Race, Class, and Street Fighter, Part 1September 27, 2006
Street Fighter II has one of the most interesting communities of game-players I’ve ever seen surrounding a video game. Go to Evolution next year and you’ll players of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Yes, other game arenas are gradually getting more and more diverse, but there’s something about the fighting game community that just feels different from other games. Lurk around the Shoryuken.com forums for a little bit and you’ll find this bizarre combination of nerdiness and street-savvy that, as far as I can tell, stands as unique to the fighting game scene.
First, my introduction: I started out playing SF2 when I was a wee youngun, spending my dollar-a-week-allowance on two games at the local 7-11 and eventually moving up to the SNES version. I didn’t really touch fighting games a whole lot after that, save for brief excursions into Mortal Kombat and Virtua Fighter, until I copped Gundam Wing: Endless Duel for the SNES while I was in high school, which led me to Street Fighter Alpha 3, which in turn led me to the BEARCade over at UC Berkeley – and the rest, as they say, is history. Since I’ve picked up the habit roughly six years ago, I’ve wandered arcades all over the world, from Northern and Southern California to Japan and the Philippines.
Throughout those years I’ve formulated my own personal hypothesis as to why the fighting game community has grown up the way it has. It goes something like this:
When Street Fighter II came out in 1991, video games were highly economically stratified. Computer gaming was still strictly the domain of “nerds”, as computers were incredibly expensive investments that were often bought as some kind of personal business investment rather than as a game machine first and foremost, and the kind of technical knowledge required to set up and support a computer as a gaming machine was highly specialized and therefore economically exclusive. Console gaming was more accessible in 1991, when the Super Nintendo had just made its debut, but it still wasn’t cheap. Personally, I remember having to pay upwards of $80 for SNES games in the mid-90s, where I recoil now at paying $50 for a brand-new PS2 game these days, and console games also required a television (at least another $100?) and the console itself ($250 for the SNES with Super Mario World and two controllers, I think).
So Street Fighter 2 entered the world with its cutting-edge flashy cartoon graphics, eight selectable characters, and adversarial arcade gameplay instead of the single-player score wars or co-op beat-’em-ups that arcades tended to specialize in pre-SF2, and took the world by storm. No doubt some of its success was due to the excellent execution and game design. But it was also due to the fact that it was perfect for the arcade game business model, which forces arcade operators to invest in an expensive piece of equipment and charges the players to play it, rather than have the players buy it themselves. In other words, in 1991 it probably cost about $2000 to play Commander Keen on your home/office computer, $400 to play Sonic the Hedgehog in your living room, and $.25 to play Street Fighter II while kicking back with your friends in an arcade. It’s comparisons like these that make me wonder why arcades ever died out.
To be continued…