So I saw Lana Polansky tweet this:
Fighting games are about the spirit of competition, social bonding and the thrill of the fight. Not bullying and intimidation.
— Lana Polansky (@LanaMBP) February 28, 2012
My brain wheels immediately started reeling with disagreement. As it turned out, she was responding to an article/debacle about the nature of fighting games. Here is a Giant Bomb article explaining the whole thing.
Summary: Aris “Aris” Bakhtanians, some dude that plays fighting games, made the argument that trash talking predicated on misogyny is critical to fighting games. Like some kind of unnamed ruleset, this trash talking makes up a huge chunk of the gaming for Bakhtanians, so much that he claims that the language is what defines the sport of fighting games at its very core. Here is the huge, sexist, this-dude-is-trash pull quote:
Rea: When I go to SoCal regionals and I see a Phoenix [from Marvel vs. Capcom 3] on main stage getting blown up and there’s some dude in the audience just yelling “Bitch! Bitch!” every time she gets hit and then she killed and goes “Yeah, rape that bitch!” Yeah, that’s totally acceptable! Really? Really? You’re going to tell me that’s acceptable?
Bakhtanians: Look, man. What is unacceptable about that? There’s nothing unacceptable about that. These are people, we’re in America, man, this isn’t North Korea. We can say what we want. People get emotional.
And this is wrong, right? We can plainly see that this logic is problematic, justifies violence against women, presents women as targets to be abused, etc. I don’t want to dwell on this–if you don’t understand why saying these things are wrong, you should probably just stop reading and never come back to this blog.
But here is where I take issue with Polansky’s tweet: I think the very way that fighting games are designed creates this kind of mentality.
Anyone who has ever spent time around a group of people playing fighting games has seen this happen: someone is getting beaten, someone gets called a bitch, someone gets called a pussy, and it goes on and on. In the South, which is where I have spent the most time playing fighting games, racial slurs get thrown around a lot. And it isn’t isolated communities where this happens–it is dorm rooms, public facilities, recreation centers, and comic book shops. These kinds of communities, ones that are predicated on exclusion, are produced whenever fighting games are played consistently in groups.
At the bottom, it has to do with the way that fighting games are designed. First, and maybe most importantly, fighting games require intimate knowledge and skill. To be even moderately competent with any fighting game, the player has to spend hours upon hours playing, adapting, and learning movesets. This means that skill in a fighting game becomes attached to an investment of the self into the game; your win-loss ratio becomes tied to a personal identity. This is pretty apparent when you see the rituals that some fighting game players go through when it comes to their games–I know several people who will only use a certain controller that they bring with them to communal events.
Miguel Sicart writes in The Ethics of Computer Games:
What Crawford calls for seems to be what Juul defines as the emotional attachment to the outcome: we enjoy mastering a game, and we might get sad or disappointed when we lose. The experience of the game is so real that it affects our well-being. That experience is mediated, encapsulated in a fictional environment–the game world. The choices we take, our actions, all take place in the world of the game. They are real actions that take place an effect a ludic environment, a virtual world where interaction is limited by game rules.
In fighting games, the “mediated, encapsulated” effect is erased. There is no “world of the game” for fighting game communities. Instead, there are virtual representations of the player’s skill. Characters and environments are mere placeholders–Street Fighter could be stick figures for all anyone cares as long as the rules remain the same. The effect that Sicart identifies above is hyper-existent in fighting games: players become synonymous with their abilities, and any defense of the player or the player’s ability to perform becomes the utmost concern to the player. This is Geertz’s “deep play” taken to the absolute limit–the ego becomes attached to fingers and buttons.
So the design of the game requires an investment of the self; all games are like this in some capacity, right? Fighting games, in the way that they score and evaluate every punch and kick, make an explicit attachment of the player to the game itself. You are your performance.
This makes fighting game environments, by virtue of being based around fighting games, hostile. More than characters pitted against one another, they are players fighting other players. The command of the character is defined through the apparatus of the system (how many times have you heard “that controller is shitty/the game glitched”?), and so that becomes the way the individual, and the community, thinks of the player.
A new player entering this community can be one of two things: a victim or a threat. Both end badly.
If the new player is bad at the game, then they are a victim. They will get beaten repeatedly, called a “bitch,” and trashed repeatedly. This is, essentially, a kind of hazing ritual. The player either gets good and starts playing well, becoming part of the community, or leaves in disgust. Neither of those options are particularly good things. In the former scenario, they take on all the bad characteristics of the community. In the former, they are excluded from a (potentially) exciting and fun experience.
If the new player is good at the game, they are a threat. I think this is really where phrases like “Rape that bitch” come into play. Since fighting games begin to define the subjectivity of the player, any defeat by an outside actor becomes an assault on the self. The community, being accepting on the whole of misogyny and racism, defaults to the only position that it knows: violent exclusion. We can see what that means by reading Bakhtanians’ comments.
In essence, the kind of community that near-universally forms around fighting games of all kinds is merely reflective of the behaviors that fighting games inculcate in their players.
So what do we do about that?
We can make active inclusions. We could be aware of the behaviors that fighting game communities install in their participants and be openly critical of people like Bakhtanians. And this brings me back to Polansky’s tweet: bullying and intimidation are encouraged by fighting games. They create an atmosphere of play where that becomes a valid, and game-based, mode of expression against interlopers in the community.
My solution: I don’t play fighting games anymore.