I was in a workshop with a local Los Angeles nonprofit a few months ago where a Cambodian American refugee came to talk about Asian American youth and gang life – specifically, his own personal account. He told us about how while everyone around him in the LA riots were busy stealing liquor and food and electronics and TVs and stuff, he made sure to go out with his friends and get themselves a Street Fighter II cabinet. Apparently they left it at one of their friends’ houses until his mom noticed the $200 increase in the electricity bill.
The pocket-change-per-game business model that arcade games use helped to kick the doors wide open for SF2’s audience. That virtually anyone alive and young during the early ’90s has some recognition of Street Fighter II isn’t just a testament to its game design, it’s a statement about its accessibility. While computers have become more accessible than they were 15 years ago, and world-class competition in first-person shooters and strategy games can be had in your living room via XBox Live, Street Fighter II thrived precisely because it was a venue for anyone with a quarter to come and beat the crap out of each other. While would-be professional street fighters were still limited by factors like time, availability of arcade competition, and, well, truant officers, money was certainly less of an issue and more of an incentive to improve – “winner pays, loser stays”.
The relatively low economic barrier to entry made Street Fighter II much more open to all kinds of people. The top players of any generation of Street Fighter II players have always been well-populated by a mix of white, black, Asian, and Latino players. In the Bay Area, for example, I would regularly attend tournaments that pitted middle-class Asian American college kids from UC Berkeley, working-class black and Latino players, and suburbian whites against each other in one-on-one battles for honor, glory, and a few extra bucks in tournament winnings. Through Street Fighter II, I’ve come into the acquaintances of drug dealers, Harvard graduates, amateur hip-hop MCs, insurance actuaries, middle school kids, Google employees…the list goes on.
Race and class become most intimately intertwined with Street Fighter II because any given individual’s skill is going to be determined by the competition they surround themselves with. Unlike XBox Live and Battle.net, Street Fighter II isn’t playable in any kind of tournament-level environment online, meaning that local competition is a limiting factor.While there is a certain margin of individual choice in one’s own playing style, generally in how each player can leverage their particular weaknesses in physical technique and mental fortitude, groups tend to exhibit a set of general characteristics in their gameplay. Even though online environments like GameFAQs and Shoryuken.com offer staggering amounts of available knowledge and high-level gameplay videos, tournament success in Street Fighter II requires lots of actual practice against real people. You are only as good as the people you play against, and since Street Fighter II requires direct, face-to-face connection, you are most likely going to end up playing with people who you get along with – and despite the diversity that abides in the SF2 competitive scene, a lot of the times the lines are drawn roughly along those of race and/or class. While I regularly encountered and played against all kinds of people, I was most closely affiliated with the players at UC Berkeley, who were mostly Asian American, and so the way I play the game, years after I’ve left Berkeley, is still informed by the people I played with back then.
In this way, playing styles can often be connected to race and class. The UCB group I practiced with tended to feed very closely with the cutting-edge strategies pioneered by the Japanese players in the Japanese-dominated games (Capcom vs. SNK 2, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, and Guilty Gear XX), and favored the characters widely considered to be ‘top tier’ – that is, the ones who offered the easiest win. Their games tended to stress technical proficiency – Capcom vs. SNK 2, for example, introduced a glitch called ‘roll canceling’ that could offer dominating special moves to any player capable of consistently performing two different moves within a fraction of a second – and low-risk, patient gameplay that rewarded safe attacks and taking advantage of an opponent’s openings. While they were more than willing to experiment with more outlandish characters in casual games at the arcade, most of their experimentation came from watching videos of top-level American and Japanese players and trying to copy their techniques and adapt them to their own personal techniques. The Oakland players from Oaktree arcade, and to a lesser extent Castro Valley Golfland, favored playing much more unorthodox characters with playing styles that were much flashier and prone to openings that the Berkeley players considered unnecessary. Minor disagreements between the two groups were fairly commonplace; the Oakland players prided themselves on the individuality of their playing styles and found a certain kind of noble suffering in the extra work they felt they had to do to win, and called the Berkeley players “cheap” for “picking the easy way”. Berkeley players, in response, regarded anything less than “playing to win” as “scrubby” – that is, not fit for serious competition – and maintained that it made more sense to pay attention to the top-level competitors as a benchmark for what works and what doesn’t.
Note that I am not saying that race shapes one’s playing style in any biological, essentialist way. Rather, the styles of play become incidentally racialized and classed, and this makes Street Fighter II a site of race and class interaction and formation.