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Fighting game players often think about their journey as a solitary affair. After all, these games are one-on-one, and much of what we go through to play these games is fundamentally about learning, pushing, and loving yourself. But when I talk to players who want to dig deeper but are struggling to stay invested, I often find that the thing they’re missing most is other people. Ryu, the character who embodies our dedication to fight for the sake of fighting, wouldn’t be who he is without Ken, Gouken, Sakura, Sagat, and even Akuma.
Make no mistake: Fighting games are one-on-one, but they’re hands-down the most social activity I’ve ever been a part of. You don’t need to have friends to enjoy fighting games — some folks are just here for the lab — but fighting games are one of the richest mediums available for two people to interact, and if you’re not connecting with people through fighting games you’re missing out on the most valuable and beautiful part of the experience.
Why you need the homies
This is not an essay where I wax sentimental about all the wonderful folks I’ve met through fighting games. The advantages of homies are very real and very concrete, and if you’re not going out of your way to cultivate a network of friends and training partners, you’re holding yourself back as a player. Some advantages of having homies include:
- More brains = more perspectives for problem-solving. Fighting games are immensely intricate problem sets, and a single person’s ability to understand them is often limited by their skill and perspective. Being able to talk through situations with other people will give you more available tools to figure them out, even if you’re all scrubs. And since each person is coming to these games with other skills and experiences under their belts, you can learn from the way they apply their tools to fighting games. For example, if you have a friend who has played a sport or a musical instrument somewhat seriously, they’ll likely have an easier time applying their practicing skills in training mode than people who have never had to learn that kind of discipline, and you can learn it too.
- Persistent practice partners keep your dumb shit in check. If you’re constantly just playing randos in matchmaking, you won’t have to worry about all the dumb little habits that people won’t pick up on in a quick two-out-of-three set, and you won’t learn to pick up on theirs, either. Playing against the homies will give you more practice adapting over time, and will keep all your bad habits in check in the long run.
- Talking is fun. Fighting games are a conversation, and talking while playing adds to that conversation. It’s fun to talk while playing, and it’s more fun when you get to catch up with (and talk shit to) a friend instead of a stranger.
- Shared work and rewards = shared accountability. Most people are not so motivated by the pursuit of strength that they’re able to stay self-motivated for a long time. (If we were, we’d all be in a lot better shape as a species.) As social creatures, we find joy and reward when we can do things that benefit the people around us, not just ourselves. For fighting games, this is about learning that you’re only as strong as the people you surround yourself with, and if you can all collectively agree to get stronger together, it’ll benefit all of you. Conversely, if you’re only playing these games for yourself, it’ll be easier for you to decide to put off that session until tomorrow (or next week, or until you’re done playing Final Fantasy VII Remake, etc.) because you are the only person who is affected by that decision. But if you think of your fighting game practice as something that connects you to other people, it’ll be easier to stay consistent, because the rewards of your practice will strengthen your friends, too.
“If only I had some friends to play with…”
Whenever I write something about the social aspect of fighting games, I get responses from folks talking about how nice it sounds to have friends. Yup! Meaningful social connection with other human beings feels real good, and fighting games are a great way to forge those connections. Fortunately, if you’re reading one of my essays, you have all the tools you need to start making these friends, so let’s get the self-pity out of my mentions (seriously, do not do this) and talk about making friends who play fighting games.
First: You can get existing friends into fighting games. This tends to be easier if they’re already into other things that are kind of like fighting games. If your friends like doing things that a) reward skill growth over time, b) are competitive, and c) are individual-focused instead of team-focused, you might be able to get them into fighting games just by sitting down to play with them and showing them how some of the characters work.
However, it’s not always as easy as that, because if your friends already do that stuff, they might not be super down to dig into yet another skill-based competitive activity. Telling someone “Hey, let’s get into fighting games together” is equal parts inviting someone to a cool social activity, and inviting someone to a new life obsession. If you want to get your existing friends into fighting games, you’ll probably need to learn how to play with them in a way that lets them have fun — which often means not destroying them over and over again in max competitive mode (because they’re not learning anything), but also not just sitting in training mode with them cramming in fundamentals (because that’s not as fun as playing video games with your friends). Watching event streams together can be a good way to get people interested and in the door. Just don’t be offended if people don’t want to play with you, or don’t feel quite as motivated as you to get good. That attitude comes with time and practice.
