Building confidence through fighting games

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“Build your self-confidence!”

This is one of the most common marketing lines used to sell people on signing up for a martial arts program, especially during the days of The Karate Kid (you know, the Cobra Kai prequel). Back then it seemed like every school-age child was enrolled in some kind of afterschool program meant to impart upon them the values of practice and discipline by punching the air a lot and breaking some boards.

The funny thing is that they did build self-confidence, even though it often had nothing to do with the actual combat efficacy of its practitioners.

I’ll be honest: TV taught me that unarmed combat was a standard fact of everyday life, right next to escaping quicksand. But it turns out that learning unarmed combat skills is often not that directly useful. Most people don’t regularly get into street fights. Even when you’re training in a practical setting, with live sparring and few restrictions on techniques, the first couple things you learn are usually something like this:

  • Your main goal in a fight is to escape unharmed. Winning a fight but getting hurt is still losing.
  • It takes a while before your training can overcome physical strength disparities against an untrained opponent. You will need even more training, and a shit ton of luck, to overcome an attacker with a weapon.
  • Even if an untrained and unarmed opponent is unlikely to win the fight, they can still do plenty of damage.
  • Your best option is usually to run.

Despite this, martial arts do build confidence! I’ve seen it happen in myself and in many of the people I trained with, and it’s definitely not because they started winning a bunch of street fights. It’s because the process of learning them develops your physical and mental discipline, your willingness to push yourself outside your comfort zone, your ability to engage in ‘serious’ play with others, and a whole bunch of other stuff that just makes navigating everyday life easier without getting into scraps. Which is pretty cool!

And the thing that’s even cooler than that is, of course, that a lot of this applies to fighting games as well. So let’s talk about fighting games, and how catching some virtual hands can build your confidence just as much as catching them IRL.

Get used to being bad at stuff you want to get good at

The number one insecurity I find myself talking people through is the worry that they’re Just Bad At Stuff. They will watch a video of someone doing something, try their best to imitate it, realize that their imitation is not as good as the person doing it in the video, and resign themselves to the hell of personal disappointment. I see people do this for fighting games, of course, but I also see people do it for art, music, writing, game development, cooking, and pretty much anything else.

I get it. We are living in a time where knowledge of How To Do Stuff is more accessible than any other time in human history. With enough time and dedication, you could get good at just about anything just by teaching yourself. The problem is that you still need time and dedication to power through being bad at something, and most skills worth trying to learn are not the ones that you can easily pick up by watching a couple YouTube videos. You cannot be good at something before being bad at something.

It’s an easy trap to fall into because most people who make videos about doing stuff don’t often show all the time they spent being bad at stuff. When I stream myself playing a new fighting game for the first time, or playing a different character, I’m already going to be better at it than most people who are picking up that game or character for the first time because I’ve got decades of experience and practice that they don’t have.

The first time I played Street Fighter 2 I was fucking terrible at it. When I got used to SF2 and tried to learn Mortal Kombat, I was fucking terrible at it, but I could do special moves because I learned them from SF2. Every time you pick up something new in a fighting game, you go back to being bad for a little bit, and so it gets you acquainted to the idea that, as Jake the Dog said so beautifully, “Sucking at something is the first step to getting kinda good at something.” And getting used to being bad at stuff makes it a lot easier to power through the awkward bad times trying to figure out a new skill, and stick with it long enough to get good.

(We talked a little bit about this on stream a while back and ended up watching this skateboarding video series called My War, which is pretty great for showing all the failures that lead to one successful video clip.)

Losing is good for you

Dude looks like he comes straight out of a comic book.

I am a big fan of losing. I think that getting used to losing, especially while cultivating a competitive skill, is a big part of developing the emotional resilience that is necessary to conduct yourself with confidence. (For more on this, check out my Core-A Gaming: Hard Reads video on why getting bodied is good for you.)

For some folks, the initial butt-kicking is useful for recalibrating their expectations, if they’re the type who need some humbling. (Also see The Onion’s Report: Average Male 4,000% Less Effective In Fights Than They Imagine.) But in my experience, there is a lot more that losing can teach you beyond humility.

