I’ve always found I wanna help my friends who don’t understand fighting games to try and understand them, and I feel I can explain it from a spectator’s point of view really well. What ends up happening usually though is that a friend will sometimes get interested and want to try out a game they’re interested in, and I think that’s sick and so I offer to help.
But when it comes down to actually like sitting with someone and trying to help them learn a fighting game, I struggle a lot with explaining from a teacher’s point of view. Obviously I know how fighting games work cause I play them, and I got that information from nothing once before but I don’t really remember too well what it was like to start at like “square 0”.
Do you have advice for the best ways to set up building blocks for a completely new fighting game player while avoiding information overload?
Ah, a question near and dear to my heart! Excellent ask, TT.
I know that many of you who read my stuff are going to be “the friend who knows a lot about fighting games” for many of your friends, and as such, you will be asked to do your time in the newbie-training mines for SF6. I did this so much that I ended up writing a book to do it for me called From Masher to Master so I could get people to stop asking me to come over and show them how to play until they read my book first. (It served its purpose, because no one wants to hang out with a jerk who responds to being invited to hang out and mash fighting games with “Read my book first.”)
I’ve written about this a little bit before in “How can I teach my friends to play fighting games?”, so I’ll recommend reading that first. Before I go any further, though, I have a question for you: What was the last time you tried to do something completely new?
I don’t think I’ve tried anything completely new since I was young, but the most recent thing that comes to mind is having to learn SQL for work since I knew nothing about it really.
Got it. You should try picking up something that you’ve never done before for a little bit, especially something that uses your body or hands in a unique way, if you want to see what it’s like for your friend to learn this stuff with you.
Basically, the limiting factor that you have to work around in teaching a new fighting game player is that to learn fighting games requires both studying the game and practicing the game, and most people aren’t really great at one kind of learning, let alone two. You’re asking for the building blocks, but the important part isn’t really what blocks you’re learning or practicing, it’s how you break them down and play with them.
Studying the game is an academic process: You are playing a game that is full of mechanics, characters, systems, moves, hitboxes, frame data values, etc., and the more you understand about how all those things work together, the more capable you are of making good decisions. When you’re looking at information on a wiki or talking about the game with another experienced fighting game player, much of the information that you’re absorbing and exchanging involves exercising your studying skills just like it’s another academic class. And if you think about the format that most of your classes probably took, it’d look something like a daily class that’s about ~50 minutes long, with maybe only half of that time spent on learning new stuff.
Practicing the game is more like developing a physical skill: a mix of learning an instrument and playing a sport. Since fighting games play out very quickly, studying the game alone won’t make you a good player because you need to be able to execute all the decisions you’re making in real time before your opponent executes you. Learning how to execute fast enough to keep up with your opponent, and then learning how to think fast enough to feed your hands new stuff to do, requires a whole lot of time spent imprinting your decisions into your muscle memory so that you can cut down the mental processing time gap between when you see something and when you do it. (For more on the cognitive work that goes into playing fighting games, check out Using OODA Loops to talk through fighting games.)
Both study and practice are activities that benefit from long-term consistent practice, and often hit the point of diminishing returns pretty quickly. While you were studying SQL, I bet you could study for 30 minutes and absorb all 30 minutes, but if you studied for an hour or two you’d likely absorb less as you get tired. Similarly, if you started learning to play guitar from zero, you’d probably hit your cap on learning new stuff after the first 15 minutes or so because your brain has a completely new thing to chew on. In order to learn stuff effectively, you’re better served making it a daily habit for a short amount of time than you are with infrequent big chunks of time. And since fighting games require both study and practice, you might spend an hour studying and another one practicing and still end up feeling like you can’t do jack shit and just wasted your time.
So if you really want to teach your friend how to play the fighting game, see if you can make a promise with them to play together every day for a week for at least thirty minutes. That isn’t how this kind of invitation usually goes, in my experience — people often think it’s the kind of thing that I can sit down to teach them in an evening over a beer or two — but they’ll hit their limit for what they can reasonably retain much earlier than they expect, though they may not realize it in the moment.
