So I made a post in which I critiqued the way that fighting games are designed. In the post, I made the claim that the very way that fighting games are designed enables and engenders a sense of intolerance in players, which often takes the verbal form of misogynistic and racist comments made to other players. I wasn’t very clear about which design elements in fighting games made them sites for this kind of intolerance to occur and flourish, and that was a real oversight on my part; several commenters pointed out that any competitive sport could, and often do, cause the effects that I was pointing out. And I have to agree, which is why I am making this post to clarify my position a little.
To begin with, and to be absolutely clear, I am not saying that fighting games turn people into bigots. There is no direct causation between playing fighting games and saying misogynistic and bigoted things. Rather, the argument I am making is about the way that the design of fighting games creates a very specific way of thinking about the world, and that that thinking can make one more inclined to adopt problematic behaviors.
As a way of getting started, I want to talk about Lana Polansky’s comment on my previous post. She said that she does not believe that fighting games coax or encourage players to say the “precise things” that are misogynistic or racist (refer to the previous post for a eSportsman suggesting that “rape that bitch” is acceptable trash talk), and I agree with her. I don’t think that the game makes players say precise things, but I do think that all media, whether we like it or not, colonizes us. It forces us to think in certain paradigms, and mostly those paradigms are problematic. People learn through mimesis, repetition, and enforcement, and as Jane McGonigal has been shouting from rooftops for a couple years now, games certainly provide a place for those learning factors to proliferate.
With that said, I want to talk about four different design elements that are common to the fighting game genre that push a problematic ideology onto the players. So lets call this
Four Ways a Fighting Game Creates a Player
1. The Shape of the World
Fighting games really only occur in a 2d world. Though there are some that are 3d, in that there are three axes of movement, the way that all fighting games are experienced lends to a 2d world. Characters a seen in silhouette, striking to the right and the left respectively. The world of the fighting game is precisely this–for example, the Soul Caliber games make reference to a broader world of myth and mystery, but the only interaction that the player has with that is through text and video; the gameplay, the real experiential part of the game for the player, only takes place in that 2d world. A reduction is performed on the game world–fighting games are in a unique position in that they are one of the few genres (with sports games, a genre that shares a lot of fighting games’ problems) in which the core gameplay is the only experience the player has in the game.
I might be being a little unclear here. What I mean is that the whole game experience, everything that can be understood as the “game” in the video game, happens in the conflict between the two combatants on screen. In Street Fighter II, the only experiential event that the player will have is hitting buttons and attacking the other player. It is a barebones experience. In contrast to this, a Call of Duty game includes story interludes, moments of inactivity, and cinematic events. In those games, a fictional world and gameplay mechanics are presented to players at the same time; they mediate the experience that the player has, creating a “cushion” between the player’s control of the character and the macro- and micro-effects that the character has on the world.
This cushion disappears in fighting games. It becomes a strict algorithm of input/output, of cause and effect. I wrote a little about this in the previous post, so refer to it for more, but the takeaway is that the fighting game understanding of a “game world” is one that is purely functional with no virtual reality of its own. It is one of strict rules that govern a very specific kind of confrontation, and more, the game world exists only to embody this confrontation. There is no possibility of cooperative alliance between players. There are no treaties to end the violence. If this is true, then another element of fighting games comes into play: strategy.
2. Deep Knowledge
In fighting games, strategy takes a particular form. In chess, strategy takes the form of understanding all of the potential moves that can be made during the current and future turns. In boxing, it means not only understanding the way that you and your opponent fight, but also knowing your own physical limits and the limits of the person who you are attacking. Fighting games are somewhere in the middle of that, requiring the encyclopedic understanding of the rules and game world like chess would, and also necessitating an knowledge of your player opponent and her capabilities.
I think that this post on Destructoid user nilcam’s blog actually says a lot about the way that fighting games create a sense of knowledge in the player. Nilcam makes a number of assertions about what must be known to the player, and they really all come down to minimizing the potential for random occurrence in the game. It becomes a disciplinary practice, a way of turning the player/subject into a being that is most attuned to the rule systems that govern the game as well as the character she prefers to play as. And as Nilcam states blatantly at the bottom of the post, all of this knowledge and self-discipline has one output: control of the game. It is all a part of strategy.
This is what I mean when I responded to a comment on my previous post by talking about how fighting games are designed to be arcane. They have strange rules about juggling and air combos and high kick/low kick offense-defense paradigms. A player, to be good at the game, has to adopt a knowledge that is massive, much more than any other kind of game. This provides a convenient transition to…
3. The Speed of the Game
This video on the history of Street Fighter makes several points about the development of the series. One commenter says that “There was just something weird about the way that you had to get good at that game…the discipline that came with getting good at that game.” Obviously that has to do with the above knowledge and discipline, but it is also has to do with the actual technology of playing the game. The video that I linked a second ago also mentions the key development in the history of fighting games: the invention of a better chipset that could read the intricate movements of a joystick. Paul Virilio’s work on speed and politics is relevant here; we are addicted to making things faster and more accurate, and the process of development in any technological field is intimately tied to that desire.
