The Zen of Street Fighter

It was a cold day at UVic’s inaugural Virtual Ninja Street Fighter Tournament, despite the fact Room 308A in the McPherson library was packed with students and staff of all ages and demographics. Some had come to play in the tournament but were eliminated in earlier heats, while others just wanted to watch.

All were silent for the final clash, as iLLFader and Double Eh, the two finalists, prepared to square off. The former selected F.A.N.G  as his character— a franchise newcomer who specializes in slippery movements and inflicting status effects on his enemies. The latter chose Ken — a Street Fighter staple whose move set is as straightforward and effective as it is iconic.

As the first of five rounds commenced, iLLFader was quick to throw arcing poison shots into the air. They didn’t land any hits, but they sent a clear message to Double Eh: air attacks will be punished. The two exchanged a few hits and played a short footsie game before iLLFader closed the gap and took apart Double Eh’s defense, handily securing his first win.

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“The controls are so gymnastic and complicated that you have to train really hard and really long to do them properly,” he explains. “The dedication required seems to echo real martial arts.”
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For Chris Goto-Jones, the Dean of Humanities at UVic and the creator of the Virtual Ninja Project, this competition between two people is a big part of the appeal of fighting games, and Street Fighter specifically. “It’s such a sort of honest exchange,” explains Goto-Jones. “It’s a very simple game. Two characters with two players and they are in direct conflict with each other on the screen. And the player who is better just wins.” 

Round two began and Double Eh adjusted to iLLFader’s slippery movements. He cornered F.A.N.G. and delivered Ken’s punishing bread-and-butter combo to take an early lead. iLLFader wasn’t shaken though, and adapted to a more aggressive approach. His control of the terrain was airtight from that point on, and he once again out-maneuvered Double Eh to earn his second win.

“There’s no hiding that you suck. You just have to carry on and get better,” says Goto-Jones. 

Goto-Jones’s words may seem harsh, but they are coming from a place of experience. In addition to his study of philosophy, Goto-Jones is also an accomplished martial artist, having previously taught classes on Shotokhan karate and Wing Chun kung-fu. The Virtual Ninja Project was created to question whether playing violent video games like Street Fighter fosters the same kind of self-cultivation that comes from studying martial arts.

After five years of surveys and interviews with fighting game players from all over the world, Goto-Jones’s study concluded that these games offer the same potential for self-transformation, but only if that is what the player seeks.

Round three of the tournament finished the same way as the first two, with iLLFader bagging his third win. Double Eh needed to get his head in the game if he didn’t want the tournament to have a swift conclusion, and he knew it.

Round four was the closest one yet, thanks to Double Eh’s new defensive strategy. But with the clock running down and only a magical pixel of health left, he needed a definitive victory or else iLLFader would win by virtue of having more health. In a stunning turn of events that caused the entire room to cheer, Double Eh managed to do just that with two seconds left in the match. He may have been on the brink of defeat, but he was not going down without a fight.

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After five years of surveys and interviews with fighting game players from all over the world, Goto-Jones’s study concluded that these games offer the potential for self-transformation, but only if that is what the player seeks.
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That is exactly the mentality that Goto-Jones looked for in his research participants, too.

“The desire to find people who will beat you — that’s what drives the players we are most interested in,” he says. “Not the players who play in order to beat other people, but the players who play in order to learn by being beaten.”

That desire for self-improvement is at the core of any serious martial artist, and the gamers who also possess it are able to tap into the transformative potential of fighting games. While this quality is present in most, if not all, games, Goto-Jones says that it is especially prominent in fighting games due to the nature of the controls.

“The controls are so gymnastic and complicated that you have to train really hard and really long to do them properly,” he explains. “The dedication required seems to echo real martial arts.”

Rather than choosing Street Fighter as the tournament game based on personal preference, the decision was based on the responses Goto-Jones received from survey participants. With the recent release of the Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition, it was an easy choice over games like Tekken or Guilty Gear.

The next round of the tournament had Double Eh fighting an uphill battle, and unfortunately for him it was a battle he was not up for. iLLFader closed out the first official Virtual Ninja Street Fighter Tournament with one final win, securing himself a trophy provided by Capcom Vancouver.

A Street Fighter V competition in Cologne, Germany, in 2015. Photo by Sergey Galyonkin via Flickr

While this tournament was small compared some of the international competitions (EVO 2016 had 5 000 entrants to play Street Fighter V), the friendly atmosphere was welcoming to all participants. Goto-Jones is already preparing for next year, with talks of collaborating with UBC and VIU. While the tournament is not currently linked to any UVic-based game clubs, he has expressed interest in working with them in the future. Perhaps this time next year the Virtual Ninja Tournament will draw participants from all over the province.

Just don’t expect Goto-Jones to participate himself — despite his affection for these games, he is quick to admit that he is quite bad at them. But for him, that is part of the appeal.

“It’s good for everybody to do something they are bad at,” Goto-Jones says. “I think humility is important.”

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