[This essay was funded by my generous Patreon supporters. If you liked this and want to see more, please consider joining the crew!]
I hear many people ask whether they should play game A or B, which character they should main, whether they should spend more time in training mode or netplay. These are all good questions! These games do not exactly explain how best to play them.
That’s because there isn’t really a best way to play them. People find something they want out of the games, but they don’t know how to get it. They think that if they get better at the game, they’ll get what they want. But that is only partially true. Yes, getting better at fighting games is an important part of the experience for most people, but getting good is usually a means to get the thing they really want — and most people, especially newer players, probably don’t know what that is.
There is no one true way to play fighting games; there is no one right game to play.
All of us come to fighting games with different experiences behind us, and all of us stay for different reasons. But we generally don’t know what our reason is before we start playing; we’re just drawn magnetically to them, and as we stick around, we learn something new about ourselves. We learn that something about fighting games fills a need for us that we may not have known we had.
So if you’ve been trying to get into fighting games for a while, but it doesn’t seem to stick for you, it might be because you don’t know why you want to play.
I think there are a lot of people out there who feel drawn to fighting games but don’t know why. I see them continue to try to dig deeper even in the face of countless frustrating experiences. They know that there’s something there for them, but they don’t quite know what it is, and they keep trying every game, taking every different approach to playing, poking at them over and over to find that point where it just clicks for them. This is admirable, I think — one way to find this reason is to try everything and see what sticks.
Some people say their motivation is: to be the best. For most of us, I think we’re happy daydreaming about being the best once in a while. It’s fun to see how far you can go out of sheer competitive drive, but most people don’t actually like winning enough to have that be the motivation that gets them to stick around.
Your reason will generally not be the same over time. I started getting into fighting games because they were the cool and I was five. I got back into them ten years later because I loved the fantasy of martial arts but didn’t have the means to do an actual martial art. I wanted to get good enough at them to beat my friends, then I played stronger players and realized I wanted to get good enough to win tournaments, and then I found myself sitting in a hall packed with hundreds of people electrified by Daigo’s full parry and I decided I wanted more people to feel what I felt.
These days, I play so I can learn. I want to play the strongest players and imprint their beating into my brain so I can play it back later in my head. I want to know why and how they are strong.
I like this reason to play. It’s a strong one. This reason leads me to play with all kinds of people from all over the world; it leads me to dig deeper into how different games work; it leads me to hone my communication skills so I can share my learnings with others; and it also leads me to find the reason that others play. When I win, it is validation of my learning. When I lose, it is more raw material to be studied and processed.
This reason is not for everyone. One friend of mine loves playing fighting games because they enable him to connect with all kinds of different people. For him, fighting games are something best enjoyed with others. He spends just enough time in training mode to be able to play the game against someone who likes the game — one combo, a setup or two, that’s it.
I know a local OG who plays to teach the kids the same lessons he learned in the old days, when everyone who played fighting games was a little more ruthless about keeping their quarter. He plays all the old games as if he were a living, breathing Encyclopedia of Cheap Shit.
I know a too-clever jackass who plays because he wants you to know that he knows that you know. His setups are scientifically optimized to make you feel as silly and predictable as possible.
I know a grumpy old man who’s just there to remind folks that if they want to win they’ll have to get past him. In this way, the work he did as an active player lives on as a test for others. I don’t even think he plays that much any more, but he’s here for the community, and he comes to events because he wants to continue to witness and build this thing that we love.
I know a woman who plays just to make her opponents miserable. She won’t touch a character that doesn’t absolutely reek of soul-crushing oppression. She delights in feeling your despair; she plays to make a mockery of your honesty.
And so on, and so on.
Everyone has their own reason; everyone’s reason will take them down a different path. Some might take them to an Evo championship; most will not, and that’s okay. Tournaments are one way of testing your reason against another’s, and that’s real cool, but tournaments do not tell you who is having the most fun, or finding the most growth, or any other kind of value one might get out of playing a fighting game.
So: Find your reason. Don’t worry about am I doing this the right way. Just ask yourself what makes you want to keep playing, and let everything else follow from there.
Thanks for reading!