When this happens, they’ll nod and say ‘Oh, I get it’ and try to do it some of the stuff you’re explaining, and when they realize they won’t be able to do it immediately they’ll just tell you they’ll practice it later (so as not to be a bad host and waste your time), so you just move on to the next thing you wanted to show them (so as to be a good guest and entertain your host).
By the end of the evening, you might leave thinking you’ve taught for three hours, but that player probably only got a good thirty minutes. And the next time they sit down to play the game, they’ll try to recall all three hours worth of information, but will only be able to recall thirty minutes of it, and it’ll probably be like, whatever you showed in the first fifteen minutes, and then a scattered set of incomplete chunks all across the remainder of the session. They’ll have spent three hours of their life talking about a fighting game, but they won’t feel any better at the game than they did before. In fact, they might feel worse because now they have an even clearer picture of all the ways in which they’re bad than they did before.
This is usually the point where your student will decide they have other things to do with their lives than tackle something as impossibly difficult as fighting games seem to be in this moment. After all, they spent three hours learning thirty minutes of stuff, and they’re only able to execute the first ten minutes’ worth of it. Smart people usually decide to cut their losses here, and that’s why you can always get a great deal on gently used sticks and hitboxes in the few months after a new Street Fighter comes out.
The best trick I’ve found for managing the information overload is to focus on keeping the gap between what the student knows and what the student can do as small as possible, because those moments are typically where nerds who want to like fighting games get frustrated. I call this “hiding the mountain”, though I’m sure there’s a proper pedagogical term for this somewhere.
Basically, think about your fighting game journey as a hike leading to a mountain that you will climb; the closer you get to the mountain, the more intimidating it looks. At the start of your journey, you might be excited to climb that mountain and see what the world looks like from somewhere new, but once you actually get to the mountain all you can see in front of you is the work.
The way to climb the mountain is not by looking up at it, but to keep your eyes focused on on the step right in front of you, and just look up when there’s no mountain left for you to climb. (Or, you know, every now and then you can look down just to see how far you’ve already come.) Just study enough to practice something for a little bit, play some games, and then do it again the next day, and you’ll spend less time feeling stupid and more time engaged in the fun of learning new things and seeing yourself get a little bit better at doing them every day.
I think this works because I find that people have a easier time dealing with frustration caused by losing to stuff they didn’t know about over losing to stuff they knew about but failed to properly play against, because the consequence of not knowing feels a lot more manageable (“Go learn how this thing works”) than the consequence of not doing (“Git gud”) does.
When my awesome wife first started learning how to play Xrd, we didn’t really play together that much. Instead, I’d give her something to try out, like a basic Jam gatling into a knockdown, and she’d write it down, practice it in training mode for a bit, then play through the arcade mode just doing it until she won. Then I’d show her how to do a gatling into Jam’s specials, and she’d work on that, and the day after she’d learn how to charge Jam’s cards after a knockdown to get more powerful specials. Every now and then she’d play against other new players, but a lot of her first several hours were just spent beating up the CPU — which honestly is closer to how non-fighting game players are more comfortable playing video games anyway. (Go read Vs. CPU is Underrated.)
Make no mistake: You should play with your friends, since part of the reason they want to learn to play fighting games is almost certainly because they want to be able to play them with you! But instead of just ruthlessly beating their ass until one or both of you get bored, you’ll have to get creative to keep them engaged. Playing mini-games based on the stuff you’re teaching them is helpful; I often just play footsies with new players to get them having fun learning neutral without having to worry juggling all the other stuff, like combos and oki and defense, until they’re ready for it. The more they learn, the more of the game you get to play with them; footsies will give way to just playing secondary characters before you know it, and the moment they earn the right to face your main you will take a second to show them how proud you are of them.
Then, and only then, are you allowed to show them the mountain. Take out your main character and remind them that they have only just completed the tutorial, and now it’s time for them to start playing the real game.
Hope this helps! Thanks for reading.
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