Dressed in a black-and-blue polo shirt and khaki chinos, Giles stood behind the counter and skimmed tokens from the refund pile. He had committed similar petty thefts at the other arcades, and when none of his supervisors commented, Giles realized that the "system" for collecting and counting tokens was bogus. So he expanded. As a tech, he knew which games were always unlocked and he'd open them, shoving handfuls of coins into his pockets. At first, Giles took 200 tokens a day. Then 240. Then double that, stuffing coins into a small paper sack. The exchange rate was four tokens for a dollar; he was grabbing at least fifty bucks' worth of merchandise a day.
For the second part of the scam, he created demand. At home, Giles repackaged coins in the arcade's brown paper sacks, marking them in five-, ten- or twenty-dollar increments and throwing a little extra change into each. Off-shift, Giles would return to the Lodge with two or three bags tucked into his cargo pants and sell them on the game floor.
A few times, he took an accomplice, twenty-year-old Daniel Liberty, who also worked at the store. Using his set of store-issued keys, Giles opened the token dispenser by the front entrance, pretending to clear jammed tokens. As kids walked by, he'd offer to exchange their money for tokens. He'd hide the cash inside a plastic dish inside the dispenser's metal guts. Later, Liberty would return on a routine maintenance check and pocket the money.
"It was like second nature," Giles says. "If you do something wrong too much, it doesn't even feel like it's wrong anymore."
The puny rip-offs yielded a few hundred dollars total -- enough to buy fast-food, gas and cigarettes. But for the most part, Giles hoarded the gold-colored coins. He needed them to fuel his habit.
A year earlier, he had been nothing. At Truman High School in Lee's Summit, he'd been invisible to the letter-jacketed mainstream. As a senior, he'd worn all black and listened to Marilyn Manson's anthems. His dad had died in a work-related propane explosion years before. His mom had used the insurance money to buy a nice spread in suburban Independence. She was blue-collar, worked nights. When she remarried, Giles' stepdad spent most of his free time working on his antique Chevys and the set of Harleys in their Confederate flag-draped garage. Each spring, Giles worked as a computer-support tech at H&R Block. The rest of the year, he'd park his '89 Eagle Premier outside the Barnes & Noble in Independence and smoke cigarettes with all the other goth kids.
A few months before graduation, Giles walked into a party where there were fifteen or twenty kids, most of them fresh out of high school. A few of them had crowded around a small TV wired to a Playstation that was, in turn, wired to a pad on the floor. He watched a kid shuffle-step on the makeshift stage. He recognized the game: Dance Dance Revolution.
Arcade DDR machines were 8 feet tall, with lighted, hopscotch-style dance pads outlined in yellow caution tape. On their video screens, arrows matched arrows on the dance pads. Players stepped on the dance-pad arrows in response to on-screen commands.
The game hit U.S. arcades in March 1999 and soon sparked a cult following. Since then, it has become a pop icon, showing up in an episode of King of the Hill, making a cameo in Lost in Translation and appearing in a Skechers shoe commercial.
Developed by Konami and released in Japan in the late '90s, it's been called a physical extension of karaoke. To date, Konami has released 11 "mixes" -- machines with new song-and-dance combos -- for arcades, movie theaters, bowling alleys, laser-tag arenas and bars. Spinoff versions for home gaming systems such as Xbox and Playstation have sold more than a million copies. The game has been marketed as simple fun for all ages and as a weight-loss tool; home versions now have a "workout mode" that counts calories. (It's been incorporated into some high school gym classes.)
"A whole group of stars is being created," says Walter Day, author of Twin Galaxies Official Video Game and Pinball Book of World Records. Since the early '80s, his publication has been the handbook for video-game statistics. "There are star players, and when they get up there and dance, the crowds get bigger. And that's the bottom line," he tells the Pitch.
Giles had downloaded a computer simulation of the game at home, but playing it on the keyboard bored him. At the party that night, when he tried the game on the dance pad, he understood the allure: On the pad, he was the center of attention.
