In The Beginning, There Were Nerds

When I think “video game arcade,” I think of decal-covered wooden cabinets with greasy joysticks. I think of a reflective screen, tracing a lonely ship inside a black void. I think of  the blinking words INSERT COIN, and Pac-Man’s grating, ear-splitting beeps. I think of nerds.

I remember when I was a shy, soft-spoken 8 year-old, the first time I entered a video arcade. I felt my stomach tense at the noise, my eyes wander from light to blinding light. I almost tripped in the dark. I remember the anticipation of entering a land where my hobby was a culture, not a shame. And I remember of a crowd of kids surrounding one arcade cabinet in particular. And some of those kids were my classroom bullies.

sf2_1
“Down in front! Let me see!”

Arcades? Nothing Special

Pong’s greatest claim to fame, on entiring the world of bars and clubs in 1972, was that it wasn’t pool. Outside technical college campuses, it was just another distraction for drunk and unfulfilled patrons. Every subsequent advancement in machinery—Pac-Man, Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong—were novel on arrival, but soon relegated to the same place as the previous cabinets: out of the way, near the bathrooms, with the sound volume as low as possible so as not to distract people from their cheesy pickup lines. Typically, the winning strategy for these games was to play the heck out of them to hone your skills, or just memorise how the game played out. A player’s motivation was to beat the high score, set by someone else only known by a 3-letter pseudonym. You could push your own pseudonym to the top of the leaderboard, but often you would never met the people whose scores you were conquering. And outside of hardcore obsessives, the motivation was hard to maintain. It took far too much time, effort, and cost to become good at these games.

arcade

After their coming of age in the late 70s, arcades joined the imagery of male nerd culture in our cultural consciousness, sidling up with thick glasses, buttoned shirts, and lonely nights. 1987’s Street Fighter (well, really, 1991’s Street Fighter 2, but I’ll get to that) broke that image.

Any Old Street Will Do

Street Fighter succeeded because it is a game of averages. Every design trick was pulled to strive for believability, and the subject matter is so familiar it feels like it’s been around forever. It takes 60-90s per session, meaning there is no huge time commitment, and people can easily hop in and play. It features easily recognisable (if not stereotypical) humans that move and emote like humans. It has music that almost sounds like it’s played by real instruments. And it has a simple goal: beat the other character. No need to worry about scores or abstract gameplay, or invisible rules: just beat your opponent at any cost.

I will go over how each element of the game was just flabbergastingly well-executed, but the first, and really the only one I need to talk about to explain the game’s success, is the character select screen.

SF2-characterselect

Here’s what it tells us:

  • There are characters who fight
  • There are characters from all over the world, of different nationalities, genders, and skin colours
  • You select one of those characters as your avatar
  • Your character will travel to other places in the world
  • If the second player starts playing, they will be your opponent

And one extra bit of information that isn’t apparent, but adds to this devastating mixture:

  • If the second player beats you, they keep playing where you left off

Street Fighter 2 popped the bubble on the social isolation of arcade games. The motivation was no longer high scores or having your name on a screen: it was about choosing a powerful avatar that could be you some day (a kid can dream). The stereotypical characters are entirely to the game’s appeal, as players are comfortable embody what they’re familiar with.

It was expressing yourself through combat and defending your reputation. You could fight to settle scores. You could fight to settle arguments. You could fight to prove a point. You could fight friends and rivals alike. It transformed every player into the archetype of the lone champion. And what stakes—if you lost, you lost control over the game. It became your opponent’s game, now. The only way to get it back was to win.

And it attracted non-nerds. It got to them. It was compelling, vibrant, and vicarious. You could fight other people. You could challenge them, engage with them, dominate them, or lose face to them. This prompted the odd intersection of the jockish alpha males into the nerd’s space; for once, they would drop the basketball to play one of these video games. And for once, the nerd could beat them.

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