I stopped reading Phil Sandifer’s Tardis Eruditorium about a year and a half ago on account of it not being good for my mental health (Largely the way I find myself agreeing with every detail of his analysis up to the point where he says, “And therefore Steven Moffat is a subversive genius and objectively one of the greatest feminist writers in television today,” rather than, “And therefore Steven Moffat is a hack whose incompetence ruined Doctor Who forever, and it’s a shame that his clumsy but well-meaning attempts at feminism are undermined by his unrepentant gender essentialism.”), but as he now shares an rss feed with the incomparable Jack Graham and Jane Campbell, his stuff crosses my dashboard once again, and that’s fine. Most particularly, he’s been writing a series of articles about the Super Nintendo as an alchemical ritual to destoy Gamergate. Though really only tangentially related, his latest article inspired me to write this:
My experience of fighting games is, though I did not realize it at the time, essentially capitalistic, and that is why I never liked them. I mean, I could enjoy some, now and again, but not so much as my friends did and not really in the way you’re meant to.
By way of digression, I’m going to talk about Monopoly for a minute. I do not like Monopoly. Monopoly is an intensely boring game and no fun at all. Many people disagree with me on that point, and lots of people agree. But what hardly anyone knows is that I am, in fact, objectively right about Monopoly being an intensely boring game that is no fun (A claim which, as far as I know, is true only for Monopoly and Candy Land, all other board games being only subjectively boring and no fun rather than it being a mathematically provable proposition).
See, Monopoly started life, before several substantial changes, back in 1903 as The Landlord’s Game, product of a socialist named Lizzie Magie. The game was designed to teach the economic principles of Georgism, namely, that when you find a piece of land just lying about and you stick your flag in it and claim it, you are privatizing public wealth, whereas when you tax the wealth a person created through labor, you are socializing private wealth, and this is stupid and backwards and leads to income inequality and deadweight loss, and we should be taxing the hell out of land instead of taxing wages, and I don’t pretend to understand the math and it’s already hard enough not to simply fall asleep discussing it, but the basic tenet of taxing the land rather than the labor has been declared sound by everyone from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman. Karl Marx criticized it as a last-ditch attempt to salvage something workable out of capitalism, which is high praise given the source. And the basic fallout of all of this is that The Landlord’s Game, and by extension, Monopoly, is a game where, deliberately, any small early advantage to one player which arises through chance leads almost invariably to that player eventually winning while everyone else is, in a very slow, protracted way, ground down into bankruptcy.
Of course, many modern players miss the moral and economic thrust of the game due in part to the ubiquity of house rules which reduce the game’s inherent unfairness. For example, apparently (though I literally had never heard of this rule until last year), it’s almost universal these days for fines to go not back to the bank, but into a separate pot which is awarded to players as they land on “Free Parking”. In fact, Magie herself developed two sets of rules for the game. Monopoly is derived from the Landlord version of the game, while the alternate rules, called The Prosperity Game, operated according to Georgist ideals. After a stirring round of The Landlord Game to teach everyone why capitalism sucked, she proposed, anyone fool enough to let the Georgists pick the next game could play the Prosperity version to get a glimpse of a world where the creation of public wealth benefited all and no one had to go bankrupt. Or more likely, you all decided to play Parcheesi instead and not invite the Georgists to game night any more. But in case you don’t have a Parcheesi set, perhaps you’d like to try one of these fine alternate rule sets to better educate you about economics:
- 99% Edition: All the properties start out already owned by a hypothetical non-player character. Rents paid on each property are collected by color group. Houses and hotel upgrades are done automatically as each group collects enough money to pay for them. Play continues until all players are bankrupted, in jail, or simply give up.
- Millennial Edition: As above, but when landing on or passing “Go”, rather than collecting $200, jobless Millennials must instead pay $200 in student loan debts. One player, designated the “boomer” is exempt from this rule, and is required to make frequent acerbic comments about the sense of entitlement among young people these days
- 1% Edition: Any player owning 8 or more properties is “too big to fail” and is given $10,000 from the bank whenever he wants. “Go to Jail” cards have no effect on such players
- Communist Revolution Edition: After fifteen minutes, flip the board over and shout, “Death to the bourgeoisie!”. Spend remaining time haggling over a single turnip. Optional: kill the Tzar.
