I’ve seen FGC Twitter blow up a few times over the last few days about Todd Harper’s $125 culture of fighting games book, which in turn resurrected blowups about the presentation he did with Maddy Myers at a conference called No Show a few months ago. Missed it then, figured I ought to weigh in on a few things now. Strap yourself in; this one is a long read.
First off: Yeah, the book is $125. At that price it’s clearly not meant for anyone who the book is about to actually read, which is pretty shitty. Harper offered to lend me a copy so I can write about it, which is a nice thing. Honestly, I don’t think anyone writes a book about video games and thinks, “Yeah, I want to sell this for $125”; as much as I want to make fun of this, I used to work for a games conference that charges over a thousand dollars for prime access to The Halls Of Knowledge, so I can’t really say shit.
Second: The panel is bad in some very significant ways that make it much harder to actually take the useful stuff seriously (and there is useful stuff!). I don’t know to what extent the two of them have researched the FGC — a lot, I would hope, to present a talk called “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fighting Games (But Were Afraid to Ask)” — but I don’t think this presentation reflects particularly well on that.
Third: I know there are a lot of people who will reject anything remotely critical of the FGC on the Internet. Some people are just really defensive and hate being told that they’re hurting people; others are just tired of being painted with a really broad brush (think about how you feel about the most embarrassing public-facing member of your particular race, unless you’re white people, in which case, I dunno, think about your most embarrassing family member, I guess).
If this is your first time reading this blog or anything I have written: Hi! I am not one of those people. I think criticism is part of making sure a community grows stronger and healthier, and I’m very much invested in seeing the FGC become more inclusive because it’s honestly one of the best things that have ever happened to me, and I want others to share in that. However, I think there’s more to useful criticism than just pointing fingers, and I’m particularly aware of who is doing the criticizing, especially as said criticism crosses race, gender, sexuality, class, and so on.
Know that no matter what, any time someone asks the FGC to take a step forward, there will be an army of anonymous trolls who shit on you basically just because. There’s no winning them over. But here’s what’s at stake for me: I think when criticism is done well, it gives the people who organize and lead their little chunks of the FGC a new tool to help shape the community into something better than it currently is; when criticism is done less-well, it just feeds the trolls and stream monsters.
In other words, measure your success not by troll Amazon reviews, but by the mindshare you win over with the people in the community who do the grassroots organizing, who run the tournaments, who make the shows and do the commentary, and who make the games.
Now here’s my breakdown of the talk.
Alienation and othering as a recurring theme
I wasn’t at No Show and I don’t know who was; the conference’s web site bills it as a conference meant for industry professionals; Harper is an academic and Myers a journalist, so it sounds like the audience consisted of devs, scholars, writers, etc.
Given that makeup, I felt distinctly uncomfortable while watching this talk because the FGC was clearly positioned as an object of study and curiosity, presented by two people who rhetorically positioned themselves with the audience rather than with the FGC. Since the FGC is racialized as a non-white space, and both presenters pass as white, at a conference that was mostly attended by white people, this kind of rhetorical positioning immediately made me feel alienated.
This starts with the second slide, where Myers starts with the term “technology” as it’s used in the FGC; she points to a picture of GlaDOS from Portal and says ”This is what a normal person thinks when you say ‘technology’.”
Read that again — a normal person. As opposed to a member of the FGC, who thinks that it’s a Phoenix Wright combo video.
Of course, FGC folks know we’re weird, and funny, and we get all crazy about two people beating each other up in a video game, and we’re generally more than happy to joke about it. But when you’re presenting about us to an outside audience, it’s disrespectful to rhetorically divide us as “abnormal” — especially given the racial subtext of white people talking to other offscreen (presumed white) people about a community that is racialized as non-white.
A little bit later, the presenters offer the classic MAHVEL BAYBEE video; Yipes’s voiceover just kind of further establishes the Otherness of the FGC, when it could have been used instead to relate (think about how cryptic any sports-watching cultural practices are, like chants at a baseball game). And heck, Capcom immortalized “Mag-fuckin-Neto” and “Mango Sentinel” in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with a Deadpool winquote and an alt Sentinel color scheme; perhaps instead of treating it as just Weird Things Marvel Players Say, the presenters could have talked about some of the neat linguistic things the FGC uses to denote membership and ownership — and how Capcom was willing to validate that.
Harper does try to explain “curly/curleh mustache” and “Pringles” and more or less gets it (“Once you pop, you can’t stop” in relation to extended Magneto combos) but he’s clearly uncomfortable relating that explanation as an actual definition, and in general both presenters seem reluctant to actually own expertise over what they’re talking about — which leads me to my next major problem with the talk.
