The history of dance emotes in 15 gifs

It's a little funny how much we've come to expect dance emotes in modern games. Obviously /dance doesn't top our lists of demands like 4K support or unlocked framerates, but it's honestly hard to imagine an MMO without a diligently programmed jig. It's a tradition at this point, and one that's expanded beyond massively multiplayer games to practically everything with avatars and a chat box. It's just part of the culture, at this point: if you see a Night Elf, you can bet they'll know the "Billie Jean" dance.

So we decided to tell a brief history of the dance emote in PC gaming, recorded through the power of gifs. Considering that most of the world's teens communicated exclusively through Fortnite tangos in 2018, I imagine that we've only scratched the surface of video game dancing tech. But that just goes to show how deeply /dance has absorbed into gaming.

Everquest - 1999

Everquest was ground zero for the modern MMO, and also the /dance /dance revolution. If Sony Online Entertainment wasn't the company responsible for first letting our avatars dance with each other, they're at least in the picture. Enjoy the above gif, of a squat Froglok raging against the primitive engine to get down. It's a far cry from the smooth pop, lock, and drops of the Fortnite generation, but we had to start somewhere.

Phantasy Star Online - 2000

PSO's emotes were simple but numerous. Paired with its chat symbols, lobbies would be full of smilies and emoting, kinda-sorta-dancing characters. You can still find lively server lobbies to this day, and they're more intimate than a modern sprawling MMO city. This was especially cutting edge on the Dreamcast back in 2000.

More than a decade later Phantasy Star Online 2 would far deeper into dance territory, hosting in-game Hatsune Miku concerts and Persona crossover dance events.

Second Life - 2003

Second Life was groundbreaking for its in-game economy, which included dancing. That's right: Second Life had (and has) a dance emote economy, where players could animate and sell dance animations that can then be used in-game. Some are even mocapped in extreme detail. It's a strange place.

Star Wars Galaxies - 2003

Star Wars Galaxies will always be remembered as one of the great missed opportunities in the history of video games. But it did enable our Han Solo-surrogates to air guitar. That alone probably forgives for the whole NGE debacle, right?

World of Warcraft - 2004

This was my first experience with a /dance emote. Blizzard, in their constant efforts to make sure you never took the Warcraft universe too seriously, programmed unique dance animations for every race, and every gender, in Azeroth. More specifically, they made it so you could do the macarena if you were playing a female human mage. Shout out to the Night Elf lady samba, too. That thing alone probably earned the game its T rating.

Runescape - 2004

You gotta hand it to Jagex. The British company was permanently hamstrung by an engine that needed to work in a browser window, and the programmers still managed to will a chintzy jig from the low-res knights and mages of Gielinor after a patch in 2004.

Lord of the Rings Online - 2007

In 2007 I breathlessly installed my free trial of Lord of the Rings Online and emerged dewy-eyed into Middle-Earth to find some of the absolute worst dance emotes I've ever seen. I don't know if it was the engine, or the relative solemnity of the Tolkien fiction, but Turbine gave us a truly morose, joyless waltz. It actually kinda won me over; it's like they fed all the elves in Rivendell some ketamine-spiked lembas. 

Mass Effect - 2007

I get that this might be stretching the definition of a dance emote, but honestly, no documentation of the history of video game dancing would be complete without a mention of Commander Shepard's terrible, extremely self-conscious moves in the Milky Way's neon clubs. The animation became a meme almost instantly, and Bioware leaned all the way in to the joke in Mass Effect 3's epilogue DLC, where Shepard once again looks like a goober in front of all his friends.  

League of Legends - 2009

League of Legends made the community-driven MOBA genre the biggest in the world. Where everyone was once trying to ape WoW and strike it big with an MMO, League kicked off the MOBA boom and inspired a wave of imitators. So it was only natural for it to keep the forms of expression MMOs had popularized and bake them into the MOBA, too. Every one of LoL's champions has a unique dance, and Riot eventually added an entire emote system with purchasable icons.

Final Fantasy 14 - 2010

Of course Square Enix would load up its characters with more dance emotes than anyone could ever possibly need. To this day, I don't think an MMORPG has touched Final Fantasy 14 as far as modular dancefloor potential goes. And honestly, that's why we play these games in the first place.

Destiny - 2014

Bungie got itself embroiled in a stupid controversy when it tried to sell emotes for real money, but thankfully, the catalogue of tangos the company put together was pretty solid. I can't hate a game that attempts to be so deathly serious, while also letting you drop your candy-colored robot-man to his knees for the "Hotline Bling" dance.

The Elder Scrolls Online - 2014

This might be the only game on this list that adds a few funny curveballs to the traditional MMO /dance formula. For instance, if you decide to indulge in some tipple during your journey through Elder Scrolls Online, your character will give you awesome, catatonic-white-guy-at-the-club moves when you instruct them to get down. They look so confident! Just like you do after enough vodka-cranberries at a wedding reception.

Overwatch - 2016

Overwatch is nowhere near the first game to pull its dance emotes from real life, but it beat Fortnite to the punch in depicting pop culture dances in great detail. Blizzard gave every character a dance in the game's first anniversary event, and the detailed animation is just sublime. Check them all out, along with their inspirations, in this great Twitter thread.

Fortnite - 2017

Perhaps the first time video game emotes have gone truly mainstream; Fortnite's ridiculous popularity means that the game's dances have been replicated on basketball courts, soccer pitches, and football fields constantly over the past six months. The dances themselves are adopted directly from the sort of Vine-ready memes that pass through YouTube (looking at you Backpack Kid), which has actually caused Chance The Rapper to petition Epic to offer some sort of financial kickback to the choreographers who come up with the jigs themselves.

In late 2018, Fresh Prince actor Alfonso Ribeiro sued Epic over its use of the Carlton dance. Backpack Kid did the same. Dance emotes have made it to the big time.

Monster Hunter: World - 2018

Monster Hunter made its long-awaited debut on PC with World, and quickly revealed itself as a franchise that's far goofier and more self-aware than its ornery reputation. I mean, just look at that player bust a move while hauling around one of those ridiculous, character model-dwarfing swords.

Luke Winkie
Contributing Writer

Luke Winkie is a freelance journalist and contributor to many publications, including PC Gamer, The New York Times, Gawker, Slate, and Mel Magazine. In between bouts of writing about Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Twitch culture here on PC Gamer, Luke also publishes the newsletter On Posting. As a self-described "chronic poster," Luke has "spent hours deep-scrolling through surreptitious Likes tabs to uncover the root of intra-publication beef and broken down quote-tweet animosity like it’s Super Bowl tape." When he graduated from journalism school, he had no idea how bad it was going to get.