See, when the protagonist of a story loses in a competition, it’s often a Major Plot Point that inspires a process of self-discovery that leads to their inevitable triumph. When a real person loses in a competition, it’s just a game they didn’t win. There’s no shame in losing — after all, 50% of players in a head-to-head game are going to lose. Everyone in a tournament loses except for one person. Losing is an inevitability, and it is only through losing that you learn to pick yourself up, think of something different, and try again. Over time, you’ll learn that there are no truly unwinnable fights, and every matchup is just one you’ll learn eventually.

Just as how sucking at something is the first step to being kinda good at something, losing at something is the first step to winning at something. And if you do anything with the fear of losing in your heart, you’re going to be mentally weaker and less resilient than the opponent who knows that losing just isn’t a big deal and doesn’t have to play through fear.

Talking to strangers

Sanchez hates it when people do laundry.

When I take new players to their first couple events, they often spend most of their time gawking and observing. Which is fine, but they really should be playing. The thing that they have a hard time getting over is walking up to a pair of strangers playing a setup and saying “Hey, let me get next.” Now, in quarantine times, the virtual version of this is “I don’t want to ask for games in Discord.”

I get it. I was awkward as hell when I really first started going to arcades as a teenager, and I wasn’t the only one. Bodying scrubs at a laundromat is a pretty weird look.

It took me a long time before I learned how to talk to people who were beating my ass. But I’ve learned over the years that if you and a stranger are mutually engaging in virtual violence, you have a lot in common. You just need to learn how to talk to strangers, and that starts by learning how to have conversations that are easy to have with just about anyone, and using those conversations to exchange information that lets you make reads on the other person to get to know them better. Small talk is just playing neutral.

As a related note: Online matchmaking does a lot to dehumanize the experience of playing fighting games. In most cases, your opponent is just a name and a series of inputs that might not pass a Turing test. It removes a lot of the human interaction in and around the game, and while it makes it easier to get at the game itself, it also deprives many new players of the experiences they need to build confidence through these social interactions with strangers. If you find places where people want to play games, and you learn how to ask people to play with you, you’ll have an easier time interacting with strangers both in and out of fighting games.

Competitive play and pushing yourself

Fun fact: Bruce Lee had his armpit sweat glands removed for reasons unknown.

Hearing folks sling around “sweaty” and “tryhard” to dismiss others is new to me, but that sentiment has been around forever. Some people are uncomfortable with pushing themselves to do better because they’re scared of the disappointment of falling short of their hopes, and of confronting failure in front of their peers. And so they’d rather deal with their discomfort by projecting outwards to the cause of their defeat. The only reason you won is because you cared too much about this. I lost because I am above working hard.

Fuck that shit.

Your best chance at getting anything you want out of life is to try as hard as you can to get it. Trying hard won’t guarantee success, but it’ll give you better odds than not trying hard. You are going to have to lose so much and fail so often that by the time you do get what you want, you’ll be making it look easy.

Yes, there may be times where it’s inappropriate to go hard. I have met many people who say they have “competitive personalities”; usually what that means is that they like winning and hate losing. So they’ll go hard on bowling at a kid’s birthday party or playing Monopoly, but the aversion to losing usually means that they’re not very good at using that “competitive personality” to be competitive at anything.

I cannot stress this enough: Dismissing the hard effort someone else puts into something is wack as hell. In the moment, it may save your ego, but it does so at the cost of your soul. Because what you’re telling yourself is that you are better than the one who worked hard, and the more you tell yourself that, the deeper you will spiral into mediocrity. It will be harder to soothe your ego as you descend into wacker depths. In time, you will become a hateful scrub.

Please do not do that shit.

Being good (but not, like, that good) at stuff

Pictured: Future international martial arts movie star Jackie Chan playing one of a dozen rando security guards getting bodied by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.

Once you stick to something for long enough, you will find yourself in the uncomfortable position of being good enough at something that other people will think you are good, even though you know that you’re not that good at it. Welcome to the club — it’s a big one.

This is where imposter syndrome hits, because you feel like whatever positive attention you get from being good at something is undeserved since you know you’re not that good. Your friend says “Wow, you’re so good at Street Fighter!” but all you can think of is that Daigo is really good at Street Fighter.

Weirdly enough, once you get used to being bad at stuff, it can feel kind of awkward to get approval for being not-bad at stuff, because at this point you’re deep enough that the approval is coming from people who you aren’t looking for approval from (since they’re not good at the thing you’re trying to get good at). I find that most experienced fighting game players are more comfortable being berated than they are praised.

