A Dutch pro­fes­sor has spent five years and 1.25m seek­ing to an­swer a sim­ple ques­tion: should Street Fighter be con­sid­ered a mar­tial art?

EDGE - - WAY OF THE STREET FIGHTER - BY SI­MON PARKIN Il­lus­tra­tions Siku (from con­cepts by Chris Goto-Jones)

Afew years ago, dur­ing a drink-fu­elled grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony at Lei­den Univer­sity, Chris Goto-Jones, a lec­turer in com­par­a­tive phi­los­o­phy and political thought, asked a group of out­go­ing hon­ours stu­dents to iden­tify the sin­gle most im­por­tant thing they had learned dur­ing their education. “I was some­what hope­ful that their an­swers might in­clude ref­er­ences to great works of lit­er­a­ture, ex­alted philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ples, or per­haps rig­or­ous sci­en­tific method­olo­gies,” he says. It wasn’t to be. Some stu­dents joked that they could barely re­mem­ber what had hap­pened dur­ing all those in­dis­tin­guish­able semesters, with their he­do­nis­tic nights and drowsy, morn­ing-af­ter lec­tures. One stu­dent drolly turned the ques­tion around, ask­ing: “Pro­fes­sor, what do you think was the most im­por­tant thing I learned?”

A lit­tle de­spon­dently, Goto-Jones re­turned his at­ten­tion to the tin­kling cer­e­mony. Much later, a stu­dent, Donna, seem­ingly em­bold­ened by al­co­hol, re­turned to her pro­fes­sor. “I’ve thought of the an­swer,” she said. “The most im­por­tant thing I learned dur­ing the last few years is that dis­ci­pline makes us bet­ter peo­ple.” Goto-Jones, some­what re­lieved, asked her how she had come to learn the les­son. “I was an­tic­i­pat­ing per­haps at least a nod to­wards some­thing that she’d en­coun­tered in her aca­demic pro­gramme,” he re­calls. “Maybe the name of an in­spi­ra­tional Greek or Ger­man philoso­pher, a ges­ture to­wards a clas­sic text.” In­stead, the stu­dent grinned and drunk­enly replied: “I play a lot of Street Fighter IV. It’s changed my life.”

In the weeks that fol­lowed, Goto-Jones couldn’t budge the stu­dent’s re­ply from his mind. While he’s both a mar­tial-arts en­thu­si­ast and an avid player of videogames, in­clud­ing Street Fighter IV (“I would be will­ing to ad­mit that the game has taught me some things, some of which I think are sig­nif­i­cant”), he couldn’t quite be­lieve that, for Donna, Street Fighter had proven more im­por­tant, rel­e­vant and mem­o­rable than Kant’s Third Cri­tique or Plato’s Re­pub­lic. “Street

Fighter had given her in­sights into how to live, ones that she hadn’t seen in the texts of the var­i­ous dead philoso­phers whose work filled her syl­labus,” he says. “This in it­self, it seemed to me, was of quite mon­u­men­tal im­por­tance.”

Im­me­di­ately Goto-Jones wanted to know whether Donna’s ex­pe­ri­ence was unique or, if not, whether she was part of a trend, or even a move­ment, whereby peo­ple were learn­ing lessons in the vir­tual realm that were in­flu­enc­ing how they went on to live out­side of it. “I sus­pected, of course, that peo­ple to­day learn much more from videogames in gen­eral than they or their cre­ators are aware of,” Goto-Jones says. “But it was fas­ci­nat­ing to imag­ine that we’d reached the point at which Street Fighter was more for­ma­tive on peo­ple than Plato. If that was true, what was it about the game that ap­pealed so much more than th­ese tra­di­tional sources?” This begged a fur­ther ques­tion: was the way in which

Street Fighter had taught Donna the value of dis­ci­pline lim­ited to Cap­com’s game? Or do other fight­ing games, and gen­res be­yond, also ful­fil the same func­tion?