Almost immediately, Giles started hanging at Fun Factory and at Cool Crest, a Castlevania-looking arcade and miniature-golf course in Blue Springs. He pulled 8-hour jam sessions on weekends.
"That was me," he says. "I was the guy who played every day, who did stuff every day, who was just all over it."
Over the course of a year, he discovered DDR competitions and traveled to compete in St. Louis and Indianapolis, making a name for himself. Numerous friends describe him as a good technical player, a rising DDR icon in Kansas City.
"Wayne used to be sort of the figurehead of DDR in KC, and everybody followed him," says Jared Stewart, 19, a player who lives in Platte City.
"He's the one everyone tries to beat," says Liberty, his former accomplice.
Giles thought of himself as old school; he'd learned to play on early versions of DDR with dimly lit arrows, poor graphics and no speed modifiers, circa 2001. He called new players who sucked "nubs." He was certain he had groupies. "In every arcade, we have what's called a fan club," he says. "A group of girls, normally underage, that are just desperately, madly obsessed with us."
Before things turned bad, Giles would dance against anyone willing to do battle: the stud-wearing punk, the overweight high school kid, the middle-aged Sprint worker, the preteen with the overprotective mother.
"It's not just some little stompy-stompy crap," he says. "It can go crazy on you."
When he danced, he moved so fast his sneakers began to blur. Sweat beaded and fell from his brow like raindrops. Following the arrows, his feet accelerated in time, playing the commands like a musical score. To pass each level, he needed to nail 70 percent of the footwork. On the fastest speeds, he got 99.
By last summer, when he started working at Great Wolf, Giles was an industry wonk. He knew the dimensions and engraving of each arcade's tokens. He knew which arcades would accept Great Wolf tokens, and as his wealth grew, he began to hand out Great Wolf tokens at different venues.
"If a friend of mine was strapped on cash, I'd be like, here, have some fun," he recalls. "I'd give out small handfuls, usually five to seven bucks at a time. Someone goes, 'Hey can I get some tokens?' And I'd go, 'Ching! Here you go.'"
He'd gone from social outcast to high roller in a crowd funded by allowances and minimum-wage paychecks.
Underpinning the world into which Giles had stumbled was yet another subculture. When he looked at Kansas City's Dance Dance Revolution Web site (www.DDRKC.com), he found more than 300 users organizing meet-ups and competitions and comparing notes on topics such as what shoes had the best traction.
Later, he found a DDRKC blog ring on Xanga.com, where people posted and read each other's online diaries. Giles gave himself the screen name Devilon and signed on.
DDRKC.com's content included player bios, discussion links and machine locations. The site was designed by a 29-year-old Sprint tech named Ryan Edwards, a Ball State grad who had discovered the game in 1999 at an anime convention in Chicago. After the convention, Edwards returned home to Indianapolis and searched the Web to find gamers in his area. But when he moved to Overland Park two years ago, Edwards found no DDR games in metro arcades and a barren landscape online. Using a Playstation game and Konami DX dancing pads imported from Japan, he started hosting sessions for four or five fellow computer techs in his townhouse near 123rd Street and Metcalf. In April 2001, as games were going into arcades around the metro, he founded a Yahoo discussion group, which begat Kansas City's DDR Web site.
Giles watched the discussion boards as players organized area competitions. In July 2002, he encountered an 18-year-old gamer named John Bonfilio (who goes by the screen name Axiom). Bonfilio was attending DeVry University and would later get a part-time job at 7-Eleven. He was an unlikely dancer: After contracting Lyme disease from a deer-tick bite, he had spent most of his high school years in a hip brace, limping around on crutches. Originally from Pennsylvania, Bonfilio had moved to KC after striking up online relationships with girls here.
A few months later, Giles helped organize a tournament at Cool Crest. In a thirty-person field, Giles took second place. Over the next year, Giles and Bonfilio became tight, stomping in at least six metro competitions and traveling to Wichita, Indianapolis and St. Louis, where they danced against up to fifty contestants. Their opponents were generally between 14 and 25 years old and came from as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio. Most of the time, the duo finished within the top three. Winners split the entry fees or earned tokens for free games.
