Columns, Opinion

Gaming the System: The equal-opportunity fighting game

It is often tempting to view video games and gaming subculture as a place outside of politics. People like to say that they play video games to distract themselves from the real world. On multiple occasions I’ve joined a gaming Discord server or Twitch stream and “no-politics” is among the rules for the chatroom. 

Especially in light of recent events, I won’t deny that reality can be scary, but I think this mentality is worth challenging. The fact that games are art and many games — such as those in the Metal Gear franchise — convey political messages is argument enough that politics can play a role in gaming.  Even more telling of the connection between politics and gaming is the fact that the communities that form around video games reflect the way our society is organized and the social and political problems within it. 

In more typical, professionalized esports like StarCraft or League of Legends, the vast majority of professional players from North America are white or Asian American. Gaming website Polygon commented on this striking lack of Black and Latino representation in competitive gaming in a 2014 article,  and I’ve seen much of the same in my own experience. 

But how did this come to be?

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

The most obvious explanation is a financial one. The large, highly-organized esports like League, DotA or Valorant are played on computers, and getting a device powerful enough to run them, well, is not cheap. The gaming PC that I use to play games and does most of my schoolwork ran me a little over $1,000, and that is without the necessary peripherals of a monitor, keyboard and mouse. This is not an insurmountable barrier to entry, but it still puts it far out of reach for poorer communities, of which people of color in this country are disproportionately more likely to be a part of. 

Compare this to fighting games like Street Fighter, Super Smash Bros. or Mortal Kombat. These titles were widely available on consoles, which already made them quite a bit cheaper and more accessible than computer games, but many of them were also playable in arcades. Arcades are key here — although they are a dying breed these days, they shrunk the barrier of entry down to the size of a quarter.

Arcades were a fixture in urban communities, too, and even created an environment where it seemed that the love for the game and appreciation of others’ skill took precedence over real-life divides. Race and gender didn’t matter — the way to command respect was simply by getting good at the game, and the arcade space allowed people to make friends outside of their typical social circles.

Even today, we may note that fighting game tournaments are far more open than the highest echelons of computer esports. In the aforementioned professional esports, the system is much more like a real sports league, where only elite teams can qualify. In contrast, fighting game tournaments, from ten-player weeknight locals to multi-day international events, are not invite only. Anyone can enter and in theory go all the way to the grand finals. 

The result of the cheaper up-front cost and open-ended nature of tournaments is an unparalleled level of racial equality. The fighting game community, or FGC, has been called the most racially diverse community in video games, and offers a large amount of opportunities to Black creators, talent and players. 

My experience attending Smash Bros. tournaments in the Boston area, including those run by our own BU Smash Society, have mirrored this. I was always impressed by the diverse crowd they attracted, which is one of the reasons I am currently working with the Smash Society to become a tournament organizer. 

The fact that so many racial communities are seriously underrepresented in certain esports of course results from a history of racist policy in American capitalism, systematically giving these groups less opportunities and worse living conditions. 

However, the FGC is so incredible because, by sheer coincidence, it formed around games that were the most accessible to marginalized groups, and was made all the better for it. For other games that weren’t so lucky, this should be a model, proof that more accessibility is good for a game in so many ways. Our task now is to create a higher standard of accessibility for more titles. 

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