Watch and Learn

Is it my turn yet?

Every day after school, we flocked to the Street Fighter House in twos and threes. The first few to arrive would be tentative and polite, fishing for an invitation inside. As the tiny living room filled up with players, kids became more brazen with the Filipino mother who played gatekeeper to this never-ending tournament. She was jovial about these home invasions, perhaps proud of her child’s newfound popularity. But if Street Fighter II lived somewhere else, we would’ve chased it there.

Winner stays. Loser passes their controller. These were the only rules that mattered.

The bouts were quick and brutal, which is why arriving early was important. Losing a match wasn’t a big deal within a small group but, at peak capacity, getting knocked out meant an excruciating wait before the controller circled the room and returned.

Everyone lost eventually. But it was here that the wheat began to separate from the chaff.

The kids who didn’t care much about Street Fighter tossed aside the controller and returned to trading basketball cards and hitting each other for real. They would become the button-mashers, feared for their unpredictability. It was a button-masher who first pulled off Zangief’s Spinning Piledriver, much to the chagrin of everyone who knew how to do it and yet, somehow, could not.

The kids who cared took their spectatorship more seriously. Someone had printed off a list of special moves, and these worn and torn pages were passed around as often as the controllers. Characters and players were analyzed. Can he throw a fireball whenever he wants? That’s trouble. Did she mean to flip off the wall there, or did it just happen? How’d you do that? Look at that cheap-ass: All he does is sweep kick. Block low, man. Block low, and he’s got nothing.

Pretty soon the button-mashers were being defeated on a regular basis, their jumping rushes pushed back by calculated barrages of Hadouken. The skill gap widened and, frustrated and bored by their dwindling relevancy, the players who never trained their thumbs to roll from down to forward on the D-pad simply stopped showing up at the Street Fighter House.

Those who remained got better and better.

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University residences are a risky place to be generous with one’s stuff, especially in an all-male dorm where drunken, 4 a.m. bravado often results in wanton acts of smashery. The PlayStation 2 in the floor’s common room was permitted to survive only because everyone loved Grand Theft Auto III.

As a collective, we unlocked all the places we wanted to blow up and the guns to blow them up with. That was as far as we got with the intended narrative. From then on, playing Grand Theft Auto III meant one thing and one thing only: constructing a series of hilarious moments for the amusement of onlookers, a cycle of anarchy that everyone could enjoy.

Pedestrian bashing. Sweet jumps. Exciting police chases with shrieking hookers in the passenger seat. These were all basic building blocks in the aspiring psychopath’s toolkit. If anyone managed to survive for more than ten minutes, the room would get antsy and the player knew it was time to aggressively pursue a climactic demise. Getting arrested was a scornful alternative, because the next guy would have to waste time rearming at the gun shop.

While skilled players thrilled the room, it was agonizing to watch the people who didn’t really know how to play. They didn’t know the controls. They were arrested for mere misdemeanors and argued that it didn’t count as a ‘real turn.’ They got cars stuck in alleyways and performed the mother of all Austin Powers three-point turns to get out. It was always awkward.

We survived the tedium by offering maliciously misleading advice, hoping to get these guys killed as soon as possible. Jump off the bridge! Punch those gangsters right in the face! Press the triangle button while driving! Rocket-jump up to the roof!

In time, this was generally accepted as an amusing pursuit in and of itself. Puppeteering the unskilled to their deaths was really just an additional layer in the game’s open-ended choreography, a way for spectators to fake agency until they could once again direct the madness with their own fingers and thumbs.

The best players knew the game inside and out. They used camera angles to add a cinematic quality to their rampages: slow-motion reverse shots of the protagonist bursting through a car windshield, ping-ponging between narrow alley walls before crashing, lifeless, into a pile of garbage. Witnessing these sequences was inspiring. Our hands ached for the controller, eager to incorporate a missed jump into our own great escapes. We saw grenades dropped in the middle of busy intersections and wondered what might happen if we pulled the pin and held on juuuuust a little bit longer. Would we launch into outer space? We couldn't wait to find out.

Watching was planning.

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“I don’t get it,” she said. “What is he so excited about? Those little bug things?”

Seated in a dingy corner of a drinking establishment in Seoul, South Korea, an ESL coworker and I were watching Starleague on TV—professional StarCraft. The announcer was having an apocalyptic fit. He was screaming in Korean, apparently in response to a small group of units trundling across the screen. I caught the occasional word I knew, “Zerg-uh” being one.

“It looks like one of the players is trying an early rush,” I said. “He’s attacking right away. I think.”

A crew of slightly bigger bugs popped out of the earth and began savaging the first group. The announcer redoubled his volume.

Now what happened?” asked the coworker.

“An ambush. Oh man, look at that micro.”

