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Why Can't We Learn Fighting Games?

18 min

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Why Can't We Learn Fighting Games?
What prevents us from learning fighting games? Are they too hard? Or maybe the expectations are too high?


I know what you are thinking: "here comes the usual tirade about the extreme hard work that it takes to succeed in fighting games." Well, you will be pleased to know that despite growing up, training, and succeeding under that mentality, I am actually here to reject it or, better, to reject it as a blanket approach or path that everyone has to walk on. 

The reality is that your path (and your goals) are exquisitely personal, and winning a tourney may not be everyone's definition of succeeding in learning a fighting game. 

My definition of learning and achieving a goal may be overly permissive and open-ended, but, personally, hearing about a player winning a stacked major and learning to throw their first Hadouken or reaching the understanding required to conquer a macro aspect of fighting games (defence, neutral, mixups, pressure, adaption, etc.) or even vanquishing an SNK boss in single-player mode are all wonderful achievements that can fuel someone's passion and make them feel accomplished and maybe hungry for more. 

In a social environment in which goalposts are constantly moved, achievements diminished, and in which it isn't rare for certain ways of interacting to be glorified, entering a space in which you are encouraged, whatever your mean of interaction is (playing, art, cosplay, fanfiction, lore talk) and however close or far your goal post is, is a mean of inclusion that can include far more people than achieving success in the competitive aspect (and this is guaranteed by personal experience). 

Try just for a minute to apply this to a sport and pressure everyone to become Ronaldo, The Williams sisters, Simone Biles, or whoever your favourite sports star is. 

Sport is first and foremost a means of inclusion, for many an extension of school dynamics for children to be involved in something fun and, if they want to, dedicate themselves to and aspire to perfect their craft. Many love stories with sports (and other activities) begin, however, with just being able to kick a ball, hold a racket, or the moment they did their first handstand or their first somersault. 

Before you learn and pursue any competitive endeavour, for most people at least, a state of wellbeing and being at ease with the activity and the environment around it is required. 

The learning and the social environment 

But why is (or was) this push for achievement so strong, and why is it common for a social hierarchy to be defined on its basis? 

Meet Lord Of The Flies, or, in our specific case, Arcade culture, which is where this mentality, a bit like a drone mind, was so common. 

For many kids (including me) and for the current FGC boomer generation, arcades used to be a counter-culture refuge from society's expectations and pressure of conforming. They were a place to escape draconian result-based school education and enter a world where even the cabs would reward you with words of encouragement.


However, as any space that would be shaped and dominated by pre-adult male individuals, an attitude of "the strongest rules" and a set of values to chase and identify with was born. 

With this, the notorious habit of kids and young adults to reason by absolutisms made it so the attitude was always "best in the world or nothing."

This carried positives and negatives, and also due to the lack of resources and means of practice, an almost dogmatic unique path of glory, victory, achievement, and inclusion was defined. 

With that, though, also arose an almost incidental philosophy of inclusion based on skill level and not on Ethnicity, Religion, Sexual Orientation, etc. (Gender is, sadly, purposedly left out in this list). 

However, the skill level requirement is still an unneeded barrier, the first of many for a new player (or even just a fighting games fan) to overcome. 

Going back to the more centralized topic of learning, a valuable discussion has been ongoing in the FGC spaces and in true Fighting Games fashion; Public Wikis and Discord are the "combatants" in this versus battle. 

Of course, for new players (and veterans alike), resources and their archiving and accessibility are important. Preserving this information for years to come with Wikis is certainly a no-brainer that comes, however, with a huge workload and not a lot of credit. 

On the other hand, Discords have become (for better or for worse) the centralized social hubs around games and have mostly taken over the function that forums used to have while substituting the rigid forum structure with a faster-paced instant messaging. 

This, in turn, has created its own issue around inclusivity and regulation of content, as well as making it harder for more serious, constructive, and organized discussions to flourish unless there's a conscious effort to shape the environment to encourage said discussions. 

Being fighting games are largely a social beast, more often than not, old and new players alike, like engaging in new fighting games, approach the experience motivated by the social interactions they have in discords, or, in general, are inspired by the passion of other people. This could be disregarded, in my opinion, with a "dryer" approach of information only being accessible through an external resource such as a Wiki. 

