I hear a lot of people give this as their reason for not playing fighting games. I would like to clarify that no one is fast enough to play fighting games until they play fighting games enough to get fast. But the concept of getting faster feels unfamiliar to people — “mental speed” or “reaction times” get thrown around as though they are the unchangeable determinant of who can be good at fighting games, when that’s obviously not the whole picture. So let’s talk a bit about what goes on when you play a fighting game, and hopefully this will help you form a mental model of how people get faster at playing them.
Think of a fighting game as a real-time card game. Every single thing that you know how to do with your character is a card; your deck represents your total knowledge of that character.
Your character can do a lot of things, but you are only able to think of a few of them at a time. The ones you have in mind during any given moment are the cards in your hand. However, since this game is played in real time, having a big hand means it’ll take more time to pick the card you want and play it.
So how do turns work in a real-time fighting game? You’re probably familiar with the concept of “turns” in a fighting game as defined by frame advantage/disadvantage, but that’s not quite what I’m talking about.
Basically, a “turn” in the mental game is the process of your brain going through a cycle of phases that generate a decision, just like a card game. Air Force Colonel and fighter pilot John Boyd coined a term for these decision cycles called the “OODA Loop”, which sorts out the process of reaction into four phases:
- Observation — collecting the data on the situation
- Orientation — parsing the data to understand the situation
- Decision — selecting a response based on your understanding
- Action — executing your response
When you are playing a fighting game, you look at the screen to gather information, turn the information into an understanding of the game state (character positions and expected future positions, character options weighted by risk/reward, etc.), decide on an action based on that understanding, and then input the movements needed to execute the action. Then you look at the screen to see what happened to your action, and the cycle starts all over again.
So, while you’re walking back and forth in footsies or holding down-back after you get thrown so you can block an incoming meaty, you’re also reading the situation, and sorting through your deck to swap cards into and out of your hand.
And since this game is in real-time, not all turns take equally long. The length of your turn depends on the length of each phase in that turn. Observation gets faster as you get more familiar with each move’s animation and sound cue. Orientation gets faster as you learn where the decision points are in any given situation. Decisions get faster when you are holding fewer cards in your hand, and Actions get faster when your hands get more comfortable doing all your inputs.
Both players are going through these OODA loops at the same time, but at different rates. When something happens on screen that a player didn’t expect to happen — like an air travel arc changing from a divekick, for example — that player’s turn is interrupted and they’re going back to Observation. Shorter turns are harder to interrupt, but longer turns are more likely to yield a correct action.
Our brains are piloting Gundams, and the Gundams are our bodies.
Through fighting games, we learn to very quickly take in complex information and generate just-thoughtful-enough actions. Some players are really good at funneling games into situations where they know they can look for reactable cues, which is powerful because it removes the variance that comes with trying to win off of unreactable situations. Some players are so well-studied on the game’s situations and character possibilities that you can count on them to hit the situation-optimal response without fail. Players who like zoning playstyles usually do so because it allows them to slow down the game into long, deliberate, readable turns; players of rushdown styles like taking their turns real fast to interrupt the other player from catching up to where the game is.
The more you play and practice, the faster you get, giving you extra cycles to move faster or decide better or wait just a little longer to react. As you get faster, the rest of the game gets slower and just a little bit more comprehensible. You become able to see things you didn’t see before because your brain couldn’t handle the additional information, or process more complicated thoughts that you didn’t have time to finish.
And of course, all of this is complicated by the additional work of reading your opponents emotions and managing your own, and coordinating your hands to perform an intricate series of carefully timed inputs in response to the action as it unfolds at 60fps. It’s a lot of brain and body work that is layered on top of the mental complexity we just described! Frustration and confidence can do a lot to affect how quickly and how carefully you respond to a situation or how accurately you judge the opponent’s mental state.
I don’t really have a conclusion here, other than fighting games are cool as shit! I hope this will help you understand the mental work you perform to play these games and get better at them.
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.