The bugs were maneuvering around each other in an intricate dance, lunging into combat at opportune moments.

“Micro?”

“Yeah, micro-management. See how they’re darting back and forth like that? Looks like nothing special, but each time they move is a mouse click. These guys can click the mouse in a meaningful way, like, three hundred times a minute.”

A group of Overlords—fat, flying brain-things—appeared on the outskirts of the battle. The announcer liked this very much. “OVERLORDU!”

She sighed. “What now?”

“Uh …” I honestly had no idea. The screen descended into chaos, the nuances of the fight no longer perceivable to my untrained eye. Stuff was blowing up. “I think you have to actually play this game to understand its complexities.”

Build-order, upgrades, rushes, micro, macro, resources, expansions, APM … it’s one hell of a prerequisite education. Without experience playing StarCraft, or a game very much like it, the most ordered of military tactics just appear to be miniature ant mayhem.

Basically, you need to be a player to be an appreciative spectator.

So we got up to leave.

Comments

This is so true. Great read, Chris! I notice a similar thing when we play Rock Band with a large group actually. The people who play on easy and still fail (or would if we didn't turn on no fail, the single greatest party addition ever) generally play for a bit and then go hang out elsewhere. The crowd eventually thins and by the end of the night, the only people left playing are the hardcore. I'm always observing other people playing. If there's somebody else there about whom other people tell me "Oh you should play so-and-so, they're really good", I have to watch them play. I need to gauge the nuances of how good they really are. Do they have good dexterity or just basic rhythms which passes most stuff but gets tripped up in tricky guitar solos? Maybe they can move their fingers fast, but they get tripped up on alternate strumming or lots of chord changes. Or maybe they don't play guitar at all; maybe drums is their thing. Once thing I always like watching is how people handle the drum fills for the overdrive activation. Generally, they just flail, but it's nice to see somebody who can actually try to play a fill.

Some friends and I spent months playing Jet Moto on the PS1. We rarely raced, we would just hang out on the tracks coming up with more and more intricate tricks to pull off. It beat the pants off of any snowboarding or skating game past or present.

Oh my, this hits home. Great article!There used to be a sign my sisters and I taped above the NES on the entertainment center that had become a mantra in our bouts of gaming.

"Hurry up and die so I can play."

The button mashers end up being everyone's idiot boss.

Anyone else remember Street Fighter in a slightly different way? Trade the console and the living room for quarters in backpacks lugged to the arcade. I copied moves out of magazines to cheat sheets on small index cards so I could prop them up on the glass. We had two cabinets in my town, one in a gas station close to a local college and another at the Happy Joes Pizza. Both of these were full every day after school for months and months. We'd pedal across town from school, dump 10$ into the red-backlit slots, attempt to get through to Sagat, die at M. Bison, and then hurry home before the six o'clock whistle that signaled dinner. I remember thinking the graphics were just so awesome, back when going home to a console meant a "crappy" version of every arcade release. Even now I see that orange fur on Blanka as he cheers over my opponents body.

DorkmasterFlek wrote:

I notice a similar thing when we play Rock Band with a large group actually.

Oh man, Rock Band is like three articles worth of pithy social observation just on its own.

Negotiating who will be playing what instrument, rules for choosing songs, who gets the 'good' guitar and who gets the one with the sticky orange button, trying to teach newer players how and when to use star power, trying to convince newer players not to wail on all the buttons while you're trying to navigate menus... yeah, there is a LOT going on here, interaction-wise.

I did some videotaped experiments at Ryerson University a few years back, of small groups of girls / girls+guys playing Rock Band. I was really into Kittler and materialism at the time, so I focused on the controllers and their role in shaping interaction between these people (some were friends, others were strangers). One of the most interesting things was star power, and how the observers would sorta sit on the edge of their seats, itching to tell one of the newbies to tilt their guitar but not wanting to be impolite about it. The best part was that one of the guitars was broken, and would never activate star power. Some hilariously awkward moments there.

Amoebic wrote:

"Hurry up and die so I can play."

That sounds awfully familiar. Hey, but did you ever notice that the best players are often given more time than usual before the general room grumble sets in? It's like they're so good, it's hypnotic. I remember times when it was my turn, but I would just say, "No man... you're killing it. Just keep playing."

saxtus wrote:

Anyone else remember Street Fighter in a slightly different way? Trade the console and the living room for quarters in backpacks lugged to the arcade. I copied moves out of magazines to cheat sheets on small index cards so I could prop them up on the glass.

For us, this sorta thing happened with Mortal Kombat 2, except there was no way all those babalities and fatalities and friendships and whatnot were fitting on index cards. We had a notebook that we took to the corner store. One kid would always show up with the moves for the character he was gonna try using that day written on his hand. But he got so sweaty, the move list was only coherent for maybe one or two rounds.