While I agree that organized wikis are important, I think that there's value in leaving the "all or nothing" attitude behind and recognizing that both tools (Wikis and Discord) solve different problems that share a complementary aspect. 

The means of communication 

Now, let's tackle by far the biggest of the problems in the current fighting game environment: The means of communication.

The media driving the big bulk of fighting games conversation are undeniably Twitter and Discord, at least when it comes to supposedly technical conversations related to the competitive aspects of various games. 

Twitter, especially, is shaped by numerous dynamics that tend to taint not only the conversations themselves but also the intentions behind them.

It's no secret that time is the new currency, and the industry of entertainment (or rather attention) is driving the economy in a time of social isolation and segregation. 

Due to a series of factors, personal monetary interest, needing to keep engagement high for sponsors (which have their own targets, either by contracts or by deadlines), and engagement being easy to achieve by talking in absolutes (especially when having negative and inflaming connotations) quickly skyrocket in presence, toxic arguments, and the bandwagoning begins. 

Character limits and selective replies (and displaying of comments) don't help nurture conversations further, and things being hard to search and index also contribute to the chaos. 

Although Discords help massively to provide direct help (especially when they are well organized, indexed, and their cultures defined), they fail in sustaining long-winded constructive conversations as well as in providing dedicated spaces for them.

Funny enough, we have moved collectively away from forums, probably due to the need for instant communication, instant reaction, and, let's face it, instant blow-up culture, despite them providing the ideal solution for this issue.

But what about pressing buttons?

Being not only a fighting games coach but having worked in education with children and young adults, it was necessary for me to define all of the barriers because they do largely shape the will of people not only to start learning but, most importantly, to keep on learning. Individuals (at least most of them) need a safe, warm, supportive, and, of course, non-threatening or stressful environment to thrive in their learning. I hate to say it, but this isn't an easy find in the community.

The "git gud" meme is often representative of a culture of limited engagement that is often thrown without discrimination at a lot of people trying to learn.

Fighting games are, however, wild and hard beasts to tame, with thousands of interactions and filled with nuances. The solutions to even simple problems are very rarely monodimensional, and yet the advice given (even with best intentions) is often taken to the minimal terms and rid of the necessary descriptors. 

This is also exasperated by relatively new fighting game players parroting their favourite creators and influencers and treating their advice as absolute. 

Yes, fighting games learning is a series of hard barriers that someone needs to overcome, and they get progressively higher and thicker. 

However, you can get through them with different methods, a pace that is different and unique to anyone, and, more importantly, this process can be incredibly fun and insightful when given the right dimension.

Admittedly, devs have tried to help with tutorials, trials, mission modes, etc., but the problem remains due to the very nature of fighting games. They are way too deep and way too nuanced to possibly be exhaustive. 

What I personally think has more value for learner's retention is to offer rewards (both in terms of completion messages and actual content) tied to the learning and, even better, enclose progress bars (or counters) directly in-game even in versus and online mode. 

Street Fighter 3: The Third Strike Online Edition and Darkstalkers Resurrection did this beautifully by giving players live counters of challenges that would make the player level up. 

Other rewards could be artworks to unlock and see in gallery mode, soundtrack titles, and if we weren't more than a decade into monetizing characters and costumes, those too. 

Hell, make this progress achievable against the CPU too and give it variety for completing the game under certain circumstances (Yes, I am directly praising KOF unconventional team compositions here and set conditions). 

Last but definitely not least, the guidance of more experienced players with an attitude to teaching is probably the most important thing we are lacking.

I have offered free coaching for a period slightly longer than ten years but only got a boom of bookings when I started charging for it. 

Students' feedbacks agreed on the mentality of "If it's free, it's worthless," preventing them from booking, too often disillusioned by too many negative experiences even when wanting to commit to learning. 

There's no shortage of evidence of people having bad experiences when trying to learn (and there are plenty of examples of people doing great work in the FGC to help new players), and since many aspects are complex, it is easy for people to get frustrated. 

