Some Design Elements in Fighting Games

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.

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5 Responses to Some Design Elements in Fighting Games

  1. Skylar says:

    Really enjoyed your simplistic ending, exclusivity found within groups and subgroups prevents the interlocking between communities.

    I’ll quote ya a few times for this next comment.

    Video games are a medium that structures our understanding of reality
    existing against reality, only possess wrongs and rights
    Positivism and a lack of reflexive understanding of the self

    Do you think a lack of understanding of the outside world and a feeling that the outside world’s confusing, non simplified nature allow people to attempt to apply their Positivism to games instead of the things around them?
    As they play more and more they are classically imprinted with a “new” reality and the lack of rules that govern that reality stem the problems you see?

    • kunzelman says:

      I’m not sure how to answer your first question, but I certainly think that any media, being a form of communication, shapes the world that we live in. The more you invest in a way of thinking about the world, the more that you start to believe it is true–that is ideology at the bottom.

  2. Black Steve says:

    I think that you’ve done it again, man. None of the design elements that you mention are unique to fighting games and even when combined, their product is not unique. The immutability of the game rules is especially questionable. Games do have rigid structures that encourage and discourage certain types of play, especially fighting games, but these structures do not absolutely preclude free play. Tommee and I play Marvel vs Capcom 2 in spite of a serious skill disparity that sharply leans towards me. For balance, we’ve decided that he gets a handicap and plays with certain, better characters (the game is radically unbalanced). This is clearly an example of us changing the game. Beyond fighting games, people do this all the time with card games when they decide whether or not to play with jokers/mavericks. To clarify, I’m not saying that we’re changing the game itself, which seems to be what you’re arguing. The reason I’m not addressing that argument is that all games have rules. If a game doesn’t have rules, it can’t be played fairly or at all.

    In addition to disagreeing with your assertion that game rules can never be changed, I also disagree that the “barebones” experience of fighting games is unique to fighting games, especially if Call of Duty is the model of a rich or involved experience. Have you forgotten about online play? Most games with online play reduce the game experience to just play, not just fighting games. Furthermore, the game world in fighting games is not separate from the fights themselves. I think you continue to think of Street Fighter II when you conceive of fighting games. In Street Fighter 4, each background has features indicating that the fight affects the game world – people cheer, objects explode, animals squaw, music plays that is allegedly related to the country the fight is in. This has actually been happening for awhile – the backgrounds in SF2 are also not static. That being said, whatever. Most people don’t give a fuck what stage they play on, In Street Fighter 4 or other Capcom games. With Super Smash Bros on the other hand, stage is everything. I don’t want to hark on about that though. Where I think your point really falls apart is with the idea of character design. If the fighting game experience was solely about disconnected entities, fighting, why would characters have background stories and multiple costumes and endings? Arcade mode is entirely character driven. All challengers are just obstacles on the road to filling out that character’s initially hazy life, which you learn about when you finish. If fighting games were barebones, I think we would just have barebones characters, skeletons, polygons. That’s not the case, especially when you consider games like Blaz Blue and Guilty Gear. The characters and the story are everything.

    When it comes to deep knowledge and speed, I don’t feel the need to elaborate. Across the board – literally, if you consider chess – arcana and fast execution are characteristics of high level gameplay.

    I definitely think that fighting game communities are fucked up, but not because of the intrinsic features of the games they play.

    • kunzelman says:

      I think that we just have to agree to disagree. I have arguments to make against all of your specific points, but I honestly think that I would just be repeating myself. I know that you have a lot invested in fighting games, and that definitely colors the way that you think through what I am saying. I also realize that I might not be totally convincing or clear, and I might even be absolutely wrong.

  3. Lana says:

    Again, interesting piece. Gave me a lot to think about.

    I will say that I do agree with you that fighting games do create an exclusionist (and to a certain extent, exceptionalist) environment based on “arcane” deep knowledge, accessibility and discipline. I also agree that this, coupled with speed and the sort of absolutism that comes with winning or losing–may incite in people brash and uncivil behaviour. I think we’ve already made it clear to each other that we agree on this part (I may have only mentioned this in my second reply which I’m not sure if you’ve read). But I think that one needs to look at this in a context of a complete social ecology which affects more than just fighting games (and, in fact, more than just videogames).

    There is in these games an immediacy and intimacy to the ludological elements, and by extension, to one’s opponent, which is not experienced in a game like CoD. Yet CoD, particularly in an online environment, is plagued with many of the same hostile, bigoted, posturing, domineering attitudes found in fighting games. I don’t even play on LIVE for what I can assume are pretty obvious reasons.

