What you see is what you get, I suppose.

01Mar12

Thanks to Chris Sims, I read an article on Giant Bomb today about some deplorable behavior from video game fans. What made it hit home for me wasn’t the fact that it featured a grown man being proudly sexist and claiming this was somehow essential to the fighting game community (a problematic term in and of itself, to be honest). Rather, it was the fact that fighting games were involved at all. Because if there’s any genre of video games that is proudly regressive, that’s the one.

My first response was that the regressive actions of the community came from the games themselves. After all, any series where you can play as a panty flashing 14 year old school girl, and have fans react in righteous fury when they hear hints that the panty flashing might be less obvious or “even” removed entirely, is not the most progressive. But as much as characters like Sakura or Mai are troubling, they’re also not entirely at fault, since you can have different readings on them that give them an empowering edge. Sometimes that’s detail inserted after the character was created and the company realizes they need to tone down the sex kitten aspects, but any refinement is welcome.

Really, the problem comes down to fighting game fans, and they alone. Because I was around in the hey-day of fighting games in arcades, the real source of the tribalism. You didn’t just play the games there. You competed in those places, because the point of any fighting game was, and is, competition against other players. Even the hardest fighting game AI of the time had a pattern that could be exploited, even if it used broken moves or unfair reaction times. Other people, though, they were truly unpredictable. And when some new guy came into the arcade and ripped through the regular crowd, he became the person to beat, either as a new shining star in the group, or the outsider to take down a peg.

I can only speak for the few arcades I was in, but none of them featured any female players that I remembered. This was the sport of young boys and adolescent males, who didn’t care about the dimly lit, sometimes grubby places they competed it. Whoever you were, you could briefly be an impossibly muscled martial arts god, proclaiming your dominance over every other guy clustered around your chosen machine. But you also had to observe certain rules. You couldn’t complain when you got trash talked, it happened to everyone. If you wanted to play again, you put a quarter on the lip of the machine, and God Help You if you tried to claim a quarter you hadn’t put up. If you were new, you were scum, until you learned not just how to play the game, but how to respect the rules; you had to do both, not one or the other. None of these were essential rites of passage into manhood, but the rituals mattered to us.

Obviously, most arcades are gone. In some cities the population density is high enough to support the business model, but the exclusivity that supported most arcades collapsed once home consoles started to match arcade machines in power. They didn’t have to surpass them, just do well enough to run the most popular games. And since most fighting game arcade machines only had a large screen size as their selling point (the “arcade joystick” ideal usually not lasting past a particular frenetic match damaging the controls for everyone else), it didn’t take much to convince people to stop dropping quarters when you could invite the same group of friends to your house and recreate the experience…sans the occasional unwelcome new player.

The point here isn’t that having a communal experience was a bad thing. But all of these things meant that the fighting game community didn’t start as some kind of vastly shared experience, such as you had with other landmark games like Super Mario Brothers or Sonic. Instead, they were deeply factional affairs. Everyone played them, but they played in their own individual communities, sharpening themselves against friends and only occasionally meeting other players from different areas in tournaments. They were fiercely local and disdainful of new people, lest someone lower their standards or embarrass them.

And that continues to the present day. Even with the loss of arcades, and the rise of online matchmaking (which is a great thing for fighting games), fighting game fans talk about being part of a community. However, they don’t have any enthusiasm for being part of a nationwide, or even global community of players. Their community started in those small, huddled groups, and if they could they’d have it remain that way. The sexist comments and abusive behavior that’s been put on public display is certainly shameful, but I don’t think it’s born from an overall sexist feeling in the group. Rather, it’s that tribal feeling taken to its logical extreme, as “tradition” is challenged by the sheer presence of someone who is “other.”

It’s also the reason why fighting game fans respond to being called on their bad behavior by saying they’re being “muzzled” or people are being “too sensitive.” They’re used to insulting each other regularly in their games, and it’s stunted the abilities of many to realize when they’re engaging in good-natured camaraderie, and when they’ve crossed the line into making others feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Most people can recognize that racial slurs cross that line, but if you grew up calling each other these names and laughing about it, you might not realize why someone would be offended regardless of your intent.

Ultimately, I’m not interested in defending the fighting game community. I’ve long since lost any interest in trying to compete with other players, and most of my interest in the genre is out of fondness for games I played when I was younger, or the batshit insane stories they create to spice up what should be the simplest plots in the world. But as someone who was a part of these groups, it’s fascinating to realize just how much the bad behavior of online players today comes from the vanished arcades of their youth.

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