Contra Dance, Modern Squares, and Game Design

Contra dance

In addition to “up up down down left right left right B A”, contra dance is a form of New England folk dance. It’s a partnered dance performed in long lines of paired couples, described here on Wikipedia in more detail than I’m going to get into.

Here’s a video, in case you’ve never heard of it. You don’t have to watch the whole thing to have context – just 30 seconds or so.

Writing a contra dance is a little like playing SpaceChem:

  1. everyone’s moving simultaneously on the beat
  2. there’s a limited instruction set that you can provide
  3. you’re not allowed to crash people into each other
  4. once you set everything up, the sequence runs without your intervention
  5. at the end of each sequence, everyone has to be back at their starting point.

Being in a contra dance isn’t that much like SpaceChem, but it always felt gamelike to me. I’ve described it in the past as resembling theater-style LARP, because:

  1. once it starts, the person running it has very little control
  2. you’re doing it with a lot of people, but you’re usually interacting with a small subset at any given time
  3. there are extended moments of close interaction with just one person (on swings).

Modern Western square dance

I learned square dance at Tech Squares, the MIT square dance club. Here’s a video. Again, you don’t have to watch the whole thing – just enough to get a sense for it.

If contra dance is a theater-style LARP, then Tech Squares is a D&D game. It may not be immediately obvious, but the caller (the unparalleled Ted Lizotte) is trying to kill the square.

The eight people in the square are working to survive as a team. They’ve learned this list of 100 calls – but it’s not enough, because Lizotte calls things like “half a scoot back” or “ladies load the boat, boys recycle”1. Since the caller is doing his best to make the dancers screw up, the dancers have to think on their feet (rather literally) to keep everyone in the right place at the right time.

You’ll notice these dancers clap their hands whenever they get back to their starting places, and there’s a reason for that. They survived! Hooray!

(I’m told that other square dance clubs are less adversarial, but this is the extent of my personal experience with modern square dance, so there you go.)

Through the lens of game design

I’ve danced contra on and off for five years, and I spent every Tuesday at Tech Squares for a year, but I didn’t realize until last month that I was missing the forest for the trees.

Contra dance and modern square dance aren’t like games. They are games. And when I realized that I’d been playing these unlabeled games for years, everything clicked into place.

A lot of ink (digital and otherwise) has been expended on what is a game? This leads to questions like what is play? and what is the difference between a toy and a game? and other things that I won’t discuss here at length, since it goes far beyond the scope of this article. My practical definition is something like:

A game is

  • a voluntary activity
  • with established rules
  • and a defined goal
    • that has value primarily or only within the context of the game.

(If you’re interested, though, you can read a number of other definitions on Wikipedia.)

Contra dance and modern Western squares are analog cooperative rhythm games.

The basic rules are “complete the instructions you receive, in time with the music”. Below that are the rules explaining what the caller’s instructions actually mean (since things like “allemande left”, “teacup chain”, and “box the gnat” are not regular English terms.)

The goal is for you and everyone else on your team to finish the sequence correctly. Your team may be your current set of four (in contra) or your full square (in squares). You can’t win unless everyone else wins, which incentivizes you to assist other players.

The requirement to stay with the music (keep a rhythm) adds two levels of complexity.

First, adding a time limitation is a time-honored game design technique for making a simple task (such as basic arithmetic, color-matching, or rotating shapes) into an interesting challenge. Here, the challenge is to process the caller’s instruction and then perform the required physical movements (such as walking, turning, or taking/releasing other people’s hands) in the specified number of beats.

Second, if you fail to execute your move in the specified amount of time, then it will interfere with everyone else’s ability to execute their moves in time, and your team will be hindered by the need to help you recover.

Other games with similarities to contra dance and modern squares:

  • children’s hand-clap games, such as Mary Mack and Miss Susie (analog cooperative rhythm game based around physical movement)
  • Space Alert (analog cooperative time-limited board game)
  • Dance Dance Revolution (digital rhythm game based around physical movement)
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer (digital rhythm-based roguelike game)
  • Spaceteam (digital cooperative time-limited game based around interplayer communication, aka “cooperative shouting game”)

Yes, and…?

