Patrick Roesle

The old jump kick into the sonic boom-like swoosh … in New York …

Patrick Roesle, recent Puritan author, discusses video game culture and the inspiration for his short story, “The Fighting Game,” featured in Issue 24: Winter 2014.

“The Day Reality Became Less Interesting”:
The Fighting Game and Cultural Consumption

Phillip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s prototypical hard-boiled detective, calls chess “as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency.” I wonder what he’d have had to say about video games?

That’s not to say I don’t love playing video games. I do love it! We all love playing video games. It’s hard not to love it, just like it’s hard not to love amphetamines or chocolate.

There’s something vaguely sinister about video games, especially when viewed from a distance. About the way fans go into conniptions when the preview for the latest installment of their favorite franchise suggests it won’t live up to their expectations. About how MMORPGs are playfully spoken of in the present tense like a drug addiction and in the past tense like a really bad relationship that went on much longer than it should have. About the ferocity of brand fanboyism. About how the fighting game, shoot ’em up , or masocore enthusiast will spend hours a day raptly engaged in the rote memorization and rehearsal of finger twitches. About the rage and smashed controllers.

Patrick Roesle

momoko might even be the QUEEN of fighters …

Not long ago, I was at the supermarket and saw a young mother in the checkout line with her son. The kid couldn’t have been more than five years old. He was drowsily playing Angry Birds on an iPad while she bagged the groceries, and she kept trying to get a response from him, to engage him in what was happening. “Joey, want to help momma bag the food?” she asked. “Joey, would you like a granola bar? Joey? Sweetie? Joey!” Nothing. The kid didn’t even look up.

Then she snatched the iPad out of his hands. Joey’s eyes snapped open; for a moment his fingers clutched at the empty air hitherto occupied by the iPad. Then he began to howl.

The scene that followed was something like a pre-K reenactment of The Basketball Diaries. Momma didn’t have much choice but to give Joey back the iPad, and he went silent the instant his gaze was back on the screen.

Scary shit. But not unfamiliar. My folks got me a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas when I was four years old. During my first day as a proud NES owner, I actually pissed my pants because I didn’t want to stop playing Duck Hunt for the two minutes it would have taken to go upstairs and use the toilet.

I often wonder what would have happened, how I might have turned out if my parents had second-guessed themselves on the NES and had instead bought me a junior chemistry set or a big illustrated book about dinosaurs. But really, it was probably inevitable. At that point, we’d just moved to New Jersey from Maryland. All the friends I’d soon be making had Nintendo setups in their families’ living rooms or basements, and I’d have been hooked as soon as soon as they passed me the controller.

Patrick Roesle

Giant jade insects observe the action from a safe remove …

In 2006, I wrote a little article about the NES for a friend’s website in which I called that fateful Christmas “the Day Reality Became Less Interesting.” At the time it was just the statement of a bare fact. Eight years later, it disturbs me just a little.

Someone who read “The Fighting Game” made a comment on Twitter about the narrator’s line about fighting games being better than sex, saying it goes a bit too far to be realistic. It most assuredly does not. If given the choice to relive either some of the more lackluster hookups from my twenties or some of my best King of Fighters XI matches at the Willowbrook Mall arcade, I’d take the session with my Adelheid/Kula/Shen Woo dream team, no contest. I wonder if I should find that disturbing, too?

My gaming bug went into remission only during the last five years or so. One contributing cause was my decisively outgrowing Final Fantasy. (Before I began writing fiction on a regular basis, I wrote more words about the Final Fantasy series than any human being has any reason to.) Another part of it was the fact that Valve never followed through with a Half-Life 2: Episode Three. A huge factor was my turning over my Xbox 360 to a friend when BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger was becoming too great a drain on my time, emotions, and sleep. Since 2010, I haven’t had access to a current-gen console, and that’s what clinched it. Believe me, if I could be playing Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Ultra Street Fighter IV, King of Fighters XIII, or Vampire Savior matches over the internet right now, you can bet a stack of quarters I wouldn’t be writing short stories about people who play fighting games. I’d be playing fighting games—all the time, on into the night, just like before. (Sometimes, like the ex-smoker who stands upwind of secondhand smoke or the recovering alcoholic who actually buys a six-pack of O’Doul’s, I’ll spend half an hour or longer browsing The Fighter’s Generation and remembering the good times, the fun times.)

