Training Mode for the Soul
Boys’ manga battle stories often use combinations of common narrative patterns to get to the action: you have a young, spunky protagonist who stumbles into a world of people who are really good at [activity], where nothing matters but [activity], and while the protagonist knows nothing about [activity] they are placed in a position where they must be the best at [activity]. [Activity] invariably involves some kind of arcane skill mastery that is tested in head-to-head competition, and as the story creates opportunities for the protagonist and their assorted friends, foils, rivals, etc. to find themselves in an escalating series of clashes, you get to see these characters tackle challenges, deal with setbacks, find their inner strength and creativity, overcome personal traumas, and inevitably make friends of enemies, all while saving the world or racing cars on mountains or playing basketball or whatever.
This kind of narrative comes easily to most competitive activities, especially one-on-one competitions, but it feels different when you’re the one cursing yourself for your inability to perform a basic technique instead of watching Naruto struggle to do the same. Shonen manga is great for inspiring us; Israel Adesanya, the current UFC middleweight champion, has gone on at length about how much he loves Rock Lee. But fighting games just give us the activity to test us, and little else to help us understand how to tackle them. For that, we need to look elsewhere. A football is just a football, not a coach.
When I say fighting games are hard, I mean it in the way that learning how to play a sport is hard. Fighting games will expose you to frustration and test your ability to manage your emotions, both in the moment and in the bigger picture. They will push you to dig deep and ask you how much you’re willing to do in service of getting something you want — whatever that is. They will push you up to where you feel like you’re at your limits and then ask you what you intend to do about them. They will put you into a social space where you are constantly drawing comparisons between yourself and others, and they will force you to deal with the often-uncomfortable experience of seeing your weaknesses exposed in real time by your peers in that space. They reveal to you, and others, the way you behave towards people who are stronger than you, and towards people who are weaker. And they show you how you go about tackling impossible, insurmountable challenges, through brute force or creativity, alone or with allies, with a calm heart or a chip on your shoulder, and a dozen other dimensions.
None of this is unique to fighting games, of course, and that’s why it’s awesome. All of these are things you will encounter at some point in your life, likely with stakes that are much higher than they’ll ever be in fighting games — in work, in relationships, and so on. We all need to learn the matchup against ourselves, but if you do it in fighting games, you get the added bonus of having the payoff look cool as fuck. At the end of the day, though, fighting games only matter as much as they matter to you. Personally, I find this liberating. Fighting games are training mode for the soul.
Training mode is an amazing tool when you have a goal, and a paralyzing time sink when you don’t. Another athletic comparison: A weight room can be an athlete’s most powerful training tool, or it can be the cause of a career-ending injury, depending on whether the athlete has the appropriate knowledge and guidance to use it effectively. Many of you reading this have probably tried to sign up for a gym membership, propelled by the fresh motivation of a New Year’s Resolution, and then given up within a couple weeks after aimlessly doing a couple dumbbell curls and running a mile or two on the treadmill, all the while surrounded by folks who seem to float effortlessly from station to station, guided by the confidence of knowing what they’re doing and why they’re there. If your soul is ready for training mode, great, but if it’s not, you will suffer needlessly and wonder why you don’t see others feeling the same.
I came to fighting games after competing in high school debate for a couple years. Public speaking is routinely cited as humanity’s most common fear; now imagine a bunch of awkward high schoolers engaging in competitive, timed, PvP public speaking, and you’ve got a recipe for a great shonen manga. Preparing for a debate tournament involved a lot of in-depth research, workshopping different arguments, training your voice and mind for speaking very quickly while remaining understandable, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I found generally more stressful in the moment and more laborious in practice and preparation than fighting games. So when I discovered competitive fighting games, it felt like a fun outlet for me to exercise many of the same emotional tools I learned in debate but in an activity that was far more appealing to me, with people who I liked a lot more than other debaters. (Actually, any debaters from my time — Lincoln-Douglas, from 1999–2003 — probably remember me for playing fighting games on my laptop in-between competition rounds. Shoutouts to whoever I played Gundam Wing: Endless Duel with at the El Cerrito High School beginner tournament.)
In other words, fighting games were an easy fit in some ways because I already had some analogous experience (and some amazing debate coaches). I was already used to going head-to-head against my peers, seeing ourselves compared in the results, and learning from the outcome. When I got bodied by a more experienced debater at a UC Berkeley debate tournament, my coach called it a learning experience, and when I got bodied by Ricki Ortiz at the weekly Bearcade tournament I knew to call it the same. It’s easier to deal with the demotivational angst of thinking you’re never going to be as good as someone else when you’ve seen that feeling before and you know the matchup.
But in other ways, fighting games were not so easy for me. I had been generically “good at video games” my entire life until that point, and it wasn’t until playing fighting games that I felt like my confidence was undeserved and my wackness exposed. Since I wasn’t a particularly athletic kid and never showed any interest in music, the process of physically training my hands to perform increasingly complicated combinations felt pointless. I hadn’t done enough of this kind of thing to realize that your brain learns fine motor skills on its own, and that you get better at these things by consistently putting time in and sleeping on it until they become imprinted in your muscles. Without that experience, I grew to think of myself as someone who “just couldn’t do hard stuff” and stuck to playing fighting games in ways that were fairly low-execution. It actually wasn’t until fighting games got me into martial arts that I learned more about my body’s learning process, and then turning around and applying that mindset back to fighting games while playing UMVC3 got me practicing Zero lightning loops every damn day for a year, at which point I realized I could do anything if I was willing to put in the work.
Fighting games can push you to be stronger, but fighting games can also push you until you collapse. If you don’t have the right tools and you try to brute force your way through, you may find that the tactics you develop to overcome your challenges in the short term become maladaptive survival strategies that cost you in the long run. Fighting games might be hard for you because you don’t have the right tools and training yet, but they also might be hard for you because your home life sucks, you don’t have a good foundation for learning new skills, your friends are jerks, you don’t have anything in your life that makes you feel competent, you’re too broke to function, your job is miserable, your physical or mental disabilities are unmanageable, your social anxiety leaves you in constant stress around others, or you’re too hard on yourself to let yourself be bad at something. Fighting games will not fix these problems for you. For some, they may be the path that leads to better things — they sure were for me — but that’s certainly not a universal experience.
To return to the physical analogy, you might want to start out getting into powerlifting, but if your body is wracked by chronic pain, you start with physical therapy and work your way up from there. If you feel like fighting games are too overwhelming for you to enjoy, you can back off and get your life right until you feel ready for them, or you can change the way you engage with fighting games to make them less overwhelming until you’re ready to turn up the heat — by doing stuff like playing a wide variety of games instead of trying to focus on competition, or soaking up time in low-stress Vs. CPU modes. Neither path is wrong, and both paths lead to a stronger 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.