Embracing social learning in fighting games

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The other day, a friend in a Guilty Gear group mentioned that he was looking into coding bootcamps because he wanted to take his career in a different direction, and I wished him well. I don’t meet many fighting game players in software engineering, but many of my fighting game friends have successfully executed that combo before, and I think that’s in part because the bootcamp methods are fairly compatible with fighting game learning mentalities: Learn these concepts, learn these frameworks, ask lots of questions until you get it, here’s how you prepare for interviews, good luck, go get that money. It’s a lot like watching experienced fighting game players learn new games from each other; they get to work at what seems like warp speed because they already know how to learn.

One particular aspect of the coding bootcamp process that I’ve seen mirrored in fighting games is the reward for social learning. Learning how to tell a computer what to do is conceptually complicated work, and rather than treat it as an individual challenge, it’s more efficient to form study groups with your classmates to tackle stuff together (which is also a closer match to how most tech teams work, too). Yes, learning how to learn on your own is valuable, but far more often you’ll be better served by asking for help, whether from your peers and seniors, or from Google. “I want to do this by myself” is often an ego-driven conceit that is satisfying and indulgent to apply to puzzles and toys, where the feeling of doing it by yourself is often the entire reason you’re doing it. When it comes to skill development, however, few skills should be acquired purely on your own.

There are plenty of things in fighting games that you’ll have to learn on your own, because while you and I may be playing the same game, we’re not playing them with the same brains. Even with a great teacher, you’d still have plenty of work to do in learning something well enough that you can execute it and build on it. But when it comes to basic details of how a fighting game works, insisting on learning solo is a point of vanity, not strength. Wherever possible, players should generally prefer to learn from others, especially early on in their journey when the things they don’t know are far more easily explained than they are deduced.

Taking on fighting games solo is to play on the hardest difficulty, and that’s not a recommended path for anyone who is new to fighting games. I can appreciate wanting to apply this method to something like Dark Souls or Hades, because those games aredesigned specifically to create this as a compelling possibility, and the process of learning how to play the game becomes your own individual journey. Fighting games are not designed with this approach in mind because the density and complexity of multiplayer combat design required to make these games hold up to competitive scrutiny and be fun for decades does not leave much room for concepts to be presented and ordered in convenient individual servings. When the boss character beating you up is driven by an actual human brain, it’s probably not going to act in a way that conveniently lets you expand on the lesson you learned in the previous level to beat it. Unless you already know how fighting games work at a foundational level, you probably aren’t going to be able to decipher the underlying rules well enough to figure this out on your own any more than you’d be able to reverse-engineer a sport or martial art.

That’s because while individual games may come and go, the people who play them stick around and gain persistent experience over time that carries over from game to game. Fighting games are more systemically complex now than they were 30 years ago because they’ve been building on the things people have been learning for those 30 years. The brain-muscles that you work out in one game are still useful in another. So, learning entirely on your own isn’t just making up the difference between you and everyone who has been playing Guilty Gear Xrd for the last seven years, it’s making up the difference between you and everyone who has been contributing to the sum total of knowledge and experience about fighting games since fighting games began to be a thing.

So where on earth does this scrubby-ass mindset come from? I’ve seen it pop up from a couple places.

“Because it’s a video game”

Nothing like seeing an old pupil go on to do great things.

The most frequent cause is from naively inheriting expectations from other video games. The logic usually goes something like this: “Fighting games are video games, and the video games I’ve played before let me learn on my own, so fighting games should also let me do this (otherwise they’re bad video games).”

I understand this, of course; it’d sure be more convenient if fighting games were easily learned alone. But holding them to this expectation “because video games” is roughly like expecting every restaurant to feed you in 10 minutes because that’s what McDonald’s does. You wouldn’t expect to learn boxing or basketball on your own to any degree of actual competency, and fighting games are closer to those than they are to Assassin’s Creed. Make no mistake, fighting games are sports, and the fact that these sports can be delivered through the same medium as other video games isn’t a flaw, it’s a testament to decades of amazing game development craft.

The “because video games” attitude is particularly painful when the person involved is holding their intuitions on how the game “should” work as an expected standard that the game should meet, and every deviation from that standard is considered a demerit on the game’s quality, as if the game could anticipate what any given player found ‘intuitive’ (which is, itself, largely defined by prior expectations set by previous video games). Indeed, stubborn folks will often take this moment in the conversation to insist that fighting games should cater to this antisocial use case.