So adaptation and deep knowledge are also tied to a system of developed reflexes–the game requires the player to physically become a better adaptive interfacing being; a cyborg in a Harawayan sense. The fighting game has only gotten more complex since Street Fighter II, and so we have to imagine that today’s medium-skilled player has more time and effort into the game than an old-school, arcade-disciplined player. While doing some googling to research this piece, I found this random (a little creepy) blog. The blogger writes that, and I’m not correcting any spelling or grammar,
Capcom has stated many times that they want to start making their games appeal to the “casual” audience to try and drive up sales, but what they don’t understand is when they make games to appeal to those people I find that it can sometimes hinder the game.
I think this is a common opinion of contemporary fighting games, and more importantly, it is also revealing about the effect that adaptation and self-discipline have on the player: it makes them think that the people who have not gone through the same training are actively attempting to alter, or maybe ruin, the game. I am not claiming that this happens on a conscious level–actually, I would say that this is subconscious 99% of the time, and the fact that the blogger was open enough to suggest that casual players make the game experience less for her/him is pretty amazing.
4. A World of Objective Truths
Miguel Sicart writes in his The Ethics of Computer Games that one of the fundamental differences between real-world, lived games and computer games is how the rules are enforced. Two players can agree to change the rules in real life and they change. In a video game, no matter how much Player 1 and Player 2 want to change the way things are scored, they cannot. There are objective truths about the game that cannot be broken. While some games, like the Tekken franchise for instance, have options in place to change life totals and things like that, there is no way to change the fundamental precepts of the game while playing. The rules of the game are written in stone as far as the player is concerned.
That means that a fight in a fighting game is distinctly different than a fight in the real world. In a real fight, there is a “counter” for everything that exists outside the rules of a fight. If I am accosted, I can run away. In a fighting game, that is impossible. Roger Callois, in his writing on the idea of “play,” says that play is “accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free reality, as against real life.” Real life is full of problems that cannot be solved with objective wrongs, rights, and plugged-in answers. Fighting games, existing against reality, only possess wrongs and rights; they foster an objective understanding of the world on the player. The world becomes a rigid space in which there are quantities of resistance that can be accosted and beaten down until the opponent is defeated – these are hit points or a life bar or whatever we want to call them. There are correct and incorrect responses which correlate to safe and unsafe ways of playing–there are moves that work and those that don’t.
So that was a lot of talk about design. Let’s bring it all together now.
The creation of a 2d world in which all space can be controlled and there are objective truths that can solve all of the issues in that world is problematic on its own. It reeks of Positivism and a lack of reflexive understanding of the self, and when that ideology is imprinted on the player, problems ensue. I’m not going to quote Nietzsche at length or anything, but it stands that the kind of reasoning and Being that fighting games engender is problematic because it does not reflect the real world. However, people who are colonized by the ideology of fighting games, people who have accidentally drank the Kool-Aid, experience this all on a phenomenological level. Video games are a medium that structures our understanding of reality, and fighting games are no different.
The deep knowledge required to play and the speed of the game are interrelated, both acting together to create a skill barrier to entry and a sense of belonging to the people who have succeeded in being a part of the game playing group. The work that I did above is more of a defense of the writing I did in my previous post, and I hope that those reading both see how the two arguments fit together.
So I still have to defend why I think these design elements create harassing and exclusive behavior. As a couple people have pointed out, there are subjective elements to harassment and violent language–a person who thinks those things are more likely to say them, after all. That is true and I agree with it 100%; this is not simply a “game tells you what to do, you do it” kind of thing. Rather, these elements feed back and forth and create an economy of desire investment.
That said, I am more than willing to said that the way fighting games structure reality definitely teaches players a certain way of viewing the world. I particularly think that the health bar mentality gets absorbed by a lot of players–if you can shout someone down and harass them enough, they have a limit where they will fail. Just like Ken will fall if you punch him in the knee enough, a human being will crumble under enough brute force assaults on their psyche. Both rhetorical and physical space become something to be controlled and asserted over, and so when Bakhtanians says that violent and exclusionary language is integral to the community, what he is really saying is that the language is part and parcel with the way fighting games frame the world. Other players, like virtual fighters, become objects to be dominated. Calling someone a bitch is the rhetorical equivalent to a punch in the gut.
And it is wrong. Polansky is correct in calling for ways of thinking outside of this, and I think the first step is for all eSport organizations to make strong rules against violent language. This policy could even be pretty lax–I can’t imagine that even the most hardcore libertarian would defend the moral right for a person to yell “rape that bitch” at a giant screen (I’m sorry I keep mentioning this, it is horrifying to me). We also need to make sure that people from all walks of life feel included in video game communities, and that requires good old fashioned self-policing. If you are reading this and you like to say misogynistic or racist things while playing games, I am telling you now that you shouldn’t. So stop.
Maybe that is really the key. Maybe making giant blog posts isn’t the real answer. Maybe the answer is being openly critical of the people who do these things. Another one might be actually thinking about the way games are designed and how that has an impact on the way that we play them and then experience the world afterward. Yet another is active inclusion–we should make a strong effort to make people feel good and to play games together. Is this really that hard? It is really that hard to not be a misogynist asshole?
In any case, this took a long time, so I hope you enjoyed it.