Life as a rising dance star was tough. Not everyone at the public arcades shared their ambition, and sometimes the overeager dancers earned catcalls from passers-by or got pelted with empty soda cans.
But in Giles and Bonfilio's world, it was cool to play video games for eight hours straight and then hop online to tell someone about your day. To post messages at 4 a.m., then sleep until noon. To be so connected that you could write "someone please call me" and expect the phone to ring. Giles and his friends considered DDR a sport -- Bonfilio took score sheets, pencils and water bottles to the arcades -- and online they were skilled celebrity athletes and self-appointed commentators.
Internet fame came at a price, though. "A lot of people here know me by my screen name," Bonfilio says. "That sucks, because I'd rather be known as John."
In March of last year, Giles enrolled in DeVry's computer-engineering program and moved in with Bonfilio. The duo lived in a spacious two-bedroom apartment in a DeVry-owned complex. The place became a weekend hot spot after the arcades closed, drawing all ages, from kids barely in their teens to adults over thirty. A 24-year-old guy could mix easily there with a 16-year-old girl by comparing dance moves, favorite game tunes and high scores.
Sometimes, the visitors would drink or smoke grass. But mostly they danced. Online, the apartment became known as The Pad.
Even when the apartment was filled with kids, Giles spent late nights blogging. He wrote about skipping classes, about people chilling at the apartment and about his growing DDR skills. And as he felt his power increase, his already-personal postings became grandiose: It began by her sucking on my finger. ... After that, it extended to some severe cuddling, where my hand sat on her stomach/abdomen and slowly slid downward ... thank god I stopped myself before anything else happened there.
Two months after that, he wrote: She was topless and straddling me ... I (being the Dev that I am) took care of her until she got back up, took her pants off (not too sure why), and crawled into bed. I got in bed with her (also pantsless, I normally sleep naked, but I left my boxers on for safety's sake) ...
By January, he was making 4 a.m. posts about a hated ex-girlfriend: NEWS FLASH ... No one likes you. Even those that you think are your closest friends talk shit behind your back. You're annoying, you've always been annoying, and that's about that.... You're fucking ugly, it looks like someone hit you with a Mack truck, you've got a lower voice than most all of the males that you hang out with (I've literally heard people say "She's not that bad, but her VOICE is SO annoying!!!"), and almost everyone only talks to you just so they can laugh at you later. You claim to have quit smoking, but it doesn't matter, you'll take it up again, because your life is SO HARD AND DEPRESSING OMFG....You're just another stupid preppy snotnose spoiled whiny CUNT.
There was a backlash. Online, some of Giles' old friends wrote harsh responses. He earned a new nickname: Mr. Drama. Bonfilio says Giles tried to use his skills and online presence to intimidate people.
"He personified his DDR alter ego," Bonfilio says. "Sometimes you wondered if you were talking to him or talking to his ego."
"He likes to stroke the drama," Liberty says. "He's a shitbag, but he's a real good DDR player."
Giles likened his rise to that of Laurence Fishburne's character Smoke in the cult motorcycle movie Biker Boyz. "People try to beat you on a song," he says. "There are challenge matches. It wasn't uncontested, but ability-wise, no one could beat me. Smoke was the king of Cali, and I was just kind of the king of KC."
In late June, Giles got a real-world wake-up call. In just one quarter at DeVry, he had slept his way though too many classes and flunked out of school. He moved back in with his mom. In his room, Stephen King novels shared shelf space with his parents' knickknacks. Meanwhile, he freeloaded at The Pad.
Because the apartment was owned by the university, there were rules governing when students could have visitors. DeVry officials wanted Giles off their property, Bonfilio says. He says he didn't trust Giles and started regulating when he was allowed to come over. But Giles continued to show up unannounced.
"If our community really was a community like an old English town or something, Wayne would be the con artist that ... would win people's hearts with his bold, flashy antics," Bonfilio says. "But after a while, people got burned out on it." In July, Bonfilio banned Giles from The Pad.
The next month, Giles started his gig at the Great Wolf Lodge.
