On this week’s episode of The Arena, Erik Kersting, Daniel Marques, and I played Street Fighter V. This week, we continued our tour of the games featured at the Intel World Open, slated to lead up to the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo. Nation-based teams will compete in Street Fighter V and Rocket League tournaments, each with their own $250,000 prize pool. While taking turns fighting one another in Street Fighter V, we discussed (1) the idea of competitive play as cooperative play, (2) the time investment necessary to master fighting games and related challenges for newcomers, (3) the relationship between fighting games and competitive gaming as a whole, and (4) questions of representation within fighting games.
Competitive Play as Cooperative Play
One of our ongoing conversations throughout the stream centered around the idea of competitive play as a form of cooperative play. While fighting games have a simple objective (reduce the opponent’s HP to zero while maintaining as much of your own HP as possible), we don’t necessarily see our opponent as an “enemy.” Rather, to a certain extent, you cooperate with your opponent to have fun. As we discussed through an interview with Masahiro Sakurai, creator of the Super Smash Bros. franchise, when you don’t cooperate with your opponent to create a fun and fair environment, you can leave feeling pretty shoddy. As Sakurai explains in the interview, part of the inspiration for creating Super Smash Bros. was the long-standing issue of inexperienced players encountering significant challenges when picking up a fighting game. He recounts an experience of relentlessly crushing a couple in a Japanese arcade, feeling guilty about his overwhelming victory after realizing they were likely new to fighting games.
Similarly, as Daniel points out, when you’re playing a skilled player and they’re challenging you to be your best, they’re pushing you through a competitive game mechanic to progressively improve your own skills. This led to an extended discussion about the relationship between each player’s respective skill levels. In fighting games, the concrete rules and objectives can reduce the fun of playing someone with a significantly lower skill level in a competitive setting, providing that winning is your only goal. However, within friendly play, the in-game mechanics and one-on-one experience are enjoyable to engage with even when you lose repeatedly. This calls into question why we play games. In an earlier episode of The Arena, we discussed questions of enjoyment and what kinds of enjoyment you can derive from playing a competitive game or participating in eSports.
Even in matches with players who aren’t that close in skill level, the experience of fighting games produces anxiety. Moreover, as Erik pointed out, just a few seconds in a fighting game will alter the trajectory of the match. However, it bears mentioning that at a certain skill level, the ability to read another player’s movement can undo the damage of those few crucial seconds. Daigo Umehara’s legendary “Daigo Parry” from the 2004 Evolution Championship Series proves the opportunity for redemption, given that Daigo came back and won with near-zero HP thanks to exceptionally skillful parrying.
Challenges Faced by Newcomers to Fighting Games: Time Investment and Mastery
At the beginning of the stream, we spent a good amount of time trying to learn combos to demonstrate how difficult fighting game mechanics can be. In comparison to our discussion from an earlier episode of The Arena wherein we played Magic the Gathering: Arena, Street Fighter V’s training mechanic provides far more detailed UI and stylistic information to help new players become familiar with each character’s specific combos and moves. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to become a “Street Fighter master” in two hours. It takes hours of practice to learn the combos, develop a playstyle, and begin to understand how to read various opponents. Needless to say, Sakurai’s opponents were not nearly at his level of mastery or time investment.
Fighting Games and Competitive Gaming
As we’ve seen on previous episodes of The Arena, some contemporary competitive games require 12 or up to 100 different players all competing on a single map from their individual computers. Comparatively, fighting games provide another way to understand competitive gaming because a player sits with their opponent, as Sakurai explains in an interview. This spatial setup does not allow the player to forget their opponent or their opponent’s role in creating the fun, competitive experience of a match. Fighting games have a long history of LAN parties and console-based competition that foreground two players with individual controllers connected to the same console. Unlike games like Rocket League, Realm Royale, or Overwatch (among many others), fighting games have an addictive quality in part because two players share space for about 90 seconds per match, feeling the adrenaline rush of competing face-to-face and building off one another’s affective responses.
Questions of Representation Within Fighting Games
As the three of us pointed out, fighting games provide questionable representations of nationality, the body, gender, and ethnicity.