Writers learn their craft not only by writing, but by reading. Musicians learn their craft not only by playing, but by listening to music. And game designers learn their craft not only by designing games, but by playing games.

But not every game you encounter will have “game” written in block letters at the top. By recognizing games that aren’t properly labeled, you have the chance to learn something about new about game design. And by trying things out that aren’t labelled “game”, you have access to a whole world of inspiration beyond the standard game dev curriculum.

Also, modern square dance is way cooler than most people realize. I’m just saying.

1. Read “boys” as “people who started on the left side of the pair” and “ladies” as “people who started on the right side of the pair”. I have opinions about this, but they’re not important to the discussion at hand.

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  1. Hmm, some of that may explain partly why a nontrivial number of folks who enjoy contra (and MWSD) are computer science oriented folks and engineers….

  2. Oh, and there are definitely multiple “levels” of the square dance game, too! I still haven’t beaten the C4 level.

    Note that calling a square dance is also a game, akin to the dungeon master in D&D. Or maybe it’s “writing a game”. You try to express yourself creatively but also challenge the dancers but not so much that everybody loses (since nobody really likes to lose). The trick is to bring everyone as close to the edge as possible, then bring them back safely and with stories to tell. (Did you hear about that AACE dance where Vic Ceder called C4 to 2-couple squares, then 3-couple squares, then 4-couple squares, then 5 and 6-couple squares? It blew minds!)

    • Point taken about multiple levels! I’ve dabbled in A1, and I’ve danced in a hex before, but that’s the limit.

      I didn’t have as clean a comparison for calling squares as I did for writing contras, but I would absolutely agree that it’s a game.

      Re: Vic Ceder: I had NOT heard about that dance, but that’s amazing. Did anyone take video? I’d love to see if so!

  3. If you ever want some suggestions as to how to implement “ladies load the boat, boys recycle” in Inform, drop me a line.

  4. And there’s a whole layer of the metaphor to be had about genre trappings/conventions in games — the parallel of this article on contra/trad squares for experienced MWSD (which I find kind of hilarious as someone who went trad squares -> english/scottish country dancing -> mwsd):

    (Tech squares is atypical in terms of dress code and partner choice, but it presents itself as such and assumes the same “standard” for MWSD, it just declines to follow it.)

    (I miss dancing, but not enough to screw my sleep schedule up for it.)

    • There definitely is a whole genre trappings/conventions conversation here! Especially in light of things like the dress code arguments I’ve seen pass through Squares. Hmm… maybe will write that some future day.

      Thanks for sharing the Clark Baker article! I hadn’t seen it before and appreciate it. Delighted by how spot-on the first two views are (and presumably the third as well.)

  5. Oh, lightbulb! I love this perspective. It could also be a great way to suck dancers into the delicious vortex that is IF. I happen to be loosely connected to a historical dance group (in fact I met my husband at a pirate ball) so I’ll definitely be thinking of this whenever I see my dancing friends. There are moments in a dance when it all comes together, and that’s amazing. Now I want to figure out how to bring out the sense of cooperation in a text-only game.

    Felicity Banks

    • That would be amazing! I’m not sure how to pull it off (it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, too) – but if you experiment in that vein, I’d love to see what you create.

      I’m fascinated by multiplayer IF. My only released multiplayer IF game (so far) is This Is A Real Thing That Happened, which is short, asynchronous, and arguably not a game.

  6. Ooh, thank you so much for that. I very much enjoyed the game/”game” and played it both ways. Now I have to go and think some more about what games are for, and how to make them interactive. And learn Inform! Which luckily was already on my to-do list.


    Rebecca is awesome!

  7. I know some people from Tech Squares who do change ringing, which can also be viewed as an analog cooperative rhythm game.

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