OPERATION Get Dev a Fuckin /b> Xbox complete. OPERATION Get Dev and Libs extra money is in progress, all systems are normal. OPERATION World Domination ... status pending. -- 1:30 p.m. October 26, 2003, Livejournal.com.
Devilon ranted about his misfortunes. Giles worked.
In the middle of the arcade, there was a redemption counter, a compartmentalized glass case filled with Superballs, Tootsie Rolls and Slinkys. Each day, Giles watched kids feed greenbacks into token dispensers, plunk tokens into nondigital games such as Skee-Ball and Gold Rush, win tickets and then exchange the tickets for nickel-and-dime prizes. The shelves above the case contained high-end merchandise: inflatable chairs, lava lamps, a stereo, an Xbox. Giles realized that no one ever had enough tickets to claim those prizes.
But the scene was growing, Edwards says. Arcades with DDR machines had become destination spots for dancers, who brought in crowds of potential customers. For every kid who stopped dancing, there were two or three to take his or her place.
In three months of skimming, Giles had netted more than a thousand dollars' worth of tokens. In late October, he gave a friend a lunch box-sized container filled with stolen tokens. When the friend arrived at Great Wolf, Giles walked the game floor, using his keys to increase the yield on some jackpots. Then the friend fed stolen coins into the games as Giles worked behind the shop counter, printing off a handful of fake ticket vouchers to boost their bottom line.
Sirens rang, light bulbs flashed. Over a couple of weeks, Giles' partner earned thousands, then tens of thousands of tickets -- enough reels to decorate Giles' boyhood room in gamer chic. The duo traded in tickets for two inflatable chairs, a DVD player, a surround-sound stereo and an Xbox. Then they traveled to another arcade and repeated the process, minus the upped jackpots and phantom ticket receipts. They wanted a Playstation, but when someone else nabbed it, they settled for five lava lamps and a Discman.
For the most part, they worked outside the DDR community -- only a few obscure references to the scheme appear in Giles' myriad online diaries.
In November, though, Giles got a phone call from a Great Wolf Lodge manager who had been tipped off about the Xbox. He wanted the game system back, along with Giles' store keys. The lodge's arcade operator, Cleveland Coin Machine Exchange, fired Giles.
Giles had lost his latest job, but he'd been banned from another place to dance. And he seemed to have spoiled the scene. Bonfilio says that as a big name on the DDR circuit, Giles produced a guilt-by-association effect. Bonfilio says he felt like all of Kansas City's DDR players had come under heightened scrutiny at arcades.
"Most of the time the scams he was doing was hurting his own friends," Bonfilio says. "We didn't really give a crap that he scammed on his job, but whenever it involved a location that we wanted to play, it would ruin the place for the rest of us."
Later that month, Giles received an anonymous message on Livejournal.com.
I guess operation dipshit was a success. Operation dumbass complete, all systems at 100% efficiency. You idiot.
Bonfilio has spent the past few months planning "Spring Madness," an NCAA bracket-style dance-off set for March 28 at the Dickinson Eastglen Theatre in Lee's Summit.
I feel like Dr. Frankenstein ... my tournament has become a monster. It's gotten so big ... he wrote in an early-February online-journal entry on Xanga.com.
Cobalt Flux and Red Octane, two home dance-pad companies, have signed on as sponsors, allowing Bonfilio to offer a few hundred dollars in cash prizes and two new dance pads. He expects the tournament to draw around 150 entrants from as far away as Indiana. He says he plans to buy "Hello, my name is" stickers for participants.
"That is big," Bonfilio says. "That is as big as it gets for what we're doing. It doesn't get any bigger than that."
At the same time, The Pad is jumping.
Bonfilio's place is unlocked, so Chuck, TemjinSX, NegativeSpace and PhoenixTPI let themselves in. They sprawl on two large couches facing a TV, watching arrows scroll upward, killing time.
The room contains three computers and five gaming systems -- a Super Nintendo, a Game Cube, an Xbox and two Playstations. Star Wars posters cover the walls, along with a pinup of an anime chick from Final Fantasy X-2 and a calendar showing the Japanese cartoon Dragon BallZ. Dishes and utensils are disposable. The refrigerator holds four 12-packs of soda.