Erik pointed out that bodies in the Street Fighter franchise are especially essentialized. Female-presenting characters have less HP than male-presenting characters and are (mostly) scantily dressed. Comparatively, male-presenting characters are physically exaggerated and have bulging muscles.
We had an extended conversation about the troublesome representation of characters like Rashid and Blanka. Rashid’s character design seems essentialized, decked out in military equipment and Middle Eastern-seeming clothing. It bears mentioning that Rashid’s nationality is unclear, but his character stats card notes he is the “eldest son of a wealthy Middle Eastern Family.” Blanka, a scary forest monster, was the only representation for Brazil between Street Fighter II (1991) and Street Fighter III (1997). As Daniel points out, developers exaggerate character traits to make the character’s nationality and ethnicity amply clear. To this, Erik made a counterpoint that considers the franchise’s global popularity, noting that we can read these hyperbolic representations positively. Rashid is a “good guy” in the lore, offering positive representation. It would be different if Rashid was presented stereotypically and as a “villain.”
We also discussed the fact that the representation of space is an ongoing problem for video games. Looking at the Brazilian Hillside Plaza stage in Street Fighter V, Daniel points out that Brazil doesn’t actually look like that. So much so that the bird flying around on the map is actually an endangered species and wouldn’t be flying around a fruit stand, not to mention the problematic Carnaval dancers in the left knockout zone. While the game may be attempting to present an idealized version of a real space, there is still the issue of unrealistic representation that may create a problematic relationship with that space. As I mentioned on stream, Overwatch suffers from the same issue. The Dorado (Mexico) map was accidentally based on Manarola, an Italian city. Similarly, the Havana (Cuba) map lacks most of Overwatch’s famously high-tech elements, instead suggesting that in the game’s late twenty-first-century setting, Cuba’s greatest technological advancement is that the dilapidated 1950s American muscle cars hover. Moreover, as Daniel points out while fighting in Street Fighter V’s Kanzuki Estate map, the mountain in the stage background looks like Mt. Fuji. Collectively, the cherry blossom trees and Japanese-style pagodas all suggest that the estate is in Japan. But nevertheless, these representations force us as players and spectators to fill the gaps based on our personal experiences and culturally–generated assumptions of what a space can and should look like, often disregarding the real conditions of those spaces.
Discussion Questions to Grapple With
In a larger conversation about the difficulties that newcomers face when picking up a fighting game and grappling with all its mechanical challenges, this question came up: while newcomers definitely struggle with fighting games, as Sakurai himself points out, isn’t the very fact that newcomers struggle to play the game part of the appeal for us to watch others play? We have discussed the concept of “metas” a few different times now, and while we did not explore that idea in specific terms for Street Fighter V, this question did come up: we vaguely discussed the different types of fighting game players (e.g. grapplers, punishers, patient players, blockers, etc.), so within the genre of fighting games, is that something that developed over time (like a meta) or has that always been a core component of fighting games? Based on our discussion of Sakurai and his explanation of how he felt obliterating opponents with a significantly lower skill level, where’s the line between becoming a better player through healthy competition and toxic behavior featuring someone relentlessly destroying someone at a lower skill level? As we discussed with fellow Serious Play member Ryan House through Twitch chat, the “line” between healthy competition and relentless destruction may be more of a spectrum.
Interview with Masahiro Sakurai: https://www.sourcegaming.info/2015/06/22/vol71/ Intel World Open website: https://www.intelworldopen.gg/ Dexerto’s article about Street Fighter V and Rocket League’s roles leading up to the 2020 Summer Olympics: https://www.dexerto.com/rocket-league/street-fighter-rocket-league-headed-olympics-sort-of-1013843 Rashid’s Street Fighter V stats card: https://sfv.fandom.com/wiki/Rashid?file=StreetFighter5RashidStats.jpg GameSpot’s article on the Manarola mix-up: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/overwatchs-dorado-map-was-accidentally-based-on-th/1100-6448124/ RockPaperShotgun’s piece on the Havana map’s questionable representation of a future Cuba: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2019/04/20/overwatchs-cuban-cars-highlight-a-dedication-to-aesthetic-over-context/