Fights And Frag Checks

On Learning Fighting Games (August 2020)

After playing lots of games at various weekend-warrior competitive levels in my youth, I now exist as a grown man trying to learn a new competitive game genre, one that’s competitive at its core. There were some comments and events that piqued my interest. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, but I think they should be talked about somewhere. I’ll probably look back at this and change my opinions in the future as time marches on, which is why I’ve dated the title of this post.

Twitter user/FGC member ProjectRunAway (twitter) made a TwitLonger post about “why people don’t teach Tekken”. I believe he’s cognizant that these problems aren’t endemic to Tekken, but the issues he raises are ones that apply to lots of games outside of the fighting game genre. Despite raising some good points, I think other points he raises are either wack or cop-outs, but I think all of them have solutions.

“1. Lack of rigor”

The first problem he identifies is that there’s a lack of “rigor”, as in intellectual/mathematical rigor where there are agreed-upon definitions and theories that are proven accurate via testing and mathematical proofs. I guess?

Simply put: those who are in the know get it and those who don’t are at their mercy.

This is an interesting thing to be afraid of because it’s not often considered. Super Smash Bros is a perfect example of this; Hungrybox based his entire competitive video career around playing and mastering a niche character and hiding the knowledge he had gained for as long as possible. I don’t think that this is really something to be worried about in 2020, though. There’s so much information that spreads like wildfire now that someone who tried to hide information would find that others had learned about it on their own and shared it anyway.

I think that learning how to play games now as opposed to one or even two decades ago is far easier; there are more youtube videos and websites than ever that contain information, training modes in most games are more sophisticated, livestreaming is relatively easy to set up, and while playing online still sucks for fighting games it’s a realistic option. I don’t think there was ever a complete solution for automating the “rollout practice” process for Team Fortress 2: I just had to boot up Badlands, Coldfront, etc. and keep restarting the map timer every time I either made it to mid at an acceptable time or I messed up.

We don’t have a scientific method for developing players yet.

There is no “board” in Tekken to ensure correct info is being shared. By nature the FGC has clashing opinions too

There’s never going to be a “scientific method” for teaching players because everyone learns differently and at different speeds (ProjectRunAway recognizes and comments on this), but there can at least be several methods (emphasis on the “s” for plural) for teaching new players. Dissemination of information has gotten way better, but there are lots of comments to be made on teaching, and that’s in the second problem ProjectRunAway identifies. I’ll leave that alone for now.

I think the desire to have a proper curriculum (a dry yet accurate word) is admirable and quite honestly having one would be a great idea, but there aren’t enough good/top players who give a fuck about being arbiters for teaching fighting games. ProjectRunAway also correctly identifies that “FGC has clashing opinions too” - there’d have to be a board that wasn’t made up of the most popular, but a board made up of truly good players:

  • with experience behind them
  • who could probably get along amicably
  • who are able to distill their experiences into tangible concepts
  • who wouldn’t go “I don’t think about what I do, bro, I just feel

I don’t know what that would look like for Street Fighter. Maybe Brian_F and Infexious? Two players isn’t really enough for a board of experts, though.

I think the new normal for fighting games is that there are character chatrooms (Discord rooms in 2020) where there are players who aren’t absolute tippy-top level, but have proven themselves to have the skill and expertise to disseminate information to newer or less-skilled players. I think that’s the closest that the various game communities can get to having expert panels decree what’s gucci and what ain’t: it scales up really well, as opposed to a board of 6 to 10 people having to cut out swathes of free time to be knowledge arbiters for the video game they play for enjoyment. It isn’t perfect: there’s an elite few who “get it” and are permanently “in the know” and the masses of the “know-nots” outnumber them and it takes a while to create new teachers. Some people like to envision themselves as teachers, but they’re shit at teaching for one reason or another: they get too colloquial, they infodump new players as fast as they can either because they think that’s somehow effective or they’ve never considered another way, they immediately link to youtube videos because they recognized a key word and say nothing else or any of value, they’re the annoying bitter type who just goes “play more” and shuts down conversation, etc.

Regardless, I think this new normal is acceptable in terms of providing some kind of verification that new players are at least reading about the key things they should be learning and/or doing, and it successfully avoids the insanity of creating an intellectual body that’s forced to carve out free time that they’d rather spend playing the game they enjoy to ensure that new players are learning the game right.

“2. Differing learning and teaching styles”

Look, I’m gonna be honest: if ProjectRunAway thinks this is something that can be solved by just the FGC looking at some research, he’s got another thing coming. However, I think that there are some things that can be standardized for new players:

  • Learning about the arena
    • SF5 has the grid, where each grid square represents one Range
      • Midstage, left wall, right wall
  • Learning how far one’s moves can go
    • How to apply the idea of Range to how far one’s moves can go
  • The dance of “footsies/neutral”
    • Poking your opponent
    • What it means to be plus/minus
    • Starting out simple with combos/links
    • Being in disadvantage, attempting to get out of it, and when to accept your fate

Yeah, once you get to the “footsies/neutral” part there’s a pit of eternally explaining things that teachers have to be careful of, but it’s one that can be circumnavigated by only addressing general scenarios and forcing the student to go play after some high-level concepts. There are some key differences in here that would need to be made for 3D fighters like Tekken, but there’s definitely a curriculum that needs to be taught. People learn and teach in different manners, but the content of what they teach can’t be different or in different orders.