Establishing and de-emphasizing expertise
This talk is titled ”Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fighting Games (But Were Afraid to Ask)”; it necessarily positions the two presenters as the experts in the room. But in both presentation demeanor and content, both presenters seem to downplay their actual expertise with both the games and the actual community practices — which basically establishes their expertise in the room (as public intellectuals/journalists/industry professionals/academics who are building their work history with the FGC, by giving talks and writing books) while simultaneously giving them an out when it comes to the actual meat of their presentation.
It’s kind of an option select, if you think about it.
I saw this happen a few times during the middle and latter sections of their talk. They offer a high-level overview of the history of the genre (starting with basic 2D fighter roots in Karateka and Yie Ar Kung Fu, explaining the 2D/3D split, and a little bit about American and Japanese fighting games, mostly in the post-SFII boom). I know that putting out an interesting, useful, and accurate mechanical history of fighting games is a tricky task, but describing the block button as an innovation in Virtua Fighter due to the challenges of dealing with a third dimension is a bit strange when A) Mortal Kombat (a 2D fighting game) did the block button thing first; B) Virtua Fighter wasn’t a full 3D game to begin with; it’s more like 2.5D, IIRC, because you only get to change Z-axis planes when you tech recover or something (you can’t actually use the joystick to sidestep attacks, for example); and C) Tekken quick-followed into 3D fighting games while retaining the hold-back-to-block system.
Myers had an interesting bit where she related the technical complexity of a game to its perceived merit in the fighting game community, noting that Soul Calibur was generally seen as more worthy than Mortal Kombat or Smash Bros.; I was interested with where she was going with that, but my own experience didn’t quite match up with her examples.
In the last few years, MK has earned a whole lot of respect from the competitive scene, though it doesn’t have as much as MVC or SF4; NetherRealm has put in work to make it a game that people will support, and Namco hasn’t really done nearly much of that work with Soul Calibur. (Pre-SF4, both MK and Soul Calibur were pretty consistently shit on by the mainstream FGC, even though both games can be very technically demanding.)
Smash has been making inroads into the Street Fighter-dominated FGC, as evidenced by this year’s Evo, where they broke viewership records and put on one hell of a tournament — they’ve certainly had a history of exclusion from the main FGC, though I know plenty of people who appreciated the sheer mechanical intensity of Smash. Meanwhile, Virtua Fighter is widely acknowledged as the “best” fighting game when it comes to competitive depth and balance, yet it has consistently failed to find a reliable player base in the North American FGC.
Ultimately, though, I think it’s perfectly reasonable that my interpretation of the genre’s history doesn’t quite jive with either of the presenters’, insofar as I haven’t lived their research and they haven’t lived mine. What I found worse was the expertise-diminishing rhetorical habits that set up their Expert Option Select.
When Harper talks about King from Tekken as a ”Mexican wrestler with Jaguar’s head because why not?” King is used as kind of a throwaway joke about how weird and exotic and quaint fighting game characters are. King is a homage to legendary Japanese pro wrestler Tiger Mask, who was instrumental in the formation of Japan’s modern mixed martial arts culture (he was a founder of Shooto), and I’ve had the pleasure of training with Japanese pro fighters who told me about how watching Tiger Mask as a kid inspired them to continue training. King’s inclusion is part of what makes Tekken a decidedly Japanese fighting game in flavor, compared to Virtua Fighter or Street Fighter’s comparatively international casts.
When Harper notes halfway through the presentation that, “Oh, we’re talking mostly about the competitive fighting game community, not, like, me” and Myers disclaims her entrance in a tournament as “I just entered as a joke”, this tells me that neither presenter takes the games or the FGC seriously enough to stand in front of a room of people and say, “Yes, I care about how good I am at this game” — which is basically an understanding that every single person in the FGC shares and can empathize with, even if they’re no longer an active competitor.
When they say ”We’ve been yelled at for pretty much anything we’ve ever said about fighting games” they make a joke where the FGC is the punchline; we’re so mean that we yell at two people who are clearly the experts in this room, and the people in the room laugh because these two wouldn’t be standing in front of the room if they weren’t the experts, right? But it’s funny — when I heard them say that, I thought, “Did it ever occur to you that people are yelling at you because they’re angry at how you’re manhandling the way their community is represented? At any point did you stop and think, ‘Hey, maybe we should stop and think and talk to some people about this? Why do we keep hurting so many people’s feelings?’” Yes, that is what happens when you speak truth to power, but it’s also what happens when you’re hurting people.
I don’t expect anyone to have perfect knowledge of the fighting game community, mind. I do expect that if you’re making it your job to produce knowledge about the FGC — whether in the context of academia, journalism, industry knowledge sharing, or whatever — that you both develop your expertise, and you own it, and I don’t think either presenter does a fantastic job. Which is fine — not every talk is a home run — but if you fail in public and then get salty about how poorly-received you were, it doesn’t do a whole lot for your credibility (which, assuming you want to work further with competitive games communities, would be nice to build).
