Opinion: “Toxic Community” and Building a Better FGC Opinion: “Toxic Community” and Building a Better FGC
Hey SRK readers, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months about how the fighting game community got a reputation for being... Opinion: “Toxic Community” and Building a Better FGC

Hey SRK readers,

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months about how the fighting game community got a reputation for being hostile — and how that turns people off from getting involved. This opinion article is a call for more civility, both inside and outside our community. But I’m going to start by telling a story, so bear with me.

cvs2

The Story of Meaneric

My first real Street Fighter home was the UC Berkeley Bearcade. Capcom vs. SNK 2 had persuaded me to pick up fighting games for the first time since Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting, and I was bitten by the competitive bug downright fierce. In the East Bay, that meant going to the Bearcade, ignoring the sign that said STUDENT ID REQUIRED, and throwing down with the best that Berkeley had to offer.

In CvS2, that was a guy named Eric. Eric gave me a tough-love education in the ways of CvS2, teaching me 50 cents at a time to practice combos, learn footsies, tech throws, and to not jump and roll willy-nilly. It took me over a year before I ever took a game off of Eric. (Thank you, Athena crouching fierce.)

We almost never talked, and I could count the times he gave me a small crumb of advice or encouragement before that game on one hand. He’d run through everyone at the Bearcade, give a little shrug when he won, and look as bored as possible until someone stepped up to challenge him again. (Those of you who remember the arcade days of fighting games will no doubt recognize that “I’m so bored, this game sucks” shrug that so many high-level players used to do when playing against scrubby strangers.)

Playing against Eric made me better, no doubt — but he was kind of an asshole. (Some of the other Bearcade players referred to him as “Meaneric”.) I put up with it, but I imagine Meaneric soured dozens of other potential fighting game enthusiasts from the game entirely. Worse, his attitude was contagious; just like I learned footsies, I also learned the waste-of-time shrug, and I probably repelled a few people myself. But I was lucky enough to find other people to play with, who would expose my mistakes and then offer me suggestions on how to improve. To Eric’s credit, he eventually lightened up a bit as well.

Eight years after the Bearcade closed, my closest friends are the ones who helped me get better so I could help them get better. For all the games I played with Eric, I haven’t heard from him in years. And for all of the games and local tournaments Eric won, he never looked happy about it.

The virtuous cycle of Street Fighter

When I first started playing CvS2, I was drawn in by the satisfaction of winning. I would obsessively keep track of my wins and losses during random casuals because I wanted to cling to that feeling of competence. But I don’t think that’s the strongest factor that keeps us playing fighting games. I think what keeps me — and most likely, many of you, too — around the fighting game community is the combination of two things: a game that allows us to instantly engage in an intimate contest of will against another person, and an addiction to self-improvement.

Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman has described the process of learning to play Street Fighter as “psychopathically empathetic”; basically, we learn how to put ourselves in other people’s emotional state so we can better beat the crap out of them. But the thrill of winning alone won’t keep you around for long — because without new challenges (and challengers), you’ll get bored. So we read each others’ minds, punish each others’ mistakes quickly and painfully, and then learn from it together so we can both improve and find new mistakes to punish. It’s a beautiful, powerful thing — even if it’s just a video game, we’re practicing the process of becoming better people! — and in the end, we learn to cultivate a sense for what makes both ourselves and our opponents tick.

This shared experience, more than anything else, makes me feel instant kinship to any other fighting game player — and it makes me want to bring new people into the community so they can share in it as well. But it’s important to acknowledge that this really is a two-step process of:

Phase 1) Punish Each Others’ Mistakes;

Phase 2) Help Each Other Improve;

and without that second part — the part that Eric was missing — we’ll all just be a bunch of assholes.

The contradiction of our “toxic community”

I’m never prouder to be part of the fighting game community than when I’m at Evolution; it really is something special when we’re all together, beating eachother up in person. After all, most of us came into fighting games like I did; meeting strangers in public places, playing video games with them, and making friends with them. Evo is basically one weekend in the biggest, baddest fighting game arcade ever, and there really isn’t any way to describe how great it feels to someone who has never been besides bringing them along next year (or, barring that, showing them one of the “Moments” videos).