I’ve had students who learned better from other players and students who thought my advice was genius.

Advice for those starting out shouldn’t fluctuate too much; there’s something that’s really rubbing me the wrong way about how he expressed that people learn differently, mostly because he used advice and learning to describe the teaching process in the same way. The furrowed-brow feeling hasn’t dissipated after re-reading the sentence several more times. More complicated advice has to be tailored to the player receiving, and something like this is brought up at the last problem point identified.

Most Tekken vets did not go to uni to become teachers so adapting to different learning styles is inherently difficult

Again, chatrooms seem to be the answer. Teachers shouldn’t just work with students, but they should work with other teachers as well. Teaching others how to teach is critical to properly disseminate information when it comes to covering the different ways people learn. Everyone doesn’t need to go to university or pour over research papers about learning and teaching, but arming others with the power to teach has lots of benefits:

  • those who volunteer to teach get to test themselves to see if they know their own material
  • it’s a life skill that volunteers will have forever, meaning that video game communities are creating better humans as part of helping others learn how to play a game so they can enjoy it
  • it helps create social circles of students and teachers: teachers might run into their students online, two students who share the same teacher might meet in bracket, etc.

Saying that people had to have gone to university to learn how to teach a video game (which by default encompasses how to teach for different learning styles) is wack and a huge cop-out. All that statement does is say “man, there’s a problem, but no one’s as sMaRt as i am to help solve it…” I won’t say to anyone who says this to put their money where their mouth is, but I think the actual problem exposed in the second half of this point is that starting an education movement is exceptionally difficult. Someone has to take the initiative by putting documents together and starting small conversations, scaling the operation up if it starts to go right, or take the fall if it goes wrong; everyone wants the fame, but no one wants to do the hard work or be the guy who takes the fall if it doesn’t work out.

I think Reddit’s New Challenger Discord is a good example of starting something and attempting to scale up. I don’t know how their teacher operations work outside of random tag pings from the same two teachers, but I know that there are people who just kinda hop in (i.e., the teacher experience is more decentralized and is more conversation between peers) if someone asks a question or a series of questions. It could probably use improvement, but I’d consider the New Challenger Discord a step in the right direction.

“3. Qualifications and Sorites paradox”

I had to look up Sorties Sorites paradox. It’s apt, but I don’t think it needs to be brought up in and of itself; those in the know will get it, others will simply understand the content. Considering he brought up the whole notion of those who are “in the know” and those who aren’t and at the mercy of those who “know”, it’s kinda funny. I don’t think it’s that 1 to 1 of a fit with Sorites paradox. Maybe it’s intellectually adjacent, but hopefully my words will explain why it’s not an exact fit with the paradox.

Qualifications are an important problem, but not exactly in the way he phrases it. Giving advice (and teaching) is a position of power, and with power comes responsibility. Giving advice to others is a way for people to feel powerful, and for those who overcame the beginner’s hurdle and are in low/mid ranks like Street Fighter 5’s Silver yet are surrounded by those in Ultra Gold and above, it’s a way to feel equal to those above them. So naturally, people who want to feel like they’ve done something, feel part of the community at large, etc., will attempt to participate in teaching/advice giving and it creates the illusion that qualifications are vague conditions. They’re not.

(Aside: there’s ways to make low-rank people who got past the initial hurdles feel included, but that doesn’t relate to qualifications.)

A teacher doesn’t have to be a top player (and in some cases, shouldn’t be) but they have to be:

  • brainy enough to digest and properly regurgitate a lot of information that good players know
  • have enough skill to both demonstrate to AND easily beat the novice
  • have enough emotional intelligence (i.e., the ability to read moods and feelings and respond in a positive and constructive way) to understand when things might be overwhelming
  • cognizant of what the novice knows already, able to identify where the novice is in development
  • able to explain to the novice where they are in development and what they should/shouldn’t be worrying about

While these are difficult to define to a pinpoint degree, it’s a case of real-world duck typing: if someone plays well, can converse with others well, has substantial social nuance, and can express the way game mechanics work in an approachable way, they’re qualified to be a decent teacher. Doesn’t necessarily mean that they are but there’s enough real-world information to assume that they could be (this is part of why there are people who dislike the idea of dynamic typing in computer programming). This is why it’s intellectually adjacent: it’s unclear if someone is truly fit to teach even if the qualities are there, but it’s clear if someone is unfit to teach. There’s a clear line that divides someone explaining that learning how to tech throws reliably in Street Fighter 5 comes down to getting thrown a lot to learn how to recognize certain tells and situations where a throw is coming, and the guy who types out “lol just throw them first” or “just don’t get thrown [twitch emote]".