My older brother and I used to play games together on our Sega Genesis, alternating after each death, but I so quickly out-paced him in terms of skill that either my turns would take so long that he'd get bored or he'd come into the game at a point far beyond his abilities and die within minutes. We didn't play games together for long, although he did go on to be good enough at CounterStrike that he won some tournaments for cash prizes.

My college roommates and I (for my one whole semester of college) used to camp out in my dorm room and play JRPGs. We had two consoles set up, one playing Chrono Cross and the other Final Fantasy IX, and just watched one another, yelling out suggestions for attacks or places to look for loot. It was nice, and it kept those games going at a brisk pace, because no one wanted to hang out for half-an-hour or more while someone tried to steal an item from a boss with Zidane.

This entire article smacks of reclusive gamer elitism!

Bravo, Chris! I love this piece. It speaks to my formative years as a gamer so completely that I'm terrified you've been watching me all this time.

Say what you want about Xbox Live and online gaming, but I miss sitting in a room with people and sharing that experience. Living in a hyper connected future means the chances of me getting a group of friends together like I used to for, say, SoulCalibur are far too slim.

This brought back memories of going to my friend's house to play MegaMan 2. We lacked the skills to get very far, but we liked watching his older sister beat the game.

I never had a system growing up, so I'd always be the one making the trek and waiting for a turn. The end result was pathetic console skills in college, where I was at the mercy of my hall-mates who had grown up with the chance to master Mario Kart - I was usually the one passing the controller on. However, we played so much that I became as good as them within the first semester. Thank you Peach.

I disagree about about your closing point. Sports fans don't need to be players to enjoy the watching the games, they just need to know the games very well, what constitutes a good move or play, and appreciate the beauty of brilliant execution.

I feel the same way about watching video games. When watching professional Star Craft or Street Fighter tournaments, I totally get into even though I don't really enjoy playing either type of game all that much. The problem with watching professional Star Craft may be that the commentary's in Korean, and unless you're completely fluent you end up spending all your time focused on figuring what they're saying about what's going on. Youtube vids with translated subs fixes this. Sure, I might enjoy it more if I understand what it takes to be an amazing Star Craft player, but having the commentary is usually enough.

The catch is that I need to be watching people who are good, not people who are learning to play. Watching people learning to play is like watching a pianist rehearse or a novelist write--no matter how good they are, watching the process of how they get that good is pretty boring.

Chairman_Mao wrote:

I disagree about about your closing point. Sports fans don't need to be players to enjoy the watching the games, they just need to know the games very well, what constitutes a good move or play, and appreciate the beauty of brilliant execution.

I feel the same way about watching video games. When watching professional Star Craft or Street Fighter tournaments, I totally get into even though I don't really enjoy playing either type of game all that much.

I can certainly see this for StarCraft, where I understand the basic mechanics and know how the interface works for players. The interface is such a big part of Street Fighter, though, that I'm not sure I'd appreciate how hard it is to pull off a given move.

The catch is that I need to be watching people who are good, not people who are learning to play. Watching people learning to play is like watching a pianist rehearse or a novelist write--no matter how good they are, watching the process of how they get that good is pretty boring.

Not so!

Chairman_Mao wrote:

Sports fans don't need to be players to enjoy the watching the games, they just need to know the games very well, what constitutes a good move or play, and appreciate the beauty of brilliant execution.

Yep, I agree with you there. But it's somewhat easier to watch sports and become well acquainted with the rules as a spectator, no? Sports are on TV all the time. Video games, for the most part, need to be booted up and played on a console or computer to be experienced (with the exception of very popular games that have YouTube commentaries available... but if you're going out of your way to watch these, you had to get that interest and motivation from somewhere).

Ownership is somewhat of a prerequisite for experiencing a game enough to become familiar with 'the beauty of brilliant execution' (I like that). Or at least plenty of exposure at a friend's house, where you'll probably pick up the controller once or twice yourself.

This actually makes me wonder just how well the spouses and partners of people who play one game a LOT know the mechanics and nuances of that game.

Chairman_Mao wrote:

When watching professional Star Craft or Street Fighter tournaments, I totally get into even though I don't really enjoy playing either type of game all that much.

I get the sense that you've still played enough of both that you know what's what.

BishopRS wrote:

The button mashers end up being everyone's idiot boss.

What skills do you spend your childhood learning?: how to skillfully exploit a system for maximum productivity, or, the rituals of being an alpha male?

(I assume everyone reading GWJ would go with the former.)

beeporama wrote:
BishopRS wrote:

The button mashers end up being everyone's idiot boss.

What skills do you spend your childhood learning?: how to skillfully exploit a system for maximum productivity, or, the rituals of being an alpha male?

I was being a smartass, but thanks for the backup.