And if, for whatever reason, you don’t want to own your FGC expertise, either draw upon other established experts and community figures (none of which had a very strong presence in the presentation, aside from throwaway mentions to Yipes and Justin Wong, really), or, I dunno — maybe don’t pitch a talk on the FGC?
Interesting thing #1: Race and the myth of meritocracy
Perhaps the biggest disservice that both Harper and Myers do is actually to themselves; they both talk about how the FGC is built upon meritocratic ideals (“Skill at the game is the only thing that matters”) but that in practice the community has barriers to entry that are drawn along gender and sexual lines which detract from said ideals (“Skill is the only thing that matters if you’re a straight man, otherwise it’s skill and personal tolerance for sexual harassment etc.”).
Theirs is a really interesting argument; I wish the whole presentation had focused on this instead of just throwing it off until the last ten minutes of the presentation, because I found it suffered from a lack of thorough argumentation (which only serves to further irritate the people who are watching the presentation as members of the FGC).
Harper brings up the pre-SF4 FGC’s allergic reaction to an influx of newbies (pre/post-‘09) as an example of our reluctance to welcome in new blood, not just women and queer people. Having observed the ‘09er stuff firsthand, I thought that it was a really interesting side effect of how our community came to be largely as a way to figure out how to effectively produce knowledge, something which dates back to the alt.games.sf2 era (look on Google Groups for “do you believe in Meaties?”) and a decade or so of the blind leading the blind. We as a community made mistakes, and we eventually corrected them as best we could have; it’s more interesting and useful to walk through what happened, what changed, and why, than to just use it on a slide that says “Yeah these guys are mean.”
Myers later skips briefly through a slide or two on the race/class makeup of the FGC, basically arguing that the FGC is browner than most other game subcultures because consoles are cheaper than computers, and it’s cheaper to buy a console and one game and get really good at it (and play with all your friends on one single console). Economic access was a huge factor in the FGC’s early roots — back in the arcade days, you only needed quarters to play, not even a TV/console/game/pair of sticks/house, and I played with plenty of people who didn’t have any/many of the items on that list. From my own experience, I don’t find that many people in the FGC who simply buy one console and a game and call it a day — and Univision did a study a while ago which found that Hispanic gamers are twice as likely to say they’re going to buy a game in the next 30 days, so there’s that, too.
I don’t think that particular explanation tells us why we have so many more people of color, except by associating “poor” with “people of color”; I find there is appeal in the content of the game itself, as fighting games pretty much by default have to have a diverse (if often stereotyped) cast in order to draw upon worldwide martial arts traditions. Also, one thing I’ve found in my own research is that there are people of the older arcade game generation who regard Street Fighter 2 as the point at which arcades let in the riff-raff; that competing directly against someone instead of trying to beat their high score was somehow low class — something which Myers’s brief analysis doesn’t explain.
Furthermore, we have no actual demographic study of the FGC that I’m aware of — it’s distinctly possible that we’re still very white overall, but that our community is racialized as a community of brown people for reasons that have nothing to do with our actual demographic makeup — perhaps we ended up carrying baggage from the Otherness of martial arts tradition, and boxing’s legacy as a racial spectacle, and so on.
Harper then transitions into his “favorite story about his dissertation research”; one time at an event, he wished aloud that he could better execute fighting game moves, and someone said to him, “Oh, you wish you had Asian Hands.” To Todd, this moment was a canonical example of how ass-backward the FGC is in regards to race; as a white man, he was horrified by how “casually racist” this guy was being, and the audience laughs along with him. Again, Harper and Myers present a dynamic that I find fascinating and present it to their bemused audience as an example of our non-inclusiveness, which is really a strange thing to do after establishing that we’re known as a community for being racially diverse.
Yes, “Asian Hands” is essentialist; it takes a phenomenon we see in the FGC (a disproportionate number of high-level players are Asian) and maps meaning onto race (“You are good at executing in this game because you are Asian”). But Myers and Harper both mention the interesting part about this community dynamic and fail to expand upon it: It doesn’t matter if said top players Asian or Asian American. In this specific example, the meanings of “Asian” are intertwined with both race and nationality, and they’re highly fluid because they’re recontextualized in each game. In The Daigo Parry video, Justin Wong exhibits traits that we often assign to “American”; he is brash and aggressive compared to Daigo, who is methodical and mechanical in his executional excellence. But when Justin plays Marvel vs. Capcom 2, he was seen as the robotic picture of Asian mechanical perfection.
I found this to be a really neat phenomenon — I wrote a paper about it for a sport sociology class, actually — it’s something that could teach us more about how race is handled in the context of sport and fighting. But Harper dismisses it a “casual racism” with minimal room for analysis; considering this “casual racism” is happening with in a community space that that is racialized as non-white, I find it strange that he wants to point fingers and dismiss it rather than understand it. This is a community where Team White People is a thing, and not in the Stormfront kind of way! That’s CRAZY.