At just after 10:30 p.m., the guys push aside furniture and lay down a 4-by-4 piece of plywood and a portable DDR pad. Negative Space and PhoenixTPI brought the pad, a Cobalt Flux worth about $340. As usual, they have driven together from Platte City for the weekend.
At first, the guys are quiet, taking turns, busting heavy tap dances in the center of the room. An hour later, after the city's arcades start closing, more pairs of kids shuffle in. Then Bonfilio and his girlfriend return from her musical -- she's a dancer in the Blue Springs North High School production of Footloose. Soon, empty fast-food containers pile up on nearby countertops, and soda cans line the coffee table.
The dance order and number of songs each dancer will get are established.
About fifteen people cluster around the game. The room is a hurricane of chatter -- girls yelling to be heard, guys calling each other names, some making constant references to hard-ons, others whispering about their pent-up sexual energy. Someone starts sending instant messages to recruit more bodies. A 14-year-old from Overland Park responds; he's gaming elsewhere, but maybe he'll show tomorrow. For a minute, those who read his message are disappointed. The kid's footwork is rumored to be as fluid as mercury.
During one set, Novasonic, a thick high schooler wearing flashy red pants, stomps so heavily on the left arrow that the button sticks and the game jams. The kids reset the game, but it won't fix, so they grab screwdrivers and Windex and get down on their hands and knees to operate on the board.
"I understand how that could be a really strange thing for somebody, how someone could build something so strong about something so small," Bonfilio says later. "A lot of people wouldn't understand that we're just like everyone else. You get to talking, and you find out you have more in common with these guys than just arrow stomping." Each person waiting in line to play comes from a similar caste: computer geek, choirboy, bottom rung of the high school hierarchy.
Nearing midnight, the apartment still rattles. The TV, hooked to half-blown computer speakers, blasts DJ Sammy's version of "Heaven": Baby you're all that I want/When you're lying here in my arms/ I find it hard to believe/ We're in heaven.
At this moment, the same song is probably playing in real dance clubs, where of-age partiers hump and grind together, socializing the old-fashioned way. Here, though, the crowd watches each robotic dancer for footwork accuracy, not sexiness.
Out of work and out of grace, Giles thinks Spring Madness might be a chance for redemption. Along with Damien (the 14-year-old prodigy from Overland Park), Giles is among the tournament's local favorites.
Giles spent the winter working night shifts at a packing company in Independence, loading seasoning salt and marinades and salad dressings into boxes. But by March he would be fired.
One day in mid-February, he stands in the center of the arcade at Lunar Bowl in Blue Springs.
Aside from a guy reloading a soda machine and a little girl playing a mechanical claw game, the room is empty. Behind him, the screens blink different realities: Save the earth from aliens. Race in a grand prix. Street-fight the world's biggest badasses.
Giles' mom is sewing DDRKC sweatshirts that will be ready for sale at Spring Madness, he says. In late January, Eastglen managers accused him of tampering with a video game's coin-collection system and banned him. He says Eastglen has agreed to grant him special permission to return for the contest, but he's having second thoughts.
There comes a time in every sport when competitors are past their prime.
"Lately it's all about speed," he says. "Whatever happened to playing for fun?"
Giles pops two tokens into the machine and flips through the set list as the neon-covered speakers blast samples: a Ricky Martin knockoff, a thumping Vivaldi, an electric Chopin. He picks the "freestyle" setting and turns his back on the machine. No one plays freestyle these days, because it means abandoning the arrows and coming up with your own routine. He choreographed this dance at home.
Head bowed, he kneels on the makeshift dance floor. When the techno beat drops, he's on his feet. He takes a few steps and then jumps 180 degrees to face forward. He crosses his arms in front of him while high-stepping, boy-band style, and then drops back to the floor to pound arrows with his palms. He grabs the bar behind him and takes three giant steps up the side of the machine, kicking off and landing back on the pad.
The beat throbs. He raises his middle finger toward the screen.