I just want to play a game

 . . . or, I officially suck at Super Street Fighter IV

If only that were true, old friend. If only that were true.

Today’s post is a bit different.  For the first time on Warp Signal I’m going to (mostly!) talk about something other than Games Workshop games.  When I sat down to write this post I didn’t expect it to come out quite so heavy, or so long, but I think it’s important so I’m putting it up anyway.  If you don’t like the sound of that then you’ll probably want to skip it.  Go visit someone in my blogroll over on the right there instead 🙂  For the rest of you brave souls, behold the wall of text.

Those of you who know me in real life – all two of you – know that I like a bit of Street Fighter.  I grew up playing it, first SFII with my mates in the arcade, then SSFII on the Super NES.  I was pretty excited a couple of years back when I heard SFIV was coming out, and I’ve now been playing SSFIV since Christmas last year.

It’s wearing thin though, mainly because I’m not getting any better.  I would assume that after six months (and however many years on other versions, and muscle memory burned into my brain from my childhood) I’d be able to beat oh, I don’t know, at least five out of ten people I meet online.  You’d think, right?  Well, I actually beat about three out of ten.  And these are people matched against me as supposedly being the same skill level.  I seem to have hit my ceiling, risen to the level of my own incompetence as they say, and it’s embarrassing and frustrating.  I suck.

Only I don’t suck.  I’m actually pretty decent.  It’s just that seven out of ten people online are better!  I blame the modern “pro-gamer” ideal for my negative feelings about this.  I really think it has a lot to answer for.  Since when do people treat games as deadly serious activities that deserve to be played to the hilt, with all your blood sweat and tears?  What happened to gentlemanly sportsmanship, not trying too hard, and just messing about for kicks?  Back in the early days of modern sports like cricket and football, the whole culture was one of non-professionalism.  They didn’t train much, they just played, and people were actually looked down upon if they trained too hard in order to smash the opposition.  To take it too seriously “just wasn’t cricket,” as they used to say.  Think about how strange that sounds now.

These days if I want to play Street Fighter I pretty much have to play online.  And if I play online I am hurled into an environment of hyperactive aggression, bewildering conventions, hero-worship of “pro-players” and the sharing of super-advanced game-breaking tricks.  Over the last year or so I have actually seen the people I play against online conforming to rigid styles that are known to be effective.  I read the common sentiment on forums that we should all be aiming to be pros.  Otherwise why play right?  If I choose not to learn these strategies, and instead just putter along naturally at my own pace for a bit of fun, I am mercilessly rammed into the ground (and sometimes even ridiculed) by people who seem to think that their mastery of Street Fighter connotes some kind of real, worthwhile skill.

I hate you so much Ryu. You are so earnest and the people who play you are merciless and smug and always have tags like "Technician" and "Professional"

Well I have some sobering news chumps.  It doesn’t.  No-one is going to pay you to play Street Fighter, and if they did, it wouldn’t be a good thing.  What sort of a life would that be, to have your life’s work revolve around a game, an activity that by definition is trivial?  Game designer is a noble profession I think.  It makes a contribution to other people’s happiness.  Being a game player doesn’t, it’s purely selfish.  The idea of it reminds me of the excellent novel The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks.  The protagonist is a guy in a future society whose whole life is mastering and winning games.  There’s nothing better for him to do really.  He does it because he has no purpose, and so games are his purpose.

We aren’t that far gone yet.  All we have to do is remember that the point of games is not actually to be good at them.  They aren’t a practice run for life that somehow displays your worth or competitive spirit.  They are what you do when you take a break from your real work.  If we make our games serious business, then what will we do when we need a game?  I already feel as though many games I enjoyed in my childhood are being closed to me because I am not willing to put in the work to be good enough at them to play with others.  Think about how wrong that sounds.

At least with 40k a large part of the hobby is creative.  I can suck at the game but people will still play with me because my army looks cool and I’ll still have fun painting and modeling regardless.  But the part of 40k culture that is not creative is the same as Street Fighter.  There are netlists.  Established wisdom.  Celebrities and pros.  There are effective strategies that are required reading if you want to be able to put up a decent fight, because if you haven’t read them the folks at your club certainly will have, and they’ll smash you.

In Street Fighter there is no creative element.  There is nothing but the game, and it’s a fun game, but once the culture of the game becomes too competitive I just can’t play it any more.  I’m a grown man – I have more important things to do than waste my time becoming an unpaid professional gamer.  That makes me sad, because I like Street Fighter, I really do, and I hate giving up on things.  But I just have to accept that the amount of time, effort and heart I have to devote to this just isn’t enough for me to be any good at all in the modern hyper-competitive environment.

So I’m taking this as a wake-up call.  I’ll play SF against the CPU, or with mates, and maybe go online every now and then, but I won’t expect to win or rise through the ranks.  And that’s fine with me.

I’ve also learned that if I don’t have time to rise through the ranks as a competitive SF player, I also don’t have time to do the same with 40k.  I know I’ll never be a serious player.  I’ll never win a tourney, or have n00bs sitting at my feet hoping to glean my famous tactical acumen.  But that’s also OK.  I have better things to do.

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8 responses to “I just want to play a game

  • Porky

    I read it, and enjoyed it, and I understand. The depth of the creative aspect you mention is the lifeline. Challenge needn’t go out the window either – it may be we don’t want to stretch every sinew of rules knowledge to beat an opponent, but we do want to stretch every sinew of imagination and explore the possibilities. I hope your lead gets taken up and we get more crossover posts like this.

  • James S

    Thanks Porky that means a lot. Yeah, it wasn’t until I sat down and wrote this that I actually realized just what a strange, rare game 40k is. The creative aspect of it needs to be nurtured because it’s the only thing standing between it being a game anyone can play and a closed-off, high pressure pro-fest that is nearly impossible to break into as a new player.

  • James S

    Great article Von, I really like your terminology. I tried to leave a comment a couple of times but the internet didn’t like it!

  • Drkmorals

    Great article. I totally remember playing SF back in the day on the weekends at the arcade. Good read!

  • James S

    Thanks Drkmorals. This arcade anecdote might be of interest to you then: one of my mates back in the day moved to Australia from Hong Kong. He was the best SF player I’d ever seen in the arcade (well, except for his older brother) and he always played Guile. So did his brother.

    My friend’s specialty was the Guile freeze screen. He would input something into the machine before the game and then in mid-fight my character would just freeze, and he would walk up and smash me. The funny thing is that I meet younger people now and they swear that this is a myth, but I saw it happen and had it done to me.

    The other funny thing is that every single person I have ever played against online from Hong Kong (the game tells you which country your opponent is in) plays as Guile, even today. They just love him over there, and always have.

  • Drkmorals

    That’s pretty cool I have also seen the freeze screen!! lol now I feel really nerdy. I used to play arcades a ton though I used to compete and nonsense in SF and MK lol if your good you wouldn’t have to go to the back of the line nearly as often. I remember playing in a arcade until pong showed up one time in MK2.

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