Why I find fighting games to be political
It really bothers me when people say stuff like “Let’s not put politics in video games” because everything is political. It bothers me even more when people associate fighting games and their communities as a place to be free from progressive politics, because fighting games are, to me, the most radically progressive things going on in video games at the moment, and that’s exactly why I love it so. In order to explain that, I’m going to tell the story about how I got into fighting games in the first place.
The origin story
I played Street Fighter II for the first time when I was 5-6 years old in a 7-11 in San Francisco. I loved it, but I didn’t really get to play it much because my allowance was only $1/week and a game cost 50 cents. It wasn’t until it came out for the SNES that I was really able to dig into it – my uncles played with me a lot, but I beat them all – and once the fighting game boom had come and gone I kind of went back to playing JRPGs.
I didn’t really get into fighting games in a big way until high school. I went to a private high school that was probably like 85% rich white folks; I think tuition cost like $16k/year, and the only reason I could afford to go was because they had tuition assistance available. So I went, and I got a great education, but I didn’t really make many lasting friends there, because I never felt like I was living in the same world as most of the others were – not white and rich enough to really understand the white rich kids, not brown and poor enough to really get anyone else.
I got into fighting games because I met one guy named David, who would bring his MAS stick and Dreamcast to school just to play games during lunch. I wasn’t any good, but I was intrigued, so I played with him, and eventually I met another guy through him named Allen, who went to a neighboring public school and also played fighting games. By the end of high school, I’d be going straight to the UC Berkeley BEARcade to grind CvS2 after class, and we’d spend weekends playing games and watching B5 bootlegs of Justin Wong and Ricky Ortiz at Allen’s place, or going out to a tournament to scrap with everyone from college kids to local OGs to random homeless guys that hung around the arcades. And now I’m here.
So far, it’s a pretty typical FGC origin story, and when I was living it myself, I didn’t quite understand exactly why things happened the way they did. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how politics were a part of all this.
For starters: Street Fighter II spread all over the world in part because it was the last peak of the arcade business model, where you could play a game for just a quarter or two. This was during a period of time where video games were well on their way to retreating from public spaces and into living rooms via game console and PC, all of which cost way more. So economic class is certainly a factor here; if Street Fighter II had been something that I would have had to find out about from someone with a home console or PC instead of playing for myself, I might not have gotten into it.
David and I became friends through fighting games. David is half-Black, half-Chinese; I’m half-white, half-Filipino. Up until I had met David, I had always tried to fit in with the white kids and learn to do their thing, and it never really worked for me. Making friends with non-white kids made me realize that a lot of what I thought was nerdy social awkwardness was in fact me just not being able to relate to upper-class white kids – something that sounds totally obvious as an adult, but wasn’t obvious to me, because my dad is white and can’t really teach me about that kind of thing, and my (Filipina) mom died when I was about five or so. None of this ever came up when I played Quake or Starcraft, just Street Fighter – because Street Fighter had to be played in person. So for me, race is an inextricable part of Street Fighter as well, because it was the main vector for me to find other young people of color, which was key to forming my identity and sense of self as a kid.
As a nerdy white/Asian kid in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, I didn’t have a whole lot going for me when it came to my cool factor. You don’t see many openly biracial folks in pop culture, nor do you see many Asian men. To me, seeing Justin Wong and Ricky Ortiz win big and earn respect from everyone from nerdy Asian kids to hard-ass-looking Black dudes was hugely important, because up until then pretty much everyone I was supposed to look up to, either at home/school or in the media, was white and male (with a few white women here and there). In fighting games, our top players and community supporters are brown and gay and trans and poor and all kinds of other rad identities. Add gender and sexuality to the politics pile as well.
And maybe the coolest thing about fighting games was that it gave me a way to interact with all these people – not just David and Allen, but everyone, from the college kids, to local OGs, to random homeless guys, all the way to Ricky and Justin and everyone else I’ve met. I’ve played a lot of video games in my life, and I’ll be damned if Street Fighter isn’t better at transcending boundaries than just about any other game out there.
Because the thing is that it’s totally easy to go about your everyday life without interacting with someone from a significantly different background as you in a deep and meaningful way. When I think of all the groups of people I’ve met through various parts of my life – family, school, work, travel, hobbies, etc. – no group is nearly as diverse as the group of people I’ve met through fighting games. And when we’re playing fighting games, I have to learn how you think if I want to win; how cool is that? I can learn so much about another person just by playing fighting games with them for an hour that I’d never learn in a school/work/romantic context.
There’s something genuine and honest and unashamed about the vibe at a good gathering or tournament. It feels real and low-bullshit. In the rest of your life, you might feel like you’re acting this way or that to present an acceptable facade; in fighting games, you can just be you. (Or be someone else, if you want.) Fundamentally, I think that’s the main thing people love about our fighting game communities; they feel like places we can go and be ourselves.
But the mistake is to think that the fighting game vibe is apolitical. It’s not!
See, that vibe doesn’t come from ignoring politics. It comes from creating a space and a community that is organized and sustained by all kinds of people, not just the straights and the whites and the men and so on who tend to control most institutions in everyday life. Think about all the games, sports, or activities you follow, and then think about how many of them have prominent non-white people organizing events, seeing competitive success, and so on. Basketball, football, boxing…none of it is nearly as diverse from top to bottom as fighting games are. At times, it almost feels like fighting games are a sneak preview of what the world could look like when things are more equal.
And that’s why I hate it when people paint fighting games as apolitical – or worse, as a place where it’s okay to say racist/sexist/etc. shit because “fighting game players don’t care about being politically correct.” Because yeah, it’s rad that we’re good at being inclusive across race and class lines, but we still have plenty of work to do along the other aspects of identity, and it’s unfair and ignorant to deny other folks the same feeling of belonging we enjoy. (Also, I suspect that a good amount of the people who talk about how social justice doesn’t belong in fighting games are actually white people who get off on saying fucked up shit anonymously on the Internet, and that shit needs to stop.)
We live in a world that is designed to keep people fighting at each others’ throats because they’re different from each other; that so many different kinds of people could come together to play games and have a good time is itself political, just like sports are political, music is political, and so on. (Heck, the Black Panther Party realized that in the right context, feeding kids breakfast was a political act.)
When we acknowledge that, I think it’s easy to see just how awesome our communities really are – and see how much more awesome they’re going to get.