On Fighting Games

So I saw Lana Polansky tweet this:

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.

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13 Responses to On Fighting Games

  1. Interesting point but I don’t quite follow. How is Street Fighter different in this regard than other eSports games like StarCraft 2 or other fighting sports like Kickboxing?

    • kunzelman says:

      The process probably isn’t all that different–in fact, the Geertz piece that I semi-cite is really about the same phenomenon in chicken fighting. At the end of it, I think that fighting games’ focus on fast play and quick defeat probably just accelerates this phenomenon–it draws out more intense emotions, and without a strong community assertion about what is and is not okay to scream at a screen, violent language gets thrown around.

  2. It seems to me like the thing that makes StarCraft 2 a much more civilized community is the fact that it is big enough to a professional broadcasting sub-culture. So there are people within the community dedicated on maintaining an official image of what pro StarCraft 2 players stand for. They are the gatekeepers making sure that certain standards of sportsmanship and mutual respect are maintained. This is not only a superficial PR thing, it’s also something that reflects back on the community.

    Street Fighter was always more grass roots and never reached that critical mass. So what we see today may be the growing pains. I don’t think that getting out is the right way to go. On the contrary. The community needs people to step in and to become it’s voice. Otherwise, some bearded guy can just take the mic and talk trash.

    One aspect you haven’t mentioned is that the game’s designers / publishers may be contributing to this kind of culture. After all, the characters in the game are embodied racist/sexist stereotypes. The advertisements for those games are equally horrible.

    I don’t think they are causing this mentality. But it’s no wonder they attracted a questionable audience.

  3. Fred says:

    Your remarks are perhaps cogent to a real, existing fighting game community or “scene”, but I am not sure if I agree that we can attribute this negative, even dangerous behavior with the form of the fighting game itself. I follow you on all of your points until where you suggest that it is the form of the game that “inculcates” this behavior in the player. I do not know if you have demonstrated this as particular to the fighting game genre–you say and I agree with you that competitive skill-based games “make an explicit attachment of the player to the game itself” and indeed you do cede that this process of player-game attachment is at play in many other kinds of games, not strictly fighting games.

    So what makes fighting games particular? Perhaps it is, as you mentioned in the comment above, the speed of play, and the pugilistic nature of the action unfolding on the screen amplify these negative behaviors, but do they actually engender them? I do not see why the same sort of negative behavior could not surface in any sort of multi-player skill-based competitive game, for example in a two-player puzzle game.

    On another note, how do you think this process might work in fighting games that are cooperative? It’s kind of an outmoded genre, but I’m thinking of the classic beat-em-ups like Streets of Rage or Battletoads–very similar mechanics of proper fighting games with a slight twist. Here I think there is still competition between the human players (who is the most effective at wiping out baddies, who dies the least, and so on), but the on-screen melée is with computer-controlled combatants–the human players have a common objective.

    For what it’s worth, I never cared much for fighting games but Streets Of Rage II is my shit.

  4. Black Steve says:

    I agree with Fred, man. The self-identification that fighting game players have with their game skills is no different from the self-identification that players of other game genres have. Consider online scores. Every online score or ranking corresponds to a username or account that has oftentimes voluntarily agreed to post that score. If that’s not a virtual representation of one’s skill, I don’t know what it is.

    When you speak of the dynamics of the fighting game community, I see the same “hazing” ritual that I see in place in literally millions of other communities. Comic book nerds, die-hard music fans, hip-hop heads, sneakerheads and tons of other groups practice this same form of one-upmanship. I use “one-upmanship” very deliberately. As you know, these communities are overpopulated with men who are socialized in ways that see gender and racial violence as okay. The dudes calling each other “bitches” and “pussies” are just as apt to use those terms when playing games as they are when playing sports.

    If you want to know why the fighting game community is violently sexist and racist violence, you’ll have to look further than just the medium that that community is formed around. The content of the games, the demographics of the community and the political economy of fighting games and video games in general are much better leads.

    • Black Steve says:

      Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that that Bakhtanian guy is an asshole.

    • kunzelman says:

      My response to the comment at the top is basically my response here. I think everyone can agree that the “video game community” is fucked up, and that the political economy is probably misogynist at the core, and you’re right that we need to evaluate that. But fighting games are a simulation-that-is-not-a-simulation, by which I mean that it isn’t really attempting to simulate real-world fighting or real-world competition. I would argue that fighting games aren’t even representational of fighting, but rather they are reflexive and strategic challenges with fighting window dressing. Another example of this would be Old West style slot machines–they are ostensibly simulating Old West gunfights, but in reality they are mere slot machines. The mask is not representative of the face, I guess.

