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L.A. at Large

Video Gamers' Feats Are Doing All the Talking

October 12, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kurt Fruchtman, an eighth-grader at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, goes to an arcade five, six, sometimes seven days a week. In the course of a month, the 13-year-old will shell out about $200 worth of quarters, all on one video game, Dance Dance Revolution.

Kurt can usually be found at Playland Arcade on the Santa Monica Pier, but his parents, who enthusiastically support his habit, also shuttle him to distant corners of the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay to sample different versions of the game.

"My parents consider it exercise," said Kurt, who started playing DDR, as aficionados call it, three months ago. "Instead of paying for football or basketball, they pay for that." And, he says, they like the fact that it keeps him from sitting at his computer for hours.

"It's great," said Ted Fruchtman, Kurt's father. "Kurt has always loved to dance. This is the kind of thing, too, that I don't think will get him into the wrong crowd."

The dance simulation game debuted in Japan two years ago (and promptly became a craze with everyone from teens to stockbrokers). Last year, it entered the U.S. market.

Marlene Gordon, whose family owns Playland Arcade, a testing site for new games, said DDR "took off like a bullet." "During the summer months," she said, "it was so crowded I had to get a second machine in order to break up the lines." Two popular music videos, by the band Everything but the Girl and the singer Angela Via, feature the machines.

And according to Jason Enos, a Northern California-based product manager with the Japanese firm Konami, which makes the game, DDR is one of the highest grossing machines in U.S. arcade centers. "At most arcades, it blows almost everything else away," he said. "An average-to-pretty-good machine brings in roughly $400 a week. DDR in some places brings in over $3,000 a week."

To play, which costs between 50 cents and $1 a game, a DDR player stands on a platform with four sensor pads: forward, back, right and left. Arrows pointing in these directions scroll upward on the screen in rapid-fire sequences as bubble gum music and exclamations of "Cool!" and "C'mon!" blare through the speakers. A player follows with his feet. It is not unlike an electronic version of an old-fashioned dance instruction book. Those who dance well enough on a first song may proceed to a second. Otherwise, game over.

"It's basically hand-eye coordination," said Kurt, "but feet instead of hands."

A perfect game, in which the player hits the correct pads in exact rhythm with the music, can last up to seven minutes. Each game is scored: A letter grade of SS, for instance, is better than an A. "The scoring system in DDR is rather ridiculous," conceded Enos, not only because the grade system makes little sense, but because "it is possible to get billions of points."

Beginners can play at a slow pace, and their performances usually resemble the jerky movements of cotillion novices, ending in fits of giggles. Kurt, however, sets the game on the "maniac" mode. With his peroxide-blond hair and Puma sneakers, he looks like he's right out of a music video. Often he attracts a crowd of people mesmerized by his fancy footwork. He claims to have had an audience of "like, a hundred people" at the Adventure Dome at Las Vegas' Circus Circus. "That's one of the main reasons I like to play," he said. "I get to have a huge audience."

Two months ago, Kurt met Naite Heal, 19, at Playland Arcade. "I was marveling at how good he is," said Kurt, "and we started talking, then e-mailing."

"At first," Naite said, "Kurt's parents were tentative about letting him hang out with me at the pier. But people can be friends through DDR whether they're in their 20s or early teens."

Naite, a sophomore at the Art Institute of Los Angeles, has been playing DDR for four months. He started after "seeing some people playing who weren't really good. I decided I wanted to make a fool of myself too."

Naite won $100 in August in a DDR competition at Playland Arcade with a "John Travolta dance routine" inspired by "Saturday Night Fever." He watched the movie, he said, and adopted some of the star's moves.

With an eye toward competitions, many of which have a doubles component (each machine features two screens and two separate foot pads), Naite and Kurt recently started a DDR club called Westside Dance Connection. The three other teenage members, including one girl, were recruited at various area arcades. Naite has designed a Web site at http://www.elguar.com/ddr.

Although the game seems to attract more boys than girls, plenty of girls (and women) like to play.

Playland Arcade's Gordon called it "the best aerobics machine ever. You sweat like [in] an aerobics class. I wish I had one of those in my house." In fact, come January, a home version of the game for Sony PlayStation will be released in the U.S. In addition, said Enos, the home version has a workout program that tracks calories.

(Kurt and Naite already have the home version. Unwilling to wait until January, they each purchased the Japanese import for about $100. Kurt bought his at a computer show in Pomona; Heal went to Express.com.)

Both young men are more physically fit than when they started. Said Naite, "When I started playing, I couldn't even finish three songs without huffing and puffing and falling down. Now I can go two or three hours non-stop. It builds stamina."

And blisters, added Kurt, who hoped his hobby might get him out of dreaded physical education class. "They have this thing at my school that if you do 15 hours a week of physical activity, you can get out of P.E. But I think it has to be a real sport." In his opinion, though, DDR is a real sport. "I said to Naite recently, 'Why don't they have DDR in the next Olympic Competition?' That's my wish. If they did, I guarantee you I'd be in the next Olympics."

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