But I’m never more embarrassed to be part of the fighting game community than when I’m on the Internet. We’ll be disrespectful and say stuff we’d never say in person. When a top player or notable community figure makes a mistake, we’ll jump on them quickly and cruelly — in comments sections, in Twitter, in stream chat, in forums, and everywhere else that is part of the aggregated online fighting game community. To me, it looks like we’ve gotten really good at Punishing Mistakes — just like we practice in fighting games — but we’re not really that good at helping each other improve. Online, we look like a whole bunch of Meanerics — and I believe it turns countless people away.

Frankly, I’m not surprised. Think about the first time you played Street Fighter against someone online — how much harder it is to read someone when you’re not standing next to them, how frustrating it is to get bodied and not be able to immediately request a runback, how salty you feel when you just know that the other person isn’t accepting your match request because you got beaten so badly that they think you’re just a waste of their time. The lack of that face-to-face connection makes it harder to empathize with someone else, whether you’re doing that to get in their head for a game, or whether you’re posting a comment on an article somewhere. And without that empathy, it makes it much harder to care about Phase 2) Help Each Other Improve — which sucks, because that’s the part that makes us a community, not just a group of people who happen to play the same games.

Dealing with noobs (and the press)

A few weeks ago, the Penny Arcade Report’s Andrew Groen wrote a review of the PC version of King of Fighters XIII that was controversial, to say the least. My take on the article itself is complicated and best left to my personal blog, not the SRK front page — but suffice it to say that many of us got angry. Afterwards, PAR editor Ben Kuchera took to Twitter to publicly complain about the FGC as “toxic” after having sorted through a whole bunch of hate, apparently including multiple death threats.

To be sure, I understand exactly how it feels to see a community you love so much getting unfairly represented in the general-interest games media, especially when it feels like your community is getting baited into stirring shit up online. But I see this kind of article as the equivalent of scrubby lag tactics, or non-stop CvS2 roll-throw/DP/super shenanigans; as the smarter player, it’s our job to punish said scrub tactics quickly and consistently, without malice or anger, and teach the other player how to play the game better so that all of us can improve. Death threats don’t help anyone.

Yes, even top players will get hit by scrubby stuff occasionally, and that’s a learning experience for us, too. But part of being the better player is to pay it forward; to be patient with the new kids and show them the ropes, even if they don’t get it it the first time (or the tenth time), just like the previous generation of fighting game players did with you when you first got started.

I’m asking us all to stop being so mean. That doesn’t mean we withhold criticism when criticism is due, just like we don’t hold back on punishing in-game mistakes lest we allow each other to develop bad habits. But it’s harder to learn from your mistakes when you’re mad or angry at the person exposing them; you get defensive and double down on your mistakes (or blame the controller/PS3/monitor/atmospheric oxygen content) instead of opening your mind to the possibility that you messed up and can learn from the experience.

Tone matters. Saying “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why” is not the same as saying “This is the worst article I have ever read, and you should die in a fire”; the former invites discussion that both parties can learn from, and the latter just makes everyone involved wish they were doing something else. And tone matters most when you’re new at this, you’re kind of scrubby, and you’re not quite so used to having your mistakes publicly exposed in front of an audience.

Make no mistake: When it comes to writing about or generally engaging with the fighting game community, general-interest games media are still fairly scrubby. We grew up and evolved our own stories and standards with close to zero interest from anyone else for a long time, and now they’ve got some catching up to do. Precious few press were in attendance at Evo 2013.

The fact is, very few games press have any idea how to cover the fighting game community, and learning how to do it is kind of like learning to play Street Fighter — you learn by making mistakes and having people help you learn from them. Things are getting better — Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek did a great job covering the collusion story, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier covered the Art of Fighting benefit, and CNN Photo did a neat FGC slideshow — but it’s going to be a while. We’re just past the days of grumbling about the “’09ers”; think of these folks as “’13ers”.