I miss the social aspect of enjoying a game together, but I only have myself to blame. For years now, my living room has been configured with 2 TVs and a rat's nest of cables and splitters to ensure that any source can play on either TV. As a result, the wife and I haven't played through a game 'together', passing the controller back and forth, since Farenheit/Indigo Prophecy.

I've started doing it a little more now, spectating on her playing. I think I might do a spot of what we refer to 'star bitching' when Mario Galaxy 2 comes out next month.

wordsmythe wrote:
Chairman_Mao wrote:

The catch is that I need to be watching people who are good, not people who are learning to play. Watching people learning to play is like watching a pianist rehearse or a novelist write--no matter how good they are, watching the process of how they get that good is pretty boring.

Not so!

Man it's never fair to use Monty Python to make a point because there's no way to counter it.

Clemenstation wrote:
Chairman_Mao wrote:

Sports fans don't need to be players to enjoy the watching the games, they just need to know the games very well, what constitutes a good move or play, and appreciate the beauty of brilliant execution.

Yep, I agree with you there. But it's somewhat easier to watch sports and become well acquainted with the rules as a spectator, no? Sports are on TV all the time. Video games, for the most part, need to be booted up and played on a console or computer to be experienced (with the exception of very popular games that have YouTube commentaries available... but if you're going out of your way to watch these, you had to get that interest and motivation from somewhere).

Very true. I suppose if we had video games on TV the way the Koreans do, the situation might be different.

Ownership is somewhat of a prerequisite for experiencing a game enough to become familiar with 'the beauty of brilliant execution' (I like that). Or at least plenty of exposure at a friend's house, where you'll probably pick up the controller once or twice yourself.

This actually makes me wonder just how well the spouses and partners of people who play one game a LOT know the mechanics and nuances of that game.

Treacherous 3rd wife can't stand to watch me play, so she knows very little. The only game she loves is Katamari, which doesn't surprise me at all.

Chairman_Mao wrote:

When watching professional Star Craft or Street Fighter tournaments, I totally get into even though I don't really enjoy playing either type of game all that much.

I get the sense that you've still played enough of both that you know what's what.

I concede SC probably takes at least some knowledge of the game mechanics to enjoy it as a spectator. On the other hand, how can anyone who understands what a health bar is not get excited about SFIV from the classic Daigo vs. Justin Wong EVO 2004 SFIV match?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pS5peqApgUA

Chairman_Mao wrote:

Man it's never fair to use Monty Python to make a point because there's no way to counter it.

Let's not debate fairness, Chairman.

Chairman_Mao wrote:

On the other hand, how can anyone who understands what a health bar is not get excited about SFIV from the classic Daigo vs. Justin Wong EVO 2004 SFIV match?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pS5peqApgUA

Okay, yeah, that was super awesome. But I just showed it to a coworker who doesn't really play games and his response was "Wow, those flashy attacks [supers] are pretty powerful... why don't they just use those all the time?"

I guess he figured out the health bars, but didn't really notice the bars at the bottom of the screen.

Chairman_Mao wrote:

I concede SC probably takes at least some knowledge of the game mechanics to enjoy it as a spectator. On the other hand, how can anyone who understands what a health bar is not get excited about SFIV from the classic Daigo vs. Justin Wong EVO 2004 SFIV match?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pS5peqApgUA

Holy crap, that was cool.

Clemenstation wrote:

Okay, yeah, that was super awesome. But I just showed it to a coworker who doesn't really play games and his response was "Wow, those flashy attacks [supers] are pretty powerful... why don't they just use those all the time?"

I guess he figured out the health bars, but didn't really notice the bars at the bottom of the screen.

I had the same response as your co-worker. I was actually really impressed that they used so few super moves, as the games of Street Fighter II I played as a kid largely revolved around learning a handful of special attacks and spamming them. I'm disappointed to discover that this wasn't a strategic choice but related to a power-up bar or somesuch.

I think it's related to the bar, but is strategic as well. You want to "spam" those moves as much as you can, but given the limited quantity and the refractory from the move in question, you don't always want to do them. You want to get them in when it's "assured." Like, as part of a multihit combo - though how far down the combo reduces the efficacy unless you can throw in a combo reset.

Okay, that was far geekier than I meant to say, and I don't even play SFIV.

I was watching the Street Fighter video and I think it proves that unless you have some experience with a game you can't really appreciate a video of it. I never played that game because it was a quarter sink (i'm that old) so it turned me off early. So I have no idea what kind of skill it takes to do any of what I see on that screen.

It's sort of like watching world class rock climbers, they make it all look so easy and graceful that you have no idea how hard it is unless you actually try to hold on to anything they climbed on.

But then, I don't get into watching sports either so maybe it's just a defecit of my brain or something?

oh, and passing the controller around is the best form of multplayer in the world imho.