This is another in a series of essays by my CMS graduate students exploring what personal narrative might contribute to the development of media theory. In this case, Begy blurs the line between games research and fan studies to talk about how he reads the Street Fighter games.
Communal Growing Pains: Fandom and the Evolution of Street Fighter
By Jason Begy
In mid October 2007, Japanese game developer Capcom announced what many fans, myself included, thought they never would: the fourth series in the long-running Street Fighter franchise. It had been some eight years since the release of the last official installment, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, and the declining popularity of 2D fighting games made another entry seem unlikely. The announcement of the new game generated enormous buzz within the community: for years whenever Capcom mentioned “unannounced projects” our collective heart skipped a beat, only to be disappointed. This time our wishes were granted, but we were ill-prepared for the full ramifications.
The online focal point of the Street Fighter community is the forum at Shoryuken.com. Here fans gather to discuss strategy (for Street Fighter and countless other fighting games), organize local meet-ups and online matches, share fan fiction and fan art, buy and sell all manner of goods, and generally hang out. The forums are known to be somewhat rough: new members are expected to quickly figure things out on their own. This is partially because many of the members are expert players and they come to interact with each other, not guide beginners through the basics. The community is at once tightly-knit and tightly-wound, which makes gaining acceptance extremely difficult yet extremely rewarding.
When Street Fighter IV was released on February 17, 2009 in the United States, all of the gaming press pointed to Shoryuken.com as the place to go for information, strategies, and tips, and the forums were literally and figuratively crippled. Literally because the servers could not handle the traffic, causing the site to continuously crash for several weeks; figuratively because many of the new members created severe social disruption. The best way to illustrate this is probably an analogy: imagine a thousand people spontaneously showing up at Gary Kasparov’s house demanding to know how the pawn moves and you are not far off. The publicity also drew in countless trolls simply looking to cause trouble. This influx lead to the phrase “09er,” which is derogatory slang for members who joined in 2009. It generally means someone who is disruptive, ignorant, and a fair-weather fan. This is not to say that all new members exhibited such behavior, but a great many did.
External tensions aside, the new members have created conflicting emotions in myself and other older fans. On the one hand, our genre of choice has been declining for nearly fifteen years, so a major new release and public approval is a nice affirmation of our tastes. Furthermore, fighting games are fundamentally social. Playing against other people is the only way to experience these games to their fullest, so a large group of new, eager players is certainly a welcome sight. On the other hand, these new members are quick to say that they have “always” been fans, which usually means they played Street Fighter II (the most popular game in the series) and not the eleven or so games between then and now, which begs the question of whether they will jump ship again when they get bored.
While it sounds strange, I find such statements deeply troubling: to leap from one entry to another while maintaining that you have “always” been a fan is to completely disregard what makes Street Fighter special. But even worse they cast a shadow of doubt over my own status as a “fan.”
The source of these feelings is rooted in my own long history with the Street Fighter franchise. I first encountered Street Fighter II sometime in early elementary school and was immediately mesmerized. It was like nothing I had experienced before: two characters face off in one-on-one martial arts combat, first to win two rounds wins the match. The game could be played against a computer-controlled opponent or against another person. To control their character each player had an eight-way joystick and six attack buttons, corresponding to three punches and three kicks of different speed and strength.
In addition to their basic punches and kicks, each of the eight characters had a variety of “special moves” that were activated via special sequences of directional inputs and button presses. The inputs for these special moves were not given to the players, who were left to discover them for themselves. Each character also had a variety of “combos.” A combo is a sequence of normal and special moves that is uninterruptible and usually requires a higher degree of skill to execute. These too were different for each character and left to the players to discover.
I am not sure what it was exactly that I found so compelling. I certainly found the game fun, but there was something else. The Street Fighter characters themselves were unique: each was full of personality, hailing from different countries and having different fighting styles. Each character’s punches, kicks, combos and special moves were different, often drastically so. (Well mostly different anyway, back then Ken and Ryu were practically identical, but I will return to their divergent evolution later.) This meant that the experience of playing the game was dependent on the character used, leading to a great deal of variability.
As time wore on, my interest in the game waned; I became focused on other games and activities, and the series carried on without me. While I was peripherally aware of the new games and spin-offs, I was not particularly interested. Then during my sophomore year of college some friends introduced me to Street Fighter Alpha 3. This was the first Street Fighter game I had played in at least five years. In many ways Alpha 3 is far beyond Street Fighter II: the graphics and sound are far superior, there are many more characters, and the combat system is much deeper. My introduction to this game brought two significant realizations. The first was that I still loved playing Street Fighter, and the second was that I had missed out on a lot.