I disagree, of course. To the people who love fighting games for what they are right now, they are far better in creating moments of shared joy, mutual respect, and personal reflection than just about anything else going on in video games right now, and that’s because they’re too complicated for an individual to digest alone. Frankly, if I weren’t playing fighting games these days, I don’t think I’d bother playing any video games at all. The complexity and challenge is what makes them all cool as hell, which is why the fighting games that don’t demand this level of complexity generally don’t stick around long-term. So why spend our time changing fighting games to be more easily consumable products when we could be spending our time changing ourselves to become better fighting game players? After all, that’s the fun part.

“I want to have my own style”

King of Fighters is just Kyo against an endless parade of imitations.

Next on the list are the folks who insist on doing things their own way. To them, the allure of fighting games is in the potential for individual stylistic expression, and enlisting others’ help in their journey somehow detracts from the value of that expression.

This kills the new player.

Fighting games are absolutely a wonderful medium for individual expression and creativity. Like any other medium — art, dance, music, writing, martial arts, whatever — you don’t get to be meaningfully expressive and creative at first. Creative expression in pretty much anything is unlocked primarily through increasing your mastery of craft, and frequently colliding with others’ creative work. Creative work is problem-solving, and it is through learning how to solve problems through traditional methods (the “rules”) that you can develop an appreciation for how others find non-traditional solutions. There isn’t much creativity in isolation. (I wrote about this more in “How do I develop my own playstyle?”)

Incidentally, I do see a similar attachment to ‘personal style’ among scrubs in martial arts as well, and they don’t last long either, because eventually they come to realize that, like any other creative skill, one’s personal stylistic expression is cultivated through years and years of practice to understand where you can get away with bending and breaking rules, and it often starts with finding ways around doing the thing you don’t want to do or are bad at doing. If I put off drilling takedowns because they’re exhausting once, I’m being lazy; if I put it off for ten years, I’m defining my combat style.

“I don’t want to interact with other people”

COPS IF YOUR QUICK

Sometimes it’s not the learning that’s the problem, it’s having to interact with other people in order to do it — either due to social anxiety or social exhaustion. Certainly, interacting with others takes energy that you might not want to spend, which is fine — that’s what netplaying with randos is for — but antisocial tendencies definitely can kneecap a new fighting game player’s ability to stick with the genre, because the thing fighting games do better than just about anything else is enable deeply communicative interactions between strangers in the game itself.

There are thousands of fighting game community spaces out there where people simply will not stop talking about them, because people like talking about how to get better at stuff, whether it’s in asking questions or in answering them. Fighting games are hard, and other people can make them easier, so knowing how to play them well creates social value for yourself and others, since you can then use your skill and understanding to help folks get better.

So: You just gotta go do it. If you play the same fighting game as someone else, you already have a ridiculously specific shared interest, so you’re going to have an easier time talking to them than just about any other stranger you’ll ever meet. Overcoming those barriers to socializing is itself a growth point that unlocks your power levels in real life, not just fighting games. I’ve personally found it to be a lot more fun to learn it through fighting games than through anything else.

Also, it turns out that lots of socially awkward people are into fighting games, so trust me, you’re not exactly going to stick out. Remember: If you’re not playing fighting games for the people, you’re missing out on the best part.

Fighting games are hard, but they’re also easy

I always get a chuckle out of seeing folks identify the difference between “How I should learn how to play fighting games” and “How I want to learn how to play fighting games” as a problem that should be fixed. For them, fighting games represent an experience that is blocked by a barrier, and if they could only remove the barrier, then they’d have the experience they want. But the experience they want is defined by the ever-present process of overcoming the barrier! After all, I also let my ego get in the way of my learning; I make meaningless concessions to vanity; I will overfocus on the game I’m playing rather than the person; I too am a work in progress. We all are. The fun we’re having is not from having crossed the river, but all of us trying to cross it together. The point is the journey, not the destination.

As video games, yes, fighting games are hard. They offer a degree of surface-level fun and a lot of cool characters doing cool things, but if you want any kind of feeling of rewarding progression or satisfying social interaction that goes deeper than that, you will likely have to push yourself in ways most games do not demand.

As far as opportunities for self-improvement go, though, fighting games are pretty easy. We’re all just pressing buttons. You can focus on improvement if you want to, or you can mash random select against a buddy, side bet on Vs CPU battles, or spend an hour coming up with a combo that you think looks cool but will never use. The fact that we get to spend hours of our time making cool characters do ever-cooler things (and make ourselves look cool while we’re doing it) is already pretty dope, but being able to use these games as a vehicle to overcome our personal weaknesses and make new friends who are also on a similar journey of recreational self-improvement is nothing short of amazing. And once you get good at this, a lot of hard things begin to look a lot easier.

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.

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-patrick miller

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