(Ironically, Harper calls Daigo a “cyborg ninja” or something like that, which feeds the same essentialist Asian subtext.)
Interesting thing #2: Gender, sexuality, and the FGC
Next comes the discussion of gender and sexuality in the FGC, which starts by recapping the Cross Assault crap from two years ago; if you’re not familiar, a “coach” for a Street Fighter X Tekken reality show named Aris Baktanians repeatedly sexually harassed a woman player on the show named Miranda Pakozdi, which some people in Twitch stream chat encouraged. It was a dark day for the community as a whole, and we were collectively slow to deal with it; we don’t really have much in the way of established community infrastructure (in fact, what we loosely refer to as the “FGC” is really a constellation of micro-local scenes connected by Internet spaces like Twitch, Twitter, and SRK).
I wanted to hear more about this, honestly. I hope there’s a chapter in Harper’s book about gender, sexuality, and the FGC, and not just about Cross Assault, because I think it’s our biggest blind spot. When we think of our community as meritocratic, we usually do so in comparison to other communities where men of color have traditionally been excluded — not just our own eSports peers, which is a game community much more focused on dividing Players from Watchers, but also from white-collar work and academia, both of which are ostensibly meritocratic. (I’ve written about this before; part of the comfort for me in the FGC is that I can roll up to a tournament in a tank top and sweatpants and be taken seriously.) But gender and sexuality is clearly a major blind spot for us; we’re bad at spotting our own bullshit, and we’re bad at developing strategies for community action to correct that bullshit.
The flip side, though, is that gender and sexuality is complicated in the FGC. Yes, Cross Assault was bad, and there are many other things that are bad, but our community does still have high-profile women and queer folks in it, and simply limiting the discussion of gender/sexuality in the FGC to Cross Assault does us a disservice; there is nuance here that the presenters missed, instead just giving the audience another point at which they can nod their heads at our barbarism. And to the people in the FGC who don’t think gender is a big deal — the people who I am trying to convince to be allies — just hearing about Cross Assault again further reinforces their idea that it’s not a real problem because that was two years ago.
Same goes with their treatment of race; the FGC isn’t just special because we have a lot of brown people, it’s special because said brown people are often the most visible people in the community — tournament organizers, streamers, and other community leaders. It’s entirely unlike anything I’ve ever seen in video games.
I’ve been active in calling for us as a community to step up our efforts to call out gendered/homophobic bullshit and make our spaces more inclusive, but I’ve never thought about our barriers to exclusion as actively working against the meritocratic nature of our community — something which I think, oddly enough, we share with Silicon Valley’s all-white tech founder crew, albeit primarily along the axis of gender rather than race and gender.
Certainly, we have our problems (just read my previous blog posts here to see what I mean); we are not great at owning our online community spaces and generally take a laid-back approach to moderation which enables trolls; our in-person communities tend to be far more welcoming, but we’re still developing our IRL moderation skills as well. (None of these are challenges unique to the FGC, mind you.) And I’m glad to see others study what we fuck up on so we can figure out how to do it better.
But here’s the thing: It feels really shitty to just have people point fingers at the activities you do, and the people you love, and present your flaws in a slideshow meant for other people to learn Everything They Ever Wanted To Know About Fighting Games.
I think developing robust channels for self-reflection, feedback, and improvement is an integral part of a healthy community — and I want to welcome academics, journalists, and other public intellectuals into our fold so we can learn more about what’s going on and how to get better. It’s just like finding new sparring partners.
But when I feel like I’m being studied for the purpose of Producing Knowledge — to fuel talks, books, careers — I feel uncomfortable. I feel like my community is a curiosity to be studied, not something to be loved. And ultimately, I feel like the best criticism comes from a place of love for what the object of criticism could be.
I know that it’s tough — that you’ll always find people in this community who are mean, that they resent being told that they need to change because they’re hurting people’s feelings, and will lash out because they feel defensive. And I know that it’s entirely possible that Harper and Myers have presented their work endlessly to community members, and I simply hadn’t heard of them until I saw the presentation and the book. I have no idea what Harper and Myers have done for engagement and research in the FGC, I don’t know what their experiences have been like, or what got left on the cutting room floor for that talk.
But I do know that if you want the FGC to listen, you have to demonstrate that you know your shit, and this talk didn’t do that.
I don’t know how Harper and Myers will react to reading this; I’ve seen what it’s like to be on the opposite end of the community backlash, though not quite as badly as them (haven’t made it to FGCNN or r/kappa so far!). I do hope that they spend some time in the lab, quarter up, and try again.