Why are fighting games still gross as hell?
I want you to take a look at the picture up there. Really look at it. I want you to stare at the outfit, at the character wearing it, and I want you to realize that in the world of fighting games, this is progress. Big, forward-moving progress. Even though she’s still dressed up in an outfit that’s entirely impractical for fighting, complete with heels, no support for her chest, and thigh-high stockings.
Video games, despite the best efforts of trollwads that want to scream about the mere idea that a woman might be involved with a game at some point during production, are slowly growing up. The stuff that was de rigeur a few years ago just isn’t acceptable any longer. But you wouldn’t know any of that by looking at fighting games, which seem to be stuck back in their popular heyday of the mid-90s. The question is why? Why are we at a point when the game industry as a whole seems to be growing up, but fighting games haven’t actually gotten any better?
Let’s look at Poison for a second. Poison is a trans woman, which in theory would be a good thing. In practice, she’s a trans woman solely on the basis that hitting a woman would have felt wrong in Final Fight. You don’t have to do much unpacking to get the meaning and implication behind that.
Bad enough in and of itself, but that was Final Fight and the character didn’t show up in anything later. By which I of course mean that Capcom very specifically brought Poison back after having nothing more than vague background appearances to serve as a playable character in Ultra Street Fighter IV while also having a field day with giving her opponents various disgusting commentary about her gender. This is a character who could have been entirely left alone as a gross testament to poor decisions of younger years, and yet she keeps getting brought out.
Poison is, at this point, a character that never should have existed that now continues to exist solely because Capcom is stuck in the past. When you think about the fact that Nintendo managed to be more progressive than Capcom in its treatment of Birdo, a character included in a series best known for thinking that “girl gets captured” is a good core plot point, the whole thing just gets even more baffling. She’s a character based on gross thinking that could easily have been left in the dustbin of history, but she keeps getting brought out for no functional purpose.
Not that she’s unique in that regard; Street Fighter is full of characters that someone should be embarrassed about, ranging from Dhalsim to Blanka to Zangief. Mortal Kombat is… well, yes. Even newer studios and projects aren’t immune to it; Skullgirls could have completely bucked the trend of gal fighters being a parade of flopping breasts and panty shots, but instead it doubled down on those traditions even for characters where it makes no sense whatsoever.
Yet this keeps happening for a single reason – people keep going along with it.
Fighting games became a big deal in the mid-90s. They had existed before then in prototypical form, yes, but the release of Street Fighter II signaled the start of their mass-market appeal. It started a rash of imitators, a number of games that took root and started forming the basis for what would become modern esports. And it was made up of a group of people that practiced a very strong form of self-selection.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a fan of the X-Men. For some of the people reading this, that may not be quite a stretch. Now imagine that you go to a new comic book store’s day to meet fellow comic book fans. Imagine if the moment you walk in the door, people start looking at you with suspicion and snorting derisively when you bring up the stories you love from comic books. Imagine if every story you want to tell is interrupted with a story about characters from DC Comics. Would you go back to that store again? Would you even like comics as much after that encounter?
Self-selection is the process of a group insulating itself against outsiders. The fighting game community was (and is) a community made up chiefly of a specific sort of young boy who has more willingness to practice on their games of choice for hours at a time day after day than others, and as a group it flourished during a time when marketing and ill-considered executive decisions said that women didn’t play video games. Even as that self-imposed rule became less and less true, the games continued to be marketed for the same group, often promoting fans of the game into a position of power over the game’s future direction.
Whenever you have a situation like that, perhaps best described as the inmates running the asylum, the people responsible for marketing and producing new games are specifically making what would have appealed to them before they were running the asylum. Meanwhile, the group that is not yet running the asylum (but has now defensible dreams of doing so) is helping to ensure that anyone not already in the group doesn’t feel welcome in the group, possibly without being cognizant of the stagnation that leads to.
The crowd, by and large, has moved on from fighting games. This is not altogether surprising. Fighting games had more of a hold on the general audience in arcades because they’re multiplayer games by nature, benefitting from having other people to play against. Arcades held out through the 90s by having more powerful hardware than was readily available on home machines, but as costs fell and players demanded more ornate experiences out of home games, those arcade cabinets looked less and less impressive. Gaming moved on from arcades, fighting games did but only grudgingly, and the old franchises had a fanbase that could ruthlessly self-select only for people who already met their standards.
Super Smash Bros has some grossness floating around (Zero-Suit Samus, thank you), but not nearly to the extent of fighters that were born and bred during the arcade era. There’s more diversity simply by virtue of drawing from a larger existing community instead of of catering exclusively to an existing one, of having that crucial distance.
But the reality is that fighting games manage to stay anchored very much in an older time simply because the fans keep buying it. Ultra Street Fighter IV sold. The Dead or Alive games sold. Soulcalibur has been steadily moving toward having the most inexplicable breasts in all of human history over time, and yet each new installment continues to sell even as fans decry changes. So why bother changing?
When you have a captive audience and you aren’t growing, it’s far more appealing to cater to that audience than to branch out at the risk of alienating your old audience. It’s exactly the same problem you find with mainstream superhero comics in distressingly large amounts. Comics are marketed to existing comic fans without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness, leading to comics that any adult should be ashamed to hold… which limits the potential audience for future comics, which makes companies even more afraid to jump in and try something out that might alienate the remaining readers.
There are a lot of people that might very well still like fighting games. There are players who have never tried one that would not just be good, but great. There are ideas for fighting games that are original and nifty that could provide players with new ways to play. But all of this would involve gambling on the people alienated by years of design decisions turning around and deciding that now is the time to get back into fighting games.
And even if the fans recognize that these games are frequently gross as hell? They keep selling when they get made. You’re playing a game in which a half-naked woman with floppy breasts is beating the snot out of a offensive black stereotype, but all the complaints in the world send no message if the company behind the game looks and sees no negative effects from selling the game with that lineup.
Why are fighting games still so gross? Because being gross doesn’t appear to carry any consequence, and no one’s eager to learn the necessary lessons while at the helm of a ship that’s taking on ever-greater amounts of water. And unless the games stop selling, nothing will change.
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