I remember the moment, 20 years ago, when something clicked in my head. I was watching two of my co-workers play Mortal Kombat, and it suddenly occurred to me that what was happening beneath the surface of the game was something quite a bit like Chess. Now on the face of it Mortal Kombat couldn’t look any less like Chess, it is a grisly, garish, cartoon of a game, it looks like something made, not just for children, but for children with very bad taste. But watching the game closely, and playing it myself, revealed something else. What looked like a flurry of actions was actually a flurry of decisions, choices and counter-choices, calculations and predictions, all happening so quickly that they were almost a blur, but still quite obviously intensely cognitive in nature, an experience about thinking.
That something that looked so dumb could give way, under the hood, to a kind of hyper-intelligence was a surprise and delight, especially to a fan of paradox and irony. I’ve never forgotten that moment, and that sense of delight continues to inform my love of all kinds of games.
When we host fighting game tournaments at the NYU Game Center we are inspired by a continued interest in this intensely cognitive experience happening behind the cartoon surface of these games. I don’t think many members of the fighting game community think of themselves as intellectuals, they don’t typically wear corduroy jackets and smoke pipes and thoughtfully scratch their beards while talking about Hegel. But this thing they do, this thing they love, is an intellectual exercise, it is a strange, fascinating and beautiful form of thinking about thinking and it deserves to be studied, celebrated, and supported.
Fighting games are about jumping and punching, but they are also about science. They are about reverse-engineering the fundamental properties of complex software, exploring the limits of perception, decision, and action, mapping the borderlands between humans and machines. They are about strategic analysis and technical innovation, about forming hypotheses and testing them, developing theories and collaborating to build a shared body of knowledge.
Fighting games are about competition, but they are also about empathy, not as a fuzzy concept to pay homage to but as a guiding principle of absolute necessity – Yomi, the ability to see the world through your opponent’s eyes as they see through yours, to directly experience their pride, their fear, their knowledge, their ignorance, and to indirectly experience your own, to overcome them by becoming them, by becoming something that is neither one of you alone.
Fighting games are about violence, but they are also about violence transmuted into something like poetry. This is the alchemical magic of games. Chess slows thought down in order to observe its properties, fighting games speed thought up to the point where thinking shades into acting, where the two categories stop being distinct, like a particle accelerator for the mind.
That fighting games are a kind of cognitive artform tells us something about video games and about computers, but it also raises questions about other kinds of games – Basketball, Tennis, the “sweet science” of Boxing. Are these purely physical games as purely physical as they seem, or are they too, under the hood, more intelligent then they look? These questions are worth thinking about slowly and carefully.
These issues are why I personally am so excited about the NYU Game Center EVO Scholarship. We are an art school, with all of the ambition and pretension that term suggests. we’re interested in games that are deeply meaningful, and of course that includes games with stories and characters, games with virtual environments and online worlds, games that explore real-world issues and serious themes. But it also includes games of deep competition. Fighting games create experiences that are meaningful in complex ways that aren’t simple to interpret and understand.
The EVO Scholarship will give someone from the fighting game community an opportunity to develop their skills and express their talent as a game designer, an opportunity to explore, discover and innovate in the world of competitive game design. I can’t wait to see what happens.
– Frank Lantz
Director, NYU Game Center