When you’re here, learning to accept praise for what it is can be a good confidence-builder as well. Instead of treating the good vibes as empty and meaningless next to the True Excellence of Lord Daigo Himself, think of it as the counter to imposter syndrome. The fact that someone else thinks you’re good at something doesn’t make you an imposter; even the person who is giving you the compliment doesn’t think you’re gonna be beating Daigo in a ft10.

Getting good is a neverending journey, and it is the small compliments from people who don’t know shit that can be a nice reminder at how far you’ve come from where you started, even if you’re not where you want to be just yet. Enjoy it for what it is! Remember that everyone out there is on their own journey, and yours is not less valuable because someone else might be further along their way than you are on yours.

Managing your emotions, and others’

Fighting is all about emotional content.

I’ve written about salt management in the past (see Grown Adult Anti-Salt Tech and Curbing Anger In Fighting Games) so I won’t rehash the tech here, but the fact is that fighting games are sharp as hell. Getting hit out of something you wanted to do sucks. Blocking for a long time sucks. Losing, especially to a friend, can make you feel upset and angry, and at first you are going to direct those feelings at your friend (uh oh), yourself (also bad), or the game (please don’t throw the controller). That’s why we all have to learn how to hold our Ls.

Getting good at emotional management isn’t just about mashing for the runback. It’s about learning to recognize what you’re feeling and let it happen without changing the way you act. It’s normal to feel frustrated, scared, angry, or whatever negative emotions come out of playing fighting games. Those feelings may never go away! But that doesn’t mean you have to let them affect the way you play the game, or the way you conduct yourself afterwards.

Once you’re good at handling your shit, then you can learn how to help your partner handle their shit. Eventually you can get so good at playing in the exact right zone to keep them engaged and attentive, learning and playing, without pushing them over the edge into frustration. You can be so specific in your attention that you can teach them without them realizing it. It’s pretty sick.

This skill is pretty godlike in IRL too. You will be in situations outside of fighting games where you have to manage your emotional state as well as someone else’s. This will come up at work, in relationships, with family, everywhere. When you get used to this kind of stuff in fighting games, it makes it a lot easier to recognize and react to this stuff without panicking, shutting down, or upsetting someone else.

When it comes to fighting — whether physical or verbal — I find that many folks are the most scared by the other person’s feelings. Getting good at recognizing feelings in yourself and others, and learning to see their logic and rhythm, is a strong part of fighting without fighting.

Serving others through new skills

Without Ip Man, we wouldn’t have had Bruce Lee.

You will eventually find yourself at a point on your fighting game journey where you will look around and see that the people you are chasing after are fewer and fewer, and the people chasing after you are far more numerous than you had noticed before.

Some people will see this and continue chasing after their goals in single-minded pursuit of excellence. These people are truly rare. Often, the thing that gets us started on our journey is not the thing that keeps us on it years later, because the journey has changed us, and those changes lead us to different motivations. Which is why some of us look back at how far they’ve come and think about how others might want to do this stuff too.

Fighting games are a fun hobby. They can give us a lot to make our lives richer and stronger. And once you’ve stuck around for a while and seen how they’ve changed you, it’s very easy to feel the urge to share them with others. Which is good, because the traits you’ve developed through fighting games are useful for acquiring new skills for this kind of work.

When it comes down to it, “fighting games” are not really a hobby for me. Fighting games are the passion. Through fighting games, I’ve picked up hobbies like writing essays and a book (on fighting games), perform on (fighting game) streams, edit (fighting game) videos, run (fighting game) events, and teach (fighting games). I’ve also at different points been a professional (fighting) game journalist, (fighting game) community manager, (fighting) game designer, and am now learning how to be a (fighting game) producer.

I started playing fighting games seriously at 16. When I finished high school, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do except maybe run an arcade. (I still want to run an arcade.) I would not have ever dreamed that I could do any of these things back then; I didn’t have the confidence yet. It was fighting games that got me there. And there are still so many places I want to go! But enough about me.

I can’t wait to see where they’ll take you.

Thanks for reading! If you found this essay valuable and want to support my work, please do not hesitate to share it around on your social channels, follow me on Twitter, check out my Twitch stream (Mon-Thurs 830PM-1030PM PST), or join my Patreon.


-patrick miller

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