Patrick Roesle

Scorpion’s harpoon, though an effective move, is not quite enough to put down Liu Kang.

Over the last few years, I’ve occasionally played games on my laptop via Steam or any number of emulators. Not that I don’t enjoy playing Final DOOM, Imperishable Night, Metal Slug 3, or Garou: Mark of the Wolves, but I invariably walk away feeling somewhat dissatisfied, stung by a kind of temporal dysphoria: I sat down at nine, and now it’s one. What the hell did I just do? And what was accomplished?

Oddly, I’ve never felt this way reading random stories out of H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction or Raymond Carver: Collected Stories.

The painter Wassily Kandinsky called art “a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul.” Marcel Proust held that the artist’s efforts should “culminate in raising, only part way, the veil of ugliness and meaninglessness which makes us incurious about the universe.” Whatever art is, and whatever it does, our engagement with it should reinvent for us the world beyond and compel us to explore it further.

In my case, video games failed to do this. All video games made me want to do was play more video games and think more about video games. (But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a blast.)

I wrote “The Fighting Game” to help me express and work through the ambivalence I’ve been feeling toward video games at that point in my life. What is accomplished when one dedicates himself heart and soul to mastering video games about martial arts? How do the fruits of his labours differ from those of the person who dedicates himself to mastering martial arts? (Not that these are mutually exclusive disciplines.)

Patrick Roesle

Insanity.

But I guess what primarily occupied my mind was a question about the future of fiction, the art form into which I’ve thrown in my lot. I dedicated myself to it because there were things I gleaned from reading Moby Dick, The Age of Innocence, The Invisible Man, and The Grapes of Wrath that I never got from video games.

In my mind, the conflict in my story between the narrator, who allotted his 10,000 hours to Street Fighter and Guilty Gear, and Randy, who allotted his 10,000 to Muay Thai and Sambo, is a proxy battle between the New and the Old.

I often view the relationship between fiction and video games as one of equal antagonism. At times I wonder if this is unreasonable—but I get the feeling Marshall McLuhan would say otherwise.

Far, far more people in the United States are playing games than reading fiction. There are 4,434 GameStop/EB Games locations in the U.S.; the combined total of Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million locations comes to about 900. Games are a big business and a hot topic. A National Endowment for the Arts poll found that only 48 percent of respondents had read at least one work of fiction in 2012 (down from 50 percent in 2008); a 2013 study published by the Entertainment Software Associate found that 58 percent of Americans are playing video games. We can expect one number to keep dropping, and the other to keep rising.

Over the last few years I’ve watched many more of my friends across the country forming Fez “play, discuss, share tips” groups on various social media platforms than talking about books on those same forums. I can’t but infer from this, and various other signs, that the video game is primed to assume the cultural position of the novel. The basic assumption (still fairly widespread, by all appearances) that fiction contains some fundamentally edifying aesthetic or cultural qualities absent from games will increasingly come into question as the culture is continually reshaped by its media consumption habits.

And in my mind, that was ultimately why the narrator of “The Fighting Game” had to win in the end. We finally went with an ambiguous conclusion in the published version, but in the original draft, his victory over his rival Randy is absolute. Even now, I’m convinced that their showdown in the hospital room can only end the one way. The new always obsolesces the old. The world belongs to the gamers.

 

Patrick Roesle, author of “The Fighting Game”, is from New Jersey. He mains Alex in Third Strike and used Rachel in BlazBlue until they nerfed her in Continuum Shift. He wrote a novel called The Zeroes, keeps a blog and a webcomic, and likes to spend his free time pacing and wringing his hands.

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