The game became popular among socialist Quakers in Atlantic City, NJ, and it was a localization of the game by Charles Darrow (Introducing such innovations as the “Community Chest” cards, and shortening Magie’s rather wonderful “Labor upon the Land Produces Wages” to “Go”) using that city as a template that was eventually bought by Parker Brothers in 1935 (After rejecting it in 1934 as “too complicated,” the same reason they’d rejected Magie’s original in 1909). Monopoly is a game which makes you feel like you are being very clever and strategic in establishing your economic empire, but there is literally no decision you can make as a player that will improve your chances of winning even half so much as the clever strategy of “a series of dice-rolls that result in you being the first player to land on Boardwalk (Mayfair, if you’re playing the 1936 British localisation, which British people tend to loudly and incorrectly insist is the original).”
But at this point, you’re probably wondering what Monopoly being objectively boring has to do with fighting games, or, indeed, with anything at all. It’s all in that “A small initial advantage leads inexorably to everyone else being slowly ground into bankruptcy,” thing.
There’s an old Kid Radd comic where Radd, a platform game hero, visits the world of a fighting game. Though he’s initially intimidated by the fighters’ large stature and complex move-set, things turn around when a fighter tries and fails to execute a combo attack against him. As a platformer character, Radd has invincibility frames when he loses a hit point, unlike the fighting game denizens, who are instead stun-locked. Armed with this knowledge, he easily dispatches all challengers, depleting their life bars in a matter of seconds by simply tossing off energy blasts at regular intervals. As he drains life bars and the counter shows an impossible 36-hit combo, he declares his love for fighting games.
Skill, in fighting games, is largely a matter of learning the (often ponderous) move sets and knowing when to apply them. Back-forward-back. Down-downright-right-upright-up-punch. Execute it at just the right moment and your character will flip upside down and spin across the screen (possibly exposing her underwear), disarming your opponent and optionally removing their spine. In modern games, there’s a menu you can pull up to study these lists of arcane movements, but that’s for pussies, and besides, your human competitor has no interest in sitting around twiddling his thumbs for five minutes while you memorize a move list. You’re supposed to figure it out through the timeworn combination of experimentation and oral folklore. Teenage boys whispering to each other in the din of the arcade the secrets of how to throw a fireball or teleport to the opposite side of the screen or turn your opponent into an infant. But most importantly, practice.
Fighting games are inherently social. Sure, most fighting games have some kind of single-player option, but that’s not what you’re here for, it’s not why the game exists. No, the one true correct way to play a fighting game is 2P VS. And note the VS there: there’s no such thing as a 2-player cooperative fighting game. Beat-em-ups, which are mechanically similar to fighting games, have cooperative play modes. Fighting games, for the most part, do not. So not merely inherently social, but inherently competitive.
Herein lies the rub. I come over to your house and I sit down and you stick the cart in the console and hand me a controller. You’ve played this game before. You own a copy. I do not. Video games are like $50 and it’s 1993, and that’s a lot of money back now, and mom and dad are adamant that I’m only ever going to own a small number of games that I really like, they’re not blowing hundreds of dollars to build me a respectable collection of games most of which are almost certainly deliberate attempts to defraud parents out of fifty dollars. You have, for want of a better term, a “small initial advantage.”
So we play — or rather, we fight. And unless I happen to be some sort of fighting game savant, you and I both know how this goes. I’m still not entirely sure which button does what or how the rules work, or why sometimes pushing back blocks and other times it just backsteps, while you do this funny rocking motion that makes your fighter wave his hands around and generate some kind of shockwave that murders my character from halfway across the screen. The fight lasts five seconds before I am defeated and chastened and you are reassured that your penis is of fully adequate dimensions.
I have acquired five seconds of experience. I have in no measurable way gotten better at this game. But then comes the insult to add to injury: you demand that we play again. Because what just happened was fun for you.
It was not fun for me. And you might say one of two things at this juncture. You might say,”you’re just a sore loser.” Possibly. But explain to me, if you can, what fun is supposed to be here for me. There was never any real chance I could have won. I didn’t even get the fun experience of playing a game: I just got to struggle with unfamiliar controls for five seconds while I got cut in half. This wasn’t a pitched struggle where I gave it my all and as a plucky underdog came so close but fell just short — this was just me getting my ass handed to me. So you say the other thing: “well of course you didn’t have fun. It’s not fun to lose. Fun is the reward for the winner.”