Let’s Fight Like Gentle(people)

I’ll be honest with you, SRK readers; I think I’m learning how to write about fighting games, but the comments wear me down, too. It’s tough to read a comment demanding for my resignation when I post an article about experimenting with tournament formats. I hated having to go through the transphobic comments on my interview with Adelheid Stark about competitive Divekick. And I couldn’t believe that some folks out there were so offended that I ask Viscant for his insights on the state of competitive Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 when the damn guy is an Evo champion.

dudley

Plenty of people have advised me to just extract whatever useful feedback I can and ignore the rest; to me, that feels like a copout. It’s hard for me to tell my friends they should give a fighting game stream a chance when stream chat is awful, or read the articles I write and edit when the comments are noxious, or engage with the forums and on Twitter when everyone is tearing each other down. For people who are part of the fighting game community as an all-consuming hobby, it’s a minor annoyance; for people like myself who work in the games industry and have to deal with toxic communities all over the place, it’s an additional level of crap I’d rather not deal with in my sparse free time.

Every gaming community has its own special brand of nastiness to deal with, and the fighting game community is often subjected to an unwarranted level of scrutiny and criticism from outsiders who haven’t been around and don’t understand us. That said, I don’t think that is an excuse to act just as awful to each other as Call of Duty kids on Xbox Live do. The longer I play fighting games, the more I’m convinced that these games are teaching us how to better examine our own flaws and correct them — in other words, how to be better people! So let me be proud for a minute and suggest that we are better, we can do better, and we should do better.

The great thing about the fighting game community is that we’re each others’ worst enemies when we’re playing the game, and we’re best friends the moment a match is over. Let’s extend that into the way we talk to each other online, as well.

When a top player messes up, let’s call them out on it — but let’s be compassionate, too. I respect the hell out of anyone with enough passion for fighting games that they try to make it their full-time job. And I think it’s probably for the best that I didn’t have an audience of tens of thousands of people watching my games or following me on Twitter when I was 21, because I sure did say and do plenty of dumb shit without having it get spread all over the Internet.

When a tournament organizer messes up, let’s make that as transparent as possible to ensure everyone is on the level and treated fairly. Let’s also treat them with the respect they’re due — respect they deserve because they bust their asses for untold hours to make sure we have a place to play with each other, whether it’s a small local venue or an international major.

Perhaps most importantly, let’s not forget that the backbone of the fighting game community is the regular folks; the ones who enter tournaments they know they’re not going to win, the ones who watch your stream when you’re just messing around in training mode, the ones who tell their friends how much fun it is to play Street Fighter, and hey, you should really come over this weekend and try it out.

I want the fighting game community to be the envy of every other. I want people to speak with admiration about how we welcome newbies, develop strong friendships, and get hype like no one else. I don’t think that’s hard for us to do — we just have to make every online FGC space feel just like it does at Evo. And that starts by being a just a bit nicer.

I’m going to end this with a short excerpt from my interview with Seth Killian earlier in the week that really stood out to me:

As for me personally, I started out angry, competitive. I didn’t have a lot of control over some things in my life, but in games, the control was mine. I could rub someone’s face in how foolish they were, and it felt amazing. “See how dumb you are? Don’t you even realize you always jump in after my second fireball? I can read you like a book!” This is part of the exhilaration of fighting games, and a thrilling feeling for a skinny pencil-necked nerd. I can walk into an arcade and just school all sorts of guys, much bigger and older than me, even the dangerous-looking ones.

Back then, I treated Internet discussions about the game the same way I treated the game itself. I discovered Street Fighter and the Internet around the same time, so they were deeply intertwined in my head. I treated them both like games where you could antagonize another person until you won, with no lasting harm. SF is probably still that way, but in the time since then, the internet has become a big part of our real lives. Today, being a jerk on the internet is just being a jerk, so I grew up a little and stopped acting like that.

Growing into adulthood in the FGC and watching it over time has also changed my attitude. I still like to make fun of things, but now with a little perspective I think twice before popping off. Some of you have children. Some of you will suffer personal tragedies. Many of my best friends are from this scene, and I guess I finally learned that people on the internet are real! At the end of the day, we love the same things.

Let’s beat each other up in the game, and be cool when we’re not. Thanks for reading, everyone.