      So maybe a clarification of the post is that, by design, fighting games are arcane–they require intimate, deep knowledge that is inaccessible for all but the most devoted players. The fact that these games keep being made says something about the state of the genre–no one is making easier fighting games. This appeal to a hardcore crowd, and creating control mechanisms that are deep enough to appeal to that crowd, implicitly supports the kinds of excluding communities that fighting games engender.

      I don’t know, I’m still working with this, but I think this whole conversation is a good start to thinking through fighting games. Fred and I were gchatting, and he brought up Super Smash Brothers, which is on face a “casual” fighting game that people make super serious. Maybe it has to do with the way certain games have a potential for competitive deep play. Or maybe I’m just wrong.

      • Black Steve says:

        Actually fighting games are getting easier. Major fighting games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Tatsunoko vs Capcom, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Street Fighter 4 and Blaz Blue were designed with simpler button and game mechanics than their predecessors so that they could be more accessible (read more successful). “Easy to play, difficult to master” is pretty explicitly the fighting game paradigm these days. Still, the arcane argument is interesting. I look forward to you fleshing it out a little more.

        • kunzelman says:

          When we talk about fighting game communities, I think we are implicitly talking about the people who care about the mid-to-master levels of play, not just random people who picked up the game.

  5. Lana says:

    Very interesting piece. While I see your point about fighting games creating a hyper-competitive atmosphere and sometimes encouraging hostility, I take issue with a couple of points.

    The first is that I feel as if my words were taken a little bit out of context here. When I tweeted about what I thought fighting games where “about,” I was responding to Aris’s suggestion that things like sexual harassment are so intrinsically, irreplaceable a part of the community that to be aware of or to remove them would so drastically change the competitive aspect that it wouldn’t be the same anymore. My problem with this, of course, is that I play fighting games. Ok, not exceptionally well, but I do play. I’ve met players and community pockets which are respectful, amiable, sportsmanlike–but still competitive. Trash-talking and ribbing were constant–but did I ever once feel targeted, personally attacked, or intimidated by anything other than my own lack of skill? No. I’ve also witnessed the opposite situation, where somebody loses their cool and says something regrettable. Is that the game coaxing or encouraging them to say those precise things? I don’t think so. That, and I may be wrong here, is somebody who already responds and behaves this way given a) the right context to express these ideas–where it’s not regulated, or even questioned and/or b) pretty much any time they get frustrated, because chances are this is someone who has trouble expressing their anxiety in any other way.

    I also don’t believe that the core design of fighting games are necessarily predicated on bigotry and hate–competition, yes; exclusion based on performance, yes; trash-talking, most definitely–but discrimination based upon anything else is an example of player entitlement coming out through frustration. When you say that these games are like templates which take on the subjectivity of the players, that’s quite true. A lot of games and activities do that, and many require extensive practice, deep play and incredible discipline and concentration. Yet how is it that some communities have established an environment where this kind of thing is not openly acceptable (imagine a musician messing up a note on stage during a music competition, and instead of playing it off they jump up, start yelling racial slurs, and smash their instrument on the ground? There would be consequences, right? I hope so.) and some have gone in the complete opposite direction? (I also acknowledge that music has its own social ecology and problems stemming from that, so it’s not a perfect diameter, here.)

    I think the problem is here that certain superficial game design elements (and not-so-superficial ones, like HP and stamina stats) do cater to a certain demographic of players, which have, for years, fostered a sort of “this is our tree house, no girls allowed” mentality to how they run their communities. Companies cater to fan service all the time. And players themselves, many of whom have actually grown up with these games and in some cases have, in other walks of life, taken it upon themselves to persecute and exclude women, or other races, or what-have-you, until it becomes convenient to them, have become complacent and entitled to a certain way in which the community is supposed to function. Another problem is that many players, who have worked very hard, subscribe to the “all things being equal” fantasy, where they assume that the personal attacks faced by minorities are just those young noobs earning their stripes, like they did. And if they can’t handle it, too bad. Problem is, of course, when you’re THE ONLY ONE LIKE YOU in the room, and you’re the source or mockery and derision for it, you feel targeted, isolated and discouraged. Unfortunately, a lot of players don’t see this because they’ve been quite privileged in ways the new player hasn’t. On top of that, accomplished players may forget what it’s like to be in that position altogether. It’s hard to get to a level of expertise when you can’t even be comfortable in a room with other players, which helps more privileged members to believe that “x kind of person can never be good at this.” And so we have on our hands a self-fulfilling prophecy of exclusion and discrimination.