Take execution, by far the most talked about and most hated barrier of fighting games, to the point of a conscious effort being made to reduce it by all fighting game devs. 

What if I told you that in the staggering, overwhelming majority of the cases (excluding outlier examples), execution problems aren't real? 

Fighting game players, yes, even very new ones, do not struggle with raw execution in itself, but rather with a lack of knowledge that is system-based to greatly simplify a lot of the tasks. 

Buffering, shortcuts, Longcuts, tricks, and tips, as well as unique properties of various systems, are what usually gatekeeps players from achieving easier and more consistent execution. 

Particularly evident for people coming to discover KOF, I assure you.

The generational shift 

The truth is, before versus fighting was established as the prime way to advertise and give presence to fighting games, the genre used to come with (sometimes) meaty single-player modes that would offer more casual players hours and hours of fun to unlock content (characters, artworks, new modes, etc.) and to discover the lore. 

This used to be one of the windows into the passion for the genre that would give a reason to people to interact with the competitive community (due to often sharing spaces) without the need to necessarily become competitive players. 

With this mostly gone, most of the time, the success in achieving the generational shift, at least from my point of view, has been tied to anime games.

Whether the hook is the beautiful graphics kin to an animation style that is well known and appreciated or more emphasis on the narrative aspect, anime games seem to have (and retain) a much younger crowd than their non-anime counterparts. 

When talking to a lot of new players (both working as a coach and in community spaces), a common complaint regarding the way people are forced to learn in fighting games is that there is no immediate reward (which is why this section is named generational shift… Yeah that was a tongue-in-cheek boomer dig).

With the change of public, the needs to be fulfilled change too, and the industry has to adapt.

New players proposed a lot of alternative design choices, from simply more encouraging messages after missions aside from the usual "complete" to more interactive ways to practice various aspects (think rhythm games style sections to build muscle memory for combo timings) to unlockables and explanations of a specific aspect that you may be practicing may help you in-game, with maybe some nuances exploration. 

Funny enough, Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution (a title released on PS2 in 2003) offers in its legendary tutorial exactly these nuances that are so difficult to grasp for a lot of new players. 

For a much more well-informed explanation, I give you WireManFGC's series on VF4EVO training mode.

I can definitely already see the older generation turn up their noses and brand the new players as spoiled, but the reality is that the environment (and the rules of interactions) you grow up in shape you and shape your expectations as well as your ability to adapt and to resist (or redirect) frustration. 

When it comes to fighting games, we all need to recognize that there are very few gaming genres that are as complex as nuanced as fighting games, in an activity, gaming, that is thought of as a relaxing time to experience and much less as a competitive outlet.

The misplacement of worship

Last but surely not least, when it comes to the barriers of learning fighting games, the FGC worships (when it doesn't move the goalposts) achievements. 

There is nothing wrong with this if "achievements" as a concept were defined loosely and weren't only identified with tournament winnings and placings. 

While I recognize that this aspect is central and a large part of why the FGC as we know it today still exists and was carried forward, I also understand that a whole lot of people that are involved in organizing these tournaments, commentating, running brackets, and hiring venues (often at great personal costs) don't get the credit that they deserve. 

This can also be extended to a lot of people that don't necessarily identify their passion with competing (or only with competing) and may be still involved in various capacities as Staff or provide services, create content, or even animate FGC spaces (think cosplayers, musicians, artists, etc.), or even editors, journalists, or dissertation writers for hire.

Even more so, and even in the most well-meaning and regulated realities, seeping elitism exposes new players developing their skills to an almost harrowing habit of discrediting other people's achievements and comparing it always to the top 1% quite often as players celebrate personal achievements. 

Not that the 1% is ever safe from this either, although this is identified more around the "sports bar syndrome" than coming with any actual truth behind it. 

Closing words 

Despite the tone of this analysis sounding a bit too grim, I have faith that the community can get to a much better place with a little conscious effort to promote positivity and being critical of a lot of the phenomena highlighted in this piece, as well as refuse to take part on it and lead by example. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling to learn fighting games and needs a kind ear to listen and guide them through, don't hesitate to reach out to me, and I'll do either my best or direct you to someone or someplace that I trust. 

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