Here I’m confused, though. Because honestly, I don’t see the fun for the winner either. I mean, think about sports. As a general rule, when you’re watching the sportsball, you want to see an exciting game with turnarounds and tense plays and the men in one color running into the men in the other color very hard and trying to knock each other down. Sure, you want Local Sports Team to win, but you don’t actually want an utter rout. I’ve watched maybe three or four boxing matches in my life, and I’m pretty sure that if a boxing match consisted of one pug knocking the other pug (I really, really hope this is boxing jargon short for “pugilist” and not, like, some kind of ethnic slur.) out cold with his first punch in the first round, most of the people who spent money to watch two grown men pummel each other would be disappointed. I mean, sure, there are people who just want to see their team win and would just as soon it be a completely one-sided contest that was barely more than a formality, but by and large, we consider those people to be Yankees fans.
But somehow that seems to be the dominant attitude in fighting games. The aspirational goal is the coveted Flawless Victory. Joy is taken not in the playing of the game, but in the avoidance of playing it: you’re only a true winner, a true man if you beat your opponent into complete submission in an utterly one-sided fight that lasts the shortest amount of time possible. Whatever they might say, the only joy is in victory by any means necessary. Sure, technically, an honorable victory is better than a dishonorable one, but a dishonorable victory is still infinity times better than the most honorable defeat.
There was one fighting game I was pretty good at. It’s called Bushido Blade. An odd duck among the genre, its big gimmick was that rather than a health bar, a single direct strike to the head or torso was instantly fatal. Now, in this game, among the playable characters were a few who were equipped, in addition to their primary sword, with an off-hand weapon, which could be thrown: effectively, a ranged attack that only worked once. But once is all you need, and I found that neither the AI nor any of the human opponents I ever faced could consistently evade if you just threw your sword as soon as the round began. Instant, flawless victory. I’ll admit, it was a nice contrast to constantly being owned at games I only had a few seconds of practice with, but I ultimately found it unfulfilling. And it didn’t take long for my competitors to declare that Bushido Blade sucked and wasn’t worth playing anyway.
Games can be fun even if you lose. Mario Party’s fun even if you lose. Racing games are fun even if you lose. Technically, Monopoly is more fun to lose than it is to win, because at least you can go do something else with your life. In principle, between two players of equal skill, a fighting game can be like that. But that was never my experience of it. My experience was that one player dominated, got to keep playing, acquired experience and therefore increased his competitive advantage, while the other player lost quickly, was eliminated, and thus denied the chance to improve.
And yet, even as we’re easily dispatched by mystical ninja powers, neither are we as a practical matter, permitted to simply quit the game. “Don’t be a pussy,” we’re told. “You’re just a sore loser,” and “What are you, chicken?” This game isn’t fun, can not become fun for us, but to concede that and do something else is taken only as confirmation of our weakness, our inferiority.
That’s what makes my experience of fighting games an inherently capitalistic one. Whoever gains a small advantage at the beginning will start winning. And by the very virtue of winning, they can preclude anyone else, barring miracles, from getting any better. Which means that once you start winning, you keep winning, and everyone else keeps losing. Forever. And daring, as the loser, to suggest that this isn’t much fun and you don’t want to play any more is met only with derision and accusations of unmanliness.
“Come on,” they say. “The game’s perfectly fair. Same rules for everyone. You have just as much chance of winning as I do.” I haven’t played this game before. Can I have a few minutes to practice? “You want me to just sit here and watch you play with yourself? Gay (It was the nineties). Why should I have to pay for you not working harder?” It just doesn’t seem fair: you’ve got a tremendous advantage because your mom and dad buy you lots of games. “Equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. Bootstraps, man!”
Capitalism tells us that we are enriched through competition. But that just isn’t how the real world works. Businesses are not sports fans. Businesses do not want competition. Businesses are fighting game fans. Businesses want a rout. They want to dominate completely, to destroy with no cost to themselves. They want a flawless victory. A victory that leaves you unable to do any better next time no matter how hard you try. And then they want to demand you play again, knowing you’ll lose again. Because otherwise, it means you’re a pussy.