

    Were the girl viewers at the time aware that all three male main characters are flamers? It's ridiculous when romance and dating rivalry is supposed to be central to the plot. Utterly unbelievable attempts at chemistry for all three of them (except when it's guys interacting with guys).

    It makes more sense when you interpret their interpersonal drama as a bunch of closet cases competing for the perfect beard, and fag-hags competing for the perfect gay BFF.


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