While I was ignoring Street Fighter, Capcom had been quite prolific in the genre. In total five Street Fighter II games were released, followed by four Street Fighter Alpha games, and three Street Fighter III games. There were also two spinoff series: Marvel vs Capcom and Capcom vs SNK. The former series saw four releases, and pitted characters from Street Fighter and other Capcom franchises against characters from the Marvel universe. These games were preceded by two Marvel-only fighting games. The latter series saw two releases, and included characters from Street Fighter and various SNK-developed fighting games (SNK is another Japanese game developer famous for their 2D fighting games). The games were not released in the order I have listed them here, rather multiple series were simultaneously “current.” For example, Street Fighter Alpha 3 was released after the first Street Fighter III game. Needless to say this was an enormous amount of content, and since my initial exposure to Alpha 3 I have invested a lot of time, money and effort locating, acquiring and playing all of these games.
I recognize that the story of my own “return” to Street Fighter is not unlike those I labeled “invaders” into the community. To be fair, to dedicate oneself to a single genre for fifteen years is to severely limit one’s gaming experiences, and one can hardly be blamed for wanting to play other games. For me personally, as I aspire to be a scholar of the medium, devoting large amounts of time to a single genre becomes counter-productive. So am I not in some ways also a fair-weather fan, devoting time and attention when I can, or is convenient? I have not played seriously for almost two years now, and have never played in a tournament setting. These are troubling questions: who am I to say who is or is not a fan when I myself ignored Street Fighter for so many years? When I no longer have the time to dedicate to the game? Do I have a right to call myself a fan, and if so, to distinguish between established fans and newcomers? Something of an answer, I hope, lies in what I have learned by exploring the series’ development.
In playing all of the old games, I discovered that just as the series as a whole has a history, so do the game’s characters, some of whom have been included in every entry. In each game every character has his or her own story, which changes from game to game. Ryu’s story in Street Fighter II is not the same as in Street Fighter III; it is not even consistent between the various entries in each series. A character’s story in a game is presented at the end of the single-player mode, after the player has defeated his or her final opponent. As such a given game will contain many contradictory stories, resulting in the continual question of what is or is not canon. However, these ongoing narratives are far less significant than the formal history of the characters.
In a long-running, multi-branched series like Street Fighter there is a constant tension between providing new content and maintaining the brand. For 2D fighters in particular there is also the question of character balance: in an ideal world all characters are equally powerful and viable, yet provide unique play experiences. This is of course impossible, and the games are constantly being adjusted to improve game balance. Characters are added and removed with each release; those that stick around never play exactly the same way twice. Moves and combos are added, removed, and altered. Each character thus has two stories: the traditional story shown when the game is beaten, and the history of their mechanics. The fun of finding and learning long-forgotten Street Fighter games is tracing this history of form, which tells the story of the characters’ development in a much more direct and immediate way than a traditional narrative. By looking at these games in sequence one can literally watch a character grow and evolve, learning new techniques, altering the old, removing the ineffective.
Sometimes this mode of storytelling is more intentional than others. The characters Ken and Ryu are perfect examples. In Street Fighter I these two are the only selectable characters; in terms of mechanics they are identical. In Street Fighter II there were eight selectable characters, but Ken and Ryu were still identical: they had the same attacks and special moves, and were distinguishable only by minor differences in appearance. As the Street Fighter II series progressed, Ken and Ryu slowly drifted apart. Ken became weaker and faster, while Ryu became slower and stronger. While these changes were originally intended to create greater variability in the gameplay, they began to become incorporated in the backstory as well. Ken became the hot-headed American, Ryu the stoic Japanese warrior.
While this evolution is interesting, it creates an inherent contradiction. As discussed above, Ken and Ryu were mechanically identical in the first two Street Fighter games. Later on the Street Fighter Alpha series was released, and Ken and Ryu’s differences are fully realized. Yet, according to the diegetic narrative, the Alpha series occurs between Street Fighter I and Street Fighter II. Furthermore, games in the spinoff Marvel vs Capcom and Capcom vs SNK series were released alongside the main Street Fighter games, but are not part of the official chronology. So while characters were evolving throughout those games as well, their stories in them do not count in the larger narrative. As a result, the characters exist in two separate timelines: the formal timeline, which tracks the evolution of fighting game design, and the narrative timeline, which is the character’s diegetic history. Consequently, players unfamiliar with the formal history miss the enormous amount of meaning being transmitted through the game’s mechanics. There is much more meaning and information here than in the diegetic history because most of the latter is deemed non-canon.