If even then there’s too much fog to see who’s fit to teach and who isn’t, it might be time for someone to nut up and take the initiative in creating teachers.

“4. Lack of true commitment from new players”

This is a personal bias but players who really want it will work for it and mentors will cultivate that fire.

Yep, it’s a personal bias. I’ll keep this short. This partially sounds like a weakness of ProjectRunAway, where he’s had more than several students and was still unable to identify those who were just looking for a few quick answers and tried to give them The Advice™. I will concede that yeah, it’s possible to just find oneself sucked into such conversations, but one should eventually pick up some signs.

Part of being a good teacher or even an above-average peer is being able to recognize who’s in it as a casual, who might be too young to comprehend the scale of work if they don’t have innate talent, and who might actually fit anywhere between weekend warrior and eventual LAN champion. Again, this goes back to dissemination of knowledge: creating new teachers, teaching new players, informing experience players, etc. I think there are enough community members who can differentiate between the various levels of engagement based on what messages an individual might send to a chat channel that the chatroom method handles this well.

Benefit of chatrooms: If a teacher identifies that a new player is merely trying to become a casual who wants to get enough skill to goof around in the low ranks and play lobbies with better friends on occasion, the teacher should be cognizant enough to invite chatroom members to create a community learning session or at least a peer-to-peer discussion so the teacher’s limited resources can be focused elsewhere.

“5. Burden of commitment as the mentor”

Finally, some good fucking conversation.

The best position to be in as a student is to have a single mentor who only teaches you. However this happening is infrequent for common sense reasons.

Again, a cop-out: there is a good situation, but the reality is that the good situation doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. No quick comments, no minor suggestions; end of story.

Mentor/mentee relationships often arise because the mentor and mentee have not only a shared point of interest, but either multiple shared points of interest or a common community outside of the FGC. I found a lot of support because I got my start from playing 2D fighters with people from a 4chan community for Super Smash Bros, then got into another 4chan community for 2D and 3D fighters where I really started to learn more.

Sometimes, a teacher has to take a gamble. The New Challenger discord played a considerable part in filling in some knowledge blanks, and I became able to talk about my problems instead of wondering what my problems were. I was fortunate enough to have someone who recognized that I knew what I wanted, was able to talk about my issues, and was willing to listen and put in work, and he checked in on me once a week to see what kind of progress I was making (huge shout-out to Truenight from NCH if he ever finds this post). I ended up slipping in my training due to some real-life events, but because someone who had enough qualifications to be a teacher took a gamble on me, I was able to make a lot of progress.

Not everyone is me. That kind of thing is a gamble, and it’s very easy to lose. I’m not a gambling man myself, so I get it. However, people who want to be teachers or mentors should prepare themselves for the reality that sometimes they’ll get people who aren’t great or even acceptable students.

Possible solutions if gambling on 1:1 sessions isn’t your thing? I’ll reference the New Challenger Discord again for something they’ve done. For your community (assuming Discord chatroom), create a tag for those who want to learn, and try to have a consistent schedule of pinging it to see who wants to learn. Learning could be anything: reviewing a replay, a Q&A session, a few matches to find weaknesses. Maybe create something more structured for those more serious; say someone who has attended a few ping sessions says one day that they want to go from Silver to Platinum in Street Fighter 5, create a weekly session or sessions for them where the teacher arranges for certain sparring partners and it becomes a more invested session.

This can easily have issues, but it’s a solution. I could even condense it into one sentence that ProjectRunAway could have written: “Possible way to address: create community learning events for various ranks and see who comes to learn.” It’s Twitlonger so you can make big-ass tweets, not just a glorified chain of tweets in one block of text.

As the scene grows, I fear the best mentors will privatize and charge money for lessons

The best way to dissuade or at the very least offset this is to create teachers. My take is that the best mentors can and should privatize and possibly charge money for lessons. If they’re truly the best mentors, they should have no problem creating more top-level talent. Fine. To keep the scene healthy, bitching at people who would consider themselves creators of future EVO winners isn’t the strat: working to create a conductive environment for teaching and creating teachers is the true play.

Closing Thoughts

I think the big tl;dr takeaway from this is if (proverbial) you want more people to teach $”{game}", people in the scene have to be empowered to teach $”{game}". Baby steps are important for big projects: if you think you’ve recognized some problems, take an afternoon and write down some thoughts, then find a confidant to share your observations with. See if you’re on the right track. Iterate if you are, go back to the drawing board if you’re not. If you’re burning out on this, just stop because it’s not worth burning out trying to save a game or franchise’s community.

Also teaching people is fucking hard lmao. If you’ve got access to JSTOR, go dig up some articles about education research. If not, take a peek at these for an incredible brief sampling of papers about the shit that teachers and students encounter teaching/learning about physics instead of a fighting game: