In 2019 I wrote an article about how I struggled to break into fighting games aptly titled Fighting Games are Fucking Hard. I was fascinated by what I observed in the genre, but couldn’t seem to wrap my head around actually playing fighting games. Since writing that article I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning the genre fundamentals and can now comfortably play fighting games. Through this journey I believe I’ve narrowed down the largest barrier to entry with the genre: game literacy. By understanding how and why game literacy holds new players back we can design solutions to help move them past this hurdle.
First off, what even is game literacy? It’s a term derived from media literacy which describes the ability for us as players to access, critically evaluate, and create video games or more simply: our ability to read and write games. That’s fairly abstract though so let’s look at a concrete example.
Hypothetically, let’s say that you’re trying to teach your little cousin how to read English. You wouldn’t start by simply handing them a book and expecting them to understand it. You’d have to start from the basic building blocks that make up words: the alphabet. Each letter has two different sounds associated with it depending on case and you’d need to teach each of these to your cousin as the first step on the road to reading.
Once they understand the alphabet, lessons could transition over into teaching how these sounds work in combination. Instead of focusing on the letters in isolation, you could introduce short words and have your cousin sound them out phonetically based on their existing understanding of how the alphabet works. This would begin teaching them about words, while also demonstrating and reinforcing their understanding of the underlying rules that govern the English language.
Shortly thereafter, simple books could be introduced. Instead of practicing on words in isolation we’re now looking to teach our cousin to read and understand a series of words that are strung together as a sentence. Hopefully our little cousin would try to sound out each word and, eventually through practice and repetition, they’d learn the ability to read.
Conceptually this process is rather straightforward. However anyone who has tried to teach a child to read will know how difficult it is and how much patience is required from both the teacher and the student. In addition, we almost always teach reading after a child is vaguely familiar with speaking a language. To this end, the child’s existing knowledge about the subject can help to accelerate their learning of reading and with enough practice they’ll have obtained basic literacy in English.
Now some of you might be asking: what does any of this have to do with video games? To answer that question let me ask one of my own: have you ever handed a controller to someone who wasn’t familiar with video games and had them stare at you in confusion? The reason for this is because the person in question lacked basic game literacy. Much like how someone who can’t read English won’t be able to read a book written in English someone who isn’t familiar with the language of video games won’t be able to parse a video game.
Often within the gaming community we take our ability to play games for granted. Most of us have been playing games since a very young age and because of how engaging games are we pushed through all the literacy roadblocks that stood between us and understanding games. As an example of this I can still vaguely remember the first non-edutainment video game I played: Pokémon Blue Version.
I’m assuming most folks are vaguely familiar with Pokémon already, but if you’re not it’s a role playing game where you collect creatures and battle them. The creatures have a variety of elemental types that form a matrix of weaknesses and strengths. The main goal of the game is to learn this matrix and demonstrate your understanding of it by collecting a diverse team of creatures that can adequately counter any combination of types your opponent has.
Pokémon Blue was one of the first games I played and thus I played it when I didn’t understand them. At the beginning of the game you get to choose from one of three available critters to start your journey with. I chose Charmander because it was a fire type lizard and I thought it looked cool. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that Charmander has a type disadvantage against the first boss fight in the game and also couldn’t figure out how to beat said fight.
As an adult who understands the rules of Pokémon I can now identify that Charmander’s fire typing had a disadvantage to rock type Pokémon found in the first gym. Players who chose Charmander are meant to realize this and find other Pokémon that can do the heavy lifting. However, as a six year old I didn’t understand this or why I kept losing.
Eventually I used brute force and luck to win the fight. This meant that I learned nothing and proceeded through the next section of the game with relative ease. That was until I reached the second boss fight. This boss had a water Pokémon specialty and just like in real life fire loses to water. Similar to the first boss, I couldn’t figure out how to overcome this obstacle.
Luckily for six year old me there was an external resource that I could rely on for teaching me the rules of Pokémon. I had been watching the Pokémon cartoon at the same time as I was playing the game and this show did a better job of teaching me the rules of Pokémon than the game did. It was from here that I learned that water Pokémon were weak to grass type attacks. The main character of the show also had a grass Pokémon called Bulbasaur which I recognized as one of the options from the start of the game.
Having limited problem solving skills, my six year old self restarted the game choosing Bulbasaur this time determined to use its type advantage to beat the second boss. What I didn’t know was that Bulbasaur also had a type advantage against the rock Pokémon in the first gym so that was knowledge I learned and understood along the way. When I arrived at the second gym with a powerful grass Pokémon I was able to win thus solidifying the lesson I learned from the cartoon by reinforcing it with game mechanics.
This is an example of a single story from a single game, but this kind of learning dominated the overwhelming majority of my early years with gaming and explains why I struggled so much with games that I now find extremely easy to play. It also explains why my parents and younger sisters never seemed to understand or enjoy video games like I did. Throughout my childhood I’d spent a large amount of time learning how to understand and parse video games so I could understand how to play and enjoy them and the same wasn’t true for the rest of my family.
The unfortunate problem with game literacy is that it is so broad because of how diverse the ideas, mechanics, and systems are across games. You could have a really great understanding of how platforming games work, but as soon as you encounter a puzzle game you could become entirely lost. Understanding video games isn’t as simple as learning a single language, rather it’s like learning several different languages with similar roots that occasionally share ideas. This makes the process of developing basic gaming literacy exceedingly difficult.
In this regard, fighting games are positioned to be uniquely challenging compared to other genres. They have over thirty years of games building upon each other. If you jumped in early this slow accumulation of new mechanics was likely a natural part of your learning within the genre. However, this has the unfortunate downside of front-loading a lot onto new players. Using our reading example from earlier, you wouldn’t hand your little cousin a copy of Lord of the Rings and tell them to go figure it out. So why do we do this to new fighting game players without first going over basic concepts like footsies, punishes, and jump-ins?
For those who are entrenched in a particular genre it is easy to take for granted all of the accumulated knowledge that comes with years of play. However, to newcomers the mountain of terminology creates a substantial barrier. What’s especially unfortunate is how fighting games are fast paced. The majority of interactions happen in less than a second, which doesn’t create an ideal learning space nor does it allow for easy analysis of a situation. When you also consider that there are over two hundred fighting game terms with specific definitions and gameplay implications it becomes especially unreasonable to expect any genre newcomers to intuitively learn fighting games.
The only way to mitigate this problem is by accumulating basic game literacy for fighting games. Once a player has put in the work to understand the language of fighting games the speed and complexity of the genre stop acting as a barrier and players are able to communicate with the game. They can play new games within the genre and fully understand what is happening, or at the very least they’re able to figure out how specific interactions work because they have the tools and vocabulary to do so.
So how do we get players to this state?
I’m not smart enough to answer that question definitively, but I did go from being entirely illiterate to having basic literacy for fighting games so I have a few ideas for where we can start. While many of us spent our younger years banging our heads against a metaphorical brick wall to learn game literacy, I don’t think it is appropriate to insist everyone go through the same trials to enjoy games.
My first recommendation comes as a call to action within established fighting game communities. The Pokémon anime was an excellent external teaching tool that helped my younger self grasp game mechanics I struggled with. While we don’t have an anime, we do have the ability to create tools for teaching and act as mentors.
To that end, accepting new members into the fold with open arms and offering helpful assistance is imperative. As fun as it can be to dunk on other players, it isn’t helpful when someone is genuinely interested in learning and can’t find helpful answers to their questions. Besides, answering these kinds of questions helps to reaffirm our own understanding of gameplay fundamentals. Additionally, by helping new players we are increasing the strength of our favourite game’s competitive scene, which inevitably creates a cycle of players within said scene pushing one another to become better. As a result, there is no downside to helping these new players.
I know a lot of scenes, especially the ones for smaller games, are already engaged in an open arms approach to new community members and that’s great. With any luck, over time, this attitude of accepting newcomers and friendly competition will become the norm so that jumping into these communities doesn’t act as an additional intimidating barrier to entry.
The remaining suggestions I have are aimed at the development side of fighting games. Firstly is that we need to continue to have games within the space that are lower on the complexity spectrum. Numerous indie developers have taken to making fighting games with a laser focus on genre fundamentals. These games are important as they help to clearly communicate what, why, and how certain genre mechanics work. Once players grasp the basics learning the more complex games goes from being an impossible task to an obtainable goal given enough practice.
Finally, developers need to take the time to include well fleshed out tutorials in their games. Discovery can be part of the fun in a game, but mechanics should be clearly explained while the interplay between them is left for discovery. Without first teaching the player they won’t have the necessary understanding to parse your game to where they can make discoveries. Tutorials help to teach new players the basics and provide a nifty resource for veterans to quickly learn about some of your game’s more complex systems. By omitting tutorials you’re doing a huge disservice to any player interested in your game.
I hope that I’ve convincingly made my case for why game literacy is the biggest barrier to entry with fighting games. The genre has such a rich heritage, but that’s a double edged sword that obfuscates its many exceptional games. It is only through teaching the unique language of fighting games that new players will be able to take to the genre and find the same fun that the rest of us have. This is an incredibly challenging problem to solve, but acknowledging and understanding it is the first step to beating it.
Before I go I’d like to thank both Extra Credits and Etra Games. They both have fantastic videos on the concept of game literacy and the challenges with trying to teach non-gamers how to play games. These videos, in no small part, helped to introduce me to the concept of game literacy, which I identified as a major stumbling block in my own journey with fighting games and also inspired me to write about the subject. Both videos are worth watching to understand the topics discussed here at a more fundamental level.
Finally, shout-out to MrMKL for helping with tying some of my points together during editing.