    In say, an organized real-world fighting competition (like a boxing match) or a professional team sport (ehh, let’s say hockey. I’m Canadian; I have my biases), we’re dealing with a mutable and “real world” situation (as in, not possessing secondary-reality semiotics of a videogame like the one you mention in your piece), which still has a fairly established, concrete and agreed upon set of rules to follow. It also has its own social hierarchies, own rituals, own codes of conduct. Unfortunately, these are sports which attract a lot of people who, as I mentioned last post, equate prowess or performance with racial and gender expectations and social constraints. Often, the people who do this fall into a fairly select part of society which wields far too much traditional authority and influence. As someone who has seen P.K. Subban, one of a handful of black NHL players, experience his share of unfair and unwarranted racial targeting–regardless of his formidable accomplishments as a hockey player–I feel confidently depressed that this is a widespread problem only exacerbated by the stress which comes to bear in contest, competition and hierarchy. In terms of sexism, just take a look at the state of women’s MMA or women’s professional hockey for all the respect and due those things don’t get. Homophobia is another issue in pro sports, with players terrified to come out because of strict heteronormative attitudes and terrifyingly violent male posturing even between team members. And hockey is a game which Canadian kids learn from a fairly young age, is strategically deep, dangerous and rather fast. But these issues go beyond the already surly and crude trash-talking which is encouraged as a part of competitive culture. But they do point to an intersection of competition, glory (or vainglory) and a whole host of cultural prejudices and insecurities embedded in our social infrastructure.

    So things like the passion and anger born of competition and stress, the exceptionalism and exclusionism of competitive sports, and the hierarchies/hegemonies inherent in performance-based achievement certainly have a place in bringing out the worst insecurities of people, but they are not the common denominator, and they are not unique to fighting games. If they were the common denominator, we ought never to have outlets for our competitive streaks, which can be expressed without supporting more insidious forms of intolerance (something which you and I seem to be more or less on the same page about, in terms of “self-policing,” regulation and enforcement).

    The other thing I want to address is the “positivism” that fighting games apparently espouse as part of their design. The “objective” confined space and ludology of these games are pretty unique, and maybe do say something about the culture or who it attracts. But I think in many areas of gaming, similar sorts of entitlement and arrogance rear their ugly heads. Again, an issue shows up in how this imprints upon the player. There may be a strong segment of players seeking identity in what these games and communities promise, but once again I think this might be a two-way street of players seeing in these communities something which reinforces an ever-present sense of entitlement, which, removed, becomes a feeling of inadequacy and persecution. They have identified a culture and a sense of self with an insular game community, not unlike a sports team has regional and cultural allegiances. Only this is a little deeper because of how small and concentrated the communities are. A player who can differentiate between the secondary reality of the game and the primary reality of real, organic world (and a reasonable person ought to be able to see a difference between the world of the game and the subjective and fluid strategies spun by real people from its rules and limitations) may not fall prey to its colonizing powers. At least, not necessarily.

    More aptly, and more importantly, this person might be able to distinguish between a win/loss condition of a game and the sometimes unpredictable and nuanced reactions of a live human being. The fact that some people refuse to acknowledge a measure of reality outside of their own solipsistic one may be reflected in why they respond to these games, but things like upbringing, socialization, privilege and history are equal if not greater factors in how broad and empathic a person’s worldview tends to be. Fighting games, sports leagues, closed forums–anything with a sense of ecology, hierarchy and community as well as a tendency for posturing and the establishment of personas or identities–can attract people like this, especially considering the white-hegemonic and male-dominant heteronormative culture we live in. But I still think, at the end of the day, that ribbing and hazing ritual is not *necessarily* the same thing as discrimination, intimidation and bigotry. One is not so inseparable from the other so as to weaken or fundamentally change the core essence of the games or the culture other than to diminish the parts of them inherited by imperialism and conventional sexism. That’s where I initially took issue with Aris’s statements (I really don’t want to bother spelling his last name…), in that I saw him trying to justify one thing by rationalizing it as another.

    So I think we agree that these problems should not be treated, at best, as endemic. They should not be ignored, dismissed, swept under the rug any more. The issue here–and I think this might support the idea of the core game mechanics influencing the culture–is in how exceptionalist, protectionist and insular the culture is. The fact that members of the FGC are more willing to defend the attackers and decry them and stand up for the victims points to their inability to take ANY criticism, exposing many of them as immature, insecure and petulant. And that’s a shame, because there really are some fabulous, talented people within the FGC. I think we can both agree that apologizing for assholes does a disservice to those good people, and that is what weakens the community, rather than moderation and self-reflection. The FGC *can* move past this if some of its members loosen the entrenchment of intense pride, self-absorption and perceived persecution and acknowledge some fallibility. But such are the pains of growing up and realizing there’s a whole wide world outside one’s toy box.

    And goodness, yes, I’d like to think being a misogynist (or racist/transphobic/homophobic) asshole isn’t so hard. But then again, we live in a world where we need to put instructions on door handles.

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