What We Talk About When We Talk About Fighting Games

Fighting games are usually seen as violent and competitive experiences, often littered with old racial and geographical stereotypes. But look more closely, and you’ll see that this foundational genre of games is about much more than just one on one combat. With their large rosters of characters, fighting games are opportunities to express ourselves and experiment with different styles. They can also be seen as a kind of conversation with another person, mediated through the language of the game. And lastly, fighting games can actually be sensual, even erotic experiences. 

Fight Games as Expression

Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior popularised the concept of two opponents chosen from a larger roster of characters with the same basic controls but different appearances, skills, stats and quirks. Modern genres like MOBAs and hero shooters follow the same concept: mechanically, characters are only sets of different moves, but these moves are gathered around a common theme that shapes stories and individualities. In Street Fighter 2, Ryu and Ken are similar because they are friends/rivals and pupils of the same mentor. In contrast, Blanka fights (and bites) like a beast, Guile has a defensive combat style, and Chun-Li is the fastest fighter… and the only female one at the beginning of the series. 

Chun-Li’s popularity among girls played an important role in the second Street Fighter 2 sub-series iteration: since a lot of girls wanted to play her but the number of arcade machines was limited, Capcom decided to allow opponents to play two different-colored versions of the same character at once in Street Fighter 2: Champions Edition. This passion for a specific character suggests that Street Fighter 2 protagonists were not just perceived as move sets or tools: girls wanted to play Chun-Li because they could relate to her, in a similar way to how boys might relate to the other characters in the game. In this way, skills and moves become a part of a body players can choose and inhabit to express themselves.

Juri vs Chun-Li, Street Fighter V
Juri vs Chun-Li, Street Fighter V

“I feel like my mains are who I would be if I were in that game’s universe, therefore we resonate when I’m portraying them both in real life through cosplay and in gameplay,” Sedria “Infinitii” Lewis tells me. Lewis is a competitive Mortal Kombat and Injustice player who cosplays her main characters during tournaments.

“It’s one thing to main a character just because they are top tier in that game,” she notes, “and a completely different thing to main that top tier character because you love them. […] Different characters express different sides of myself. For instance, when I play Mileena from Mortal Kombat, I feel so free and unapologetically me. I grew up playing her, so there’s also a huge nostalgic factor behind it. However, when I play Sonya, I feel large and in charge.”

This love for particular characters can overwhelm even strategic considerations in competitive play. “Playing Juri in the competitive scene makes no sense,” Street Fighter 5 player and Juri main Leandro “Geecko” Vilardo tells me during a phone call. “To learn Juri you need at least thrice the time you’d need to master another character, and she is an high-risk fighter you can’t play in a safe way. [But] I started playing Street Fighter competitively with the fifth episode and I fell in love with her at first sight: her design, her weird hair, her bitch grin, how she moves. I learnt to play Street Fighter with her and I found my style with her.”

Vilardo is developing his own way to play Juri, too, developing new combos and new ways to punish his opponents’ mistakes, because playing a character doesn’t just mean learning established rules: players shape their character by adding personal nuances and reinventing their mechanics. Thus, fighting games and their characters evolve like languages.

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Fantasy Strike
Fantasy Strike

Fighting Games as Conversation

“A competitive game, to me, is a debate,” competitive fighting game player and game designer David Sirlin writes in Playing to Win. “You argue your points with your opponent, and he argues his. ‘I think this series of moves is optimal,’ you say, and he retorts, ‘Not when you take this into account.’ […] The conflict is between the players; the game itself is merely the medium — the language — of the debate.”

That’s why Sirlin developed Fantasy Strike, a title created with the goal of making the sometimes arcane genre of fighting games more accessible to a wider range of players. “Does making a game more accessible make the conversation poorer? No, that’s ridiculous to even claim,” he explains to me via email. “I can’t emphasize enough that strategy is the interesting core of fighting games where we have a ‘conversation’ or ‘debate’ with our opponents, not combo sequences practiced by rote.”

Sirlin pushed the idea of fighting games as debating games so far that he even built the ten characters from Fantasy Strike (originally created for his card game Yomi) according to the “Dramatica theory” of story. “It says that characters in a good story represent all the different facets of a human mind,” he explains, “so you have concepts like being in control vs uncontrolled, logic vs emotion, and so on.” All these characters represent a dialogue happening inside the reader/spectator/player, because in the Dramatica theory “every complete story is a model of the mind’s problem solving process.”

A bout in a fighting game is a strange, silent debate, performed with digital bodies touching and grappling, hiding and revealing. There’s almost something sexual about it.

Fighting Games as Sensual Experience

Naomi Clark’s Consentacle is a cooperative card game where the two players, a human being and an alien, try to sync their moves to have sex with each other. It really feels like a fighting game: you have to predict what the other player is going to do and answer accordingly, but this time you don’t want to defeat them — you want to fuck them. Fighting games were not a direct reference for Consentacle, “however the idea of ‘Yomi’ [knowing the mind of the opponent] and turning it towards cooperative play was also very interesting to me,” Clark tells me via Twitter DM. “And that was something I borrowed from David Sirlin.” 

A more pointed connection between fighting games and sensuality comes from television. In the first episode of the fifth season of Black Mirror the two main characters, best pals Danny and Karl, rekindle their friendship playing the new VR version of the fictional fighting games series Striking Vipers. They choose their historical mains, the characters they used to play in the previous versions of the game: Danny plays the male character Lance, while Karl mains the female character Roxette. But now, in the VR version of the game, the two friends can sense everything their character senses. They feel the skin of the other player while they grab each other’s virtual bodies. The fight rapidly escalates into flirting and, during their next matches, into sex.

Tekken 3

“Years ago in the ’90s I used to play Tekken on the PlayStation a lot,” Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker told Entertainment Weekly. “And I thought there is something homoerotic about this arena in which you’re physically grappling with your friends on the screen. There’s something weirdly primal about it.”

He’s not the only one to make that connection, either.

Tekken 3 was like a romantic game for us,” Auriea Harvey tells me over Skype. Harvey is one half of the artistic duo Tale of Tales, the other half being her husband and Tekken playmate Michaël Samyn.

“There is something very romantic… like a romantic fight. A lot of the games we were playing at that time (PlayStation 2 era) were about combat and fighting,” she explains. “That was the only way you can touch in them. And touching is so important in fighting games, but in Tekken 3 it was done in such a way it was less like fighting and more like getting into positions with each other. We were not interested in the actual competitive aspect of it, we just let each other win. And we think that’s an element of why people like fighting games in general. Some people (I guess) like the competition, but some people just want to touch each other in virtual spaces. There should be a mode for people who are lovers and not fighters.”

Years later, and opportunities for player avatars to touch one another are still mostly restricted to fighting games. Is it any surprise, then, that people play them in such a range of ways? Fighting games can be mating dances, communications and debate tools, and spaces to express ourselves through the skin of a stylized character. They are so much more than a reductive understanding of them as simply “violent” or “competitive” games would have you believe.