If your current friends won’t bite, you’ll just have to meet new ones. Ideally, you’d be living close enough to a local scene that you could start there, because nothing breaks the ice quite like being in a group of people who care enough about fighting games that they’ll go to a specific place at a specific time just to find new people to punch. However, I’m writing this during a worldwide pandemic, where that’s not really an option for anyone, so we’ll have to explore some alternatives.
- If you’re playing on netplay and you had a good set with someone, try messaging them and see if they’re cool with you adding them to your friends list. Don’t take it personally if they decline or ignore you, not everyone is trying to make friends through fighting with strangers on the internet, so respect the ones who get away and treasure the ones who are down to run it back.
- Discord is a fantastic tool for finding people who are generally more socially inclined to play with; at the very least you’ll find that people who are down to run sets with someone on Discord are at least more likely to talk over text/voice chat, so you can have an easier time asking questions than you would tapping them out on PSN’s messaging system. If you can find a Discord for your general region and games of interest, that’s fantastic, because it’ll be easier to find low-lag matches within your timezone, and you’ll be meeting people who you might be more likely to see at local or regional gatherings (when those come back, anyway). If you need help looking for Discord communities, try checking this list and feel free to @ me on Twitter so I can signal boost your asks. Yes, this is more work than just mindlessly grinding lobby/matchmaking sets, but it’s more rewarding, efficient, and fun, so just sack up and do it.
- Even if you’re in a fairly remote area and can’t find persistent play partners, it’s still useful to have a group of people you can talk to about this stuff together. Streams, memes, clips, and tips are all great ways to dig deeper into fighting games that don’t need you to play together.
“But I have social anxiety/I’m weird/People don’t like me/I’m bad at making friends”
Surprise! If you’ve decided to spend a significant part of your time and energy on this Earth playing fighting games, you’re probably some kind of weirdo, and that’s fine. Fact is, one of the richest things I’ve gotten from fighting games has been the skills, confidence, and practice required to comfortably interact with all kinds of strangers, and it’s something that has served me well outside of fighting games, too.
One of the first things that helped me get good at chatting up strangers was realizing that if we’re both playing fighting games together, we’re not really strangers, because we have the game in common and we’ll get to know each other through playing. So you just have to learn how to make small talk that takes you from “We’re just two people playing a fighting game” to “Hey, I remember this person’s name and character and they’re fun to play with.” Just like anything else, this is a skill you grind with practice, so here are a couple tips to help you get good at winning friends and influencing people.
- At the most basic level, a friend is someone who knows and cares about you, not just themselves. However, you’re not going to start out there — that’s too much, too soon. Start by talking about the game, since it’s what you have in common. Asking questions about stuff you don’t understand or how things work and complimenting them on stuff they did that you thought was skillful or effective is generally a safe way to start establishing trust early on.
- In general, keep your tone even and lighthearted to start; some people get really frustrated with themselves when they play, and it makes it harder to interact with them, because talking to an upset stranger is uncomfortable, especially if you’re the one pressing buttons that make them upset. If you’re agitated at yourself or them, you’re not in a good place to make a friend, and it’s rather inconsiderate to force your play partner to deal with cleaning up your emotions.
- If the other person is responding to your questions with cues that invite you to continue the conversation (asking you questions, offering to try stuff out in training mode, that kind of thing) then you’re good to keep going. If they’re not really talking that much, they’re likely not in the mood to talk, so just let them rock.
- If you’re having a decent back and forth about the game, the next step is to engage them with something that shares some information about you, and see if they reciprocate. This is where you go from “People playing a video game together” to “People who kinda know each other”. I often start this by asking how someone got started playing fighting games, or why they play their main character, to see if the other person is interested in talking about it, and if they are, I can talk about my own experiences and continue the conversation. Eventually we might talk about work or school or whatever, but the safest way to get there is usually to keep things close to the game.
- A good conversation is like a good set — it keeps going back and forth. If it stops, that’s fine. In general, people don’t often become friends through a single moment but through a series of interactions that escalate over time, starting with small talk one day, and a little bit bigger talk the next, and so on. So don’t rush it.
Fighting games are weird and beautiful, and so are the people who play them! So let’s get a little better at bringing others along on our journey.
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