    So do these things represent problems? Absolutely. Do companies market games to a certain kind of gamer for business reasons? Yep. And do these things help encourage problems in a culture already beleaguered by a checkered past, both micro- and macroscopically? Boy howdy, do they ever. But the core design elements of hyper-competition and discipline are not a one-way street to hatred and prejudice. Rather, it’s a sort of vicious circle, where the subjectivity and time put in for these games helps to bring out negative perceptions or misconceptions, which is hardly regulated and regularly tolerated within these communities. I don’t think the answer here is to abandon the games. I think it’s to start forcing these long-complacent and extremely sensitive communities to really start reflecting on how they’ve allowed certain power dynamics to succeed. I think it’s high time marginalized players and bothered majority group players to question what the hegemonies of some communities have become based on, and begin to challenge and check the behavior which discourages or excludes players for any other reason than their playing ability. When someone says something grossly personal and out-of-line, they ought to face consequences, at least be forced to apologize (will this help? I don’t know. Now I’m just brainstorming). When someone says something racially or sexually violent out loud in a public environment–escort them away. Take away their privileges. Let them now that the game is more than just a sum of mechanical know-how–there’s a new dynamic to the attitude which goes with it. But to say it’s some genetic malfunction of games themselves? Again, I’m not convinced.

    When Aris rationalizes it as intrinsic and other gamers lash out that anything else is to “air dirty laundry” and assume that by some of the community (or even most) we mean to say every and all parts of said community? To me, that sounds a little defeatist and kind of like a justification to just let things be. Of course, what you have to say and what Aris said are two entirely different things and I don’t mean to equate them. However, something about the general argument that “it’s the game’s fault” comes off a little bit as passing the buck, and as someone who loves these games and still loves aspects of these communities, I simply can’t accept that. We can be better, we can mature. But we have to stop kidding ourselves and take some damn responsibility for the things we say.

    • kunzelman says:

      I think that we’re in 99% of agreement here, but with the caveat that I (obviously) think that games are designed to encourage this behavior. Our fundamental disagreement, I believe, happens somewhere around where you say that fighting games are based around “competition, yes; exclusion based on performance, yes; trash-talking, most definitely.” I think that these conditions are the root of sexism and racism, and I think that design elements that push these qualities to the max implicitly encourage problematic behavior. I have a post that I am working on (that I will be sure to let you know about) that delves into some of the design elements that encourage this behavior.

      Thank you for your long, great response, and I didn’t mean to mischaracterize you by quoting your tweet. I quoted it to provide a jumping-off point for my thought process about game design, not for any other reason, and I assume that a reader could figure out that you weren’t precluding problematic behavior.

      • Lana says:

        No worries. I didn’t suspect any ill intent on your part. I just wanted to make myself clear.

        Yeah, the idea of game competition leading to bigotry in any sense is pretty much our fundamental disagreement. In any other competitive game or sport, where there are instances of bigotry and discrimination, it usually is manifested as a result of pride and cultural identity brushing up against the long-standing paradigms born from imperialism and colonialism. And you see the same crap turning up in fighting games too. These are things which permeate so many aspects of society and yet, I have seen competitions or individuals, within fighting games and without, which don’t subscribe to this. When someone chooses to discriminate against, say, the female minority in the FGC, or they say something hateful because they’re angry, I don’t think that points to one single root cause (namely, the game itself encouraging these things). Competition and hierarchy can force the worst sort of ethnocentrism or chauvinism to surface, but it also implies that these things already have to be present in the culture. If these games mirror the players in a subjective way, I can’t justify an objective argument that they necessarily lead to sexist and racist attitudes. I can also speak from the less reliable, though relevant, anecdotal evidence from my own life experiences.

        I still think it’s possible to encourage certain types of sportsmanship and respectful behaviour without compromising the competitive aspect. No one would have to disregard professional skill or abandon tournament trees or tiers. So when I see active forms of sexual or racial prejudice in areas of competition like this, all I see are people too insecure to be threatened or undermined by a traditionally disadvantaged kind of person. And to me, this actually stifles true competition, rather than encourages it.

        Of course competition, stress, failure and pride can bring out the worst in people. But I still believe that this is lies on a spectrum of behaviour in which each person must be held responsible and accountable for how they behave. If a player, even in the most subconscious or indirect of ways, naturally confounds social or cultural prejudice with performance and achievement, that’s the player’s disease. Sadly, it’s a widespread disease, but not everyone happens to be badly infected. This is an important distinction, I think. The FGC should not be compelled to defend or apologize for such a person, nor should they be ignoring, dismissing or rationalizing some pretty obvious and fairly rectifiable problems (although this is a long and difficult road) because of it.

        Anyway, I apologize for my rambling, and I look forward to your next piece!

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