This dualistic history then gives rise to the possibility of different “interpretive strategies,” to borrow a phrase from Stanley Fish (168). Fish was interested in how readers make sense of texts, so in an application to video games it is worth noting that players make sense of both the fiction and mechanics of the game. In the case of Street Fighter, a player “interprets” both who the character is and how he or she functions in the game. For example, consider an experienced player sitting down to a new Street Fighter game. This player’s interpretive strategy will likely be to apply franchise knowledge to this new game. The player may recognize the character Ken and interpret him as the “same” Ken from other games. When playing as Ken he or she will naturally look for special moves and combos that exist in other games and have carried over into the new game. The experienced player thus sees the characters are dynamic and evolving, an impression that becomes stronger as more games in the series are played.
A player new to the series, however, is more likely to see the characters as static, or will at least be unaware of any change. In the games themselves references to formal changes are very rare, almost nonexistent, hence new players can only interpret the character within the context of the one game. This is a conscious design choice: if Capcom required players to be familiar with prior games many potential new players would be alienated. As such in any given game the characters must seem complete enough to provide a satisfying experience and not confuse the player.
In Fish’s terms one could say these two types of players belong to different “interpretive communities:”
Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around
The two interpretive communities to which fans of Street Fighter belong can generally be described as those who base their understanding of a game on other Street Fighter games, and those who do not; or to put it a different way, those who see the characters as dynamic and those who see them as static.
As with readers of a text, players of a game will likely assign intentions to the author (the developer), in this case Capcom, and here we can see the difference between the two communities. The characters-are-dynamic community will assign intentionality based on formal changes from game to game. For example, if a combo is made harder to execute from one game to the next, this community assumes Capcom thought it was too powerful before, while the removal of a character indicates Capcom thought they were unpopular. As Fish says, such strategies exist prior to reading, or playing, because the player is already aware that some aspects of the game will be different (even if that assumption is based solely on the title it will almost certainly be correct). On the other hand, those who see the characters as static will likely assign intentionality differently because for them there is no prior context. As such each community “writes” their own version of a new Street Fighter game.
However, unlike the processes of interpreting literature that Fish was writing about, within the overall Street Fighter fan community there is a fairly consistent flow from one community to the other. Currently there are many people playing Street Fighter IV who are not familiar with any other game in the franchise, but as soon as they play a second Street Fighter game they will look for familiar characters and try similar strategies, thus beginning movement to the other community. In this instance Fish’s model breaks down because the characters-as-constant interpretation can be definitively disproven, whereas Fish was interested in how people can effectively maintain and defend drastically different interpretations of the same text. Even if there is disagreement within the Street Fighter community over the reasons for the change, the fact that the characters do change is fairly apparent. One could argue that Ken in Street Fighter II is not the same character as Ken in Street Fighter III, and hence there are two separate, constant characters named Ken, but this debate seems unlikely to arise amongst the fan community. Regardless it is clear that Capcom wants us to regard them as the same.
While I find these ideas fascinating, the question remains: am I a fan? Can one distinguish between a fan and someone who is merely interested? I may have just demonstrated a relatively large body of esoteric knowledge, but it is entirely possible to come to the same conclusions while despising these games. I think that, at the very least, I can say that the effort expended here qualifies me as fan of Street Fighter, even if not in the traditional sense. (This is sort of a Cartesian approach: I write obsessively, therefore I am.) This idea shows how fandom is a spectrum where the rewards gained are proportional to the investments made. By investing in the series as a whole one gains access to the multiple layers of meaning present in each game and acquires new interpretive strategies. However, different people will invest differently and should not be criticized for making different choices.
In the Street Fighter community new players are essential. They bring new challenges, new opportunities, and give Capcom more reason to keep Street Fighter alive. Right now there is a great fear that new and returning fans will eventually get bored and stop playing, just like they did after Street Fighter II. If they do it will prove to Capcom that there is no market for 2D fighting games anymore, and then there might never be another Street Fighter game. To prevent that the best thing is to be patient with newcomers and make them feel welcome, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum. Hopefully with time their investment in the series will grow and they will decide to stick around.
Fish, Stanley. Is There A Text In This Class? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Jason Begy graduated from Canisius College in Buffalo where he earned a BA in English (2004) and spent much of his time working for Canisius’ Department of Information Technology Services. Begy’s undergraduate thesis argued that the rules and mechanics of chess and go were a reflection of the religious traditions of Catholicism and Buddhism, respectively. In 2008, Begy completed an MS in Technical Communication at Northeastern University in Boston, where his coursework focused on information design for the Web and information architecture for internal corporate and university networks. When it comes to game studies, Begy would describe himself as a ludologist and as such believes that the best way to study games is through their rules and mechanics. Begy is part of the research team supporting the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT games lab.