Violent Combinations: The Unexpected Intimacies of Online Fighting Games
As a child, most of my video game experience was confined to the social realm. My religious parents had decided to limit my interaction with new technology until I was of a ‘more mature’ age, concerned about what I might be exposed to or how my tender mind might be reprogrammed, so I was left to slumming off other people’s consoles, like the kid without a car always begging for a ride. I even remember times when I befriended certain nerds in my class whose company I didn’t actually care for, but who were always guaranteed access to the latest Halo or Grand Theft Auto title that I had been coveting from behind glass.
When it came to actually playing the games I daydreamed about, however, reality often proved poorly rendered in comparison to the fantasy. Because my friends owned the games and I did not, I was pretty much cursed to being the worst of the bunch – and, as a particularly sore loser, my interest in Super Smash Brothers (et al.) would usually drift after being outmatched a few times. It wasn’t until adulthood, now able to afford a PlayStation of my own and to devote serious alone time to learning the ins and outs of gameplay, that my relationship with games deepened. Especially in the early stretches of the COVID-19 pandemic, when platforms like Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone became a surprising way to catch up with friends in a low-pressure environment, without the rigid confines of a Zoom call. The stereotype of the gamer is a hermit, homebound and brain-fried from the radiative glow of the screen, but the online multiplayer space is its own unique social domain that can enable fruitful interactions between individuals across a distance. There’s a singular connection and communication style that develops across a squad that goes into digital combat together: you build a repository of inside jokes and riffs, a shorthand vocabulary that allows teammates to communicate efficiently, until you move together so effortlessly that words drop away entirely.
Recently, I’ve returned to the kind of platformer fighting games that I came to dread in my youth, where you and an opponent engage in hand-to-hand melee in a closed environment. Instead of Super Smash Brothers, however, I’ve found myself gravitating towards Tekken, a series that’s uniquely suited to the interests of a professional wrestling fan like myself. Video games and professional wrestling are two of Japan’s foremost cultural exports, and the influence of scripted combat is particularly strong on games like Tekken. Countless moves you can master in the game – the Asai Moonsault and the Frankensteiner, the piledriver and the powerbomb – are familiar to me from their use inside the wrestling ring. The character I regularly play as, a half-human, half-tiger hybrid warrior named King, is inspired by wrestling icon Tiger Mask. There’s a steep learning curve to a game like Tekken that makes playing online against strangers daunting (though somehow in a different way to playing with my real-life friends in my younger years): the opponents from around the world that I’m randomly matched against might have been honing their skills for decades, while I’m a novice who only picked it up a few months ago.
But even though I get my ass handed to me almost every time, there’s something about the uncanny intimacy of playing fighting games online that draws me in. Matching with an opponent online is a Goldilocks proposition: it takes some experimentation until you find someone who’s just right (and if the wireless signal is too weak, the frames will sputter out and your game will crash). When you finish a match, you have the option to request or accept a “Revenge Match” – just know that if you’re considerably worse than your opponent, they’ll likely decline your request. There’s no pleasure in swiftly squashing someone over and over again. But find that perfectly matched foe, whose skills are equal enough to your own to ensure a continually unpredictable outcome, and you can get swept up for hours in violent dance. And, while the multiplayer spaces of first-person shooters and other genres are overwhelmingly toxic, full of literal children verbally assaulting each other with slurs and insults, Tekken is silent and, refreshingly, almost minimalist. There’s no microphone capability and thus no trash talk, just a brilliant button-mashing dance of parries and strikes and blows.
Decades ago, playing a fighting game like this would’ve been a physical proposition: standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your enemy at the arcade cabinet, a roll of quarters sitting on the console, waiting patiently for the next round. Now, I’m paired with someone who might be in some distant corner of the world, unknown to me beyond their username and chosen character. Even though there’s no direct communication, the violence that binds us offers a uniquely intimate knowledge of one another, as I learn their playing style, their preferred tactics and go-to moves, and the hours slip away in the throes of a heated blood feud. There’s a particular thrill to trading wins and losses back and forth, no player truly better than the other, both just right, drawn together as pieces in a puzzle of motion and submission. Perhaps, at the end of the round, we might even add each other as friends, never actually exchanging a word, but still eager to meet again amidst the dust of battle.
Beyond the moves themselves, that’s another parallel I see with the world of professional wrestling: most often, the best matches and hottest feuds come not from bitter enemies, but from close rivals who have faced off against each other more times than can be counted. Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair, Rey Mysterio and Psicosis, Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi – what drives their conflicts is not hatred but love, a collaborative passion, born from an intimate knowledge of each other’s bodies; of feeling someone else’s sweat and blood swirl together with your own. This is the secret of fighting games, combat sports, and ultimately any kind of narrative conflict: in the dialectics of violent struggle, two forces come together as much as they stand apart.
Nadine Smith is a writer, critic, and DJ based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in publications like Pitchfork, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Magazine, Texas Monthly, GQ, Rolling Stone, and more.