Goto-Jones, a grad­u­ate of Ox­ford, Cam­bridge and Keio univer­si­ties, and a pro­fes­so­rial re­search as­so­ciate at the Ja­pan Re­search Cen­tre at Lon­don Univer­sity, al­ready had a nat­u­ral in­ter­est in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween mar­tial arts and psy­chol­ogy. His teach­ing grades in both Sho­tokan karate and Wing Chun gave him first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the trans­for­ma­tive ef­fects that phys­i­cal mar­tial arts can have on a hu­man be­ing. It seemed plau­si­ble that the jour­ney to mas­ter a com­pet­i­tive fight­ing game, par­tic­u­larly one that draws such heavy in­flu­ence from real-world mar­tial arts (al­beit then ex­ag­ger­ated with mys­ti­cal fire­balls and physics-shank­ing ac­ro­bat­ics) might pro­vide sim­i­lar ef­fects.

The fear, how­ever, was that it was all just ro­man­tic fan­tasy, a story that Donna had told her­self to jus­tify the hours spent on a videogame de­vel­op­ing skills with no prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion out­side of the game’s re­al­ity and one that, as a videogame fan, Goto-Jones had cho­sen to be­lieve. But surely it wasn’t, he rea­soned, such an ab­surd leap of logic? Both mar­tial arts and Street Fighter re­quire con­stant prac­tice in or­der to per­fect com­plex com­bat tech­niques. “Then there’s some­thing mag­i­cal about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the an­i­ma­tion of avatars and the lo­co­mo­tive skill and con­di­tioned dex­ter­ity needed to ma­nip­u­late the avatars,” he says. “The player per­forms mo­tions that cause avatars to per­form the mo­tion­cap­tured move­ments, ones that orig­i­nated in dis­ci­plined phys­i­cal bod­ies.” It is, as he puts it, all rather po­etic.

“Mostly, I wanted to know whether Donna was re­ally a dif­fer­ent per­son be­cause of her par­tic­u­larly dis­ci­plined en­gage­ment with Street Fighter, and in what ways that dif­fer­ent per­son could be seen as ‘bet­ter’ than the pre­vi­ous Donna,” he says. “What did her train­ing regime look like? With what kind of in­ten­tion­al­ity did she ap­proach her train­ing? Did other play­ers recog­nise her ap­proach or any of its al­leged out­comes? Could mas­ter­ing Street Fighter trans­form a hu­man be­ing into a wiser, more eth­i­cal, more gen­er­ally com­pe­tent per­son?” Could the game truly fit within the long tra­di­tion of mar­tial phi­los­o­phy in East Asia?”

For most peo­ple, such ques­tions would re­main the­o­ret­i­cal and hy­po­thet­i­cal. Goto-Jones, how­ever, de­cided to for­malise a study. He came up with a name – The Vir­tual Ninja Pro­ject – and ap­plied to The Nether­lands Or­gan­i­sa­tion For Sci­en­tific Re­search, which funds high-risk, in­no­va­tive re­search projects that have the po­ten­tial to make so­cial im­pact, for a grant. “The pro­ject idea com­bined a va­ri­ety of timely is­sues,” says Goto-Jones. “Ev­ery­thing from the im­pact of dig­i­tal me­dia at a time of cri­sis in the univer­sity sys­tem, to the im­pact of the global spread of techno-cul­ture from Ja­pan, to the po­ten­tial sig­nif­i­cance of so-called ‘non­west­ern’ philo­soph­i­cal sys­tems on con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean so­ci­eties.” Goto-Jones’ hunch that there was a mean­ing­ful area of study here proved cor­rect. He was awarded a €1.25m grant – in part to in­ter­ro­gate the ques­tion of whether or not Street Fighter could be classed a mar­tial art in the ortho­dox def­i­ni­tion. “By fo­cus­ing on the self-trans­for­ma­tive po­ten­tial of Ja­panese fight­ing games, rooted in the­o­ret­i­cal mod­els drawn from the bushido tra­di­tion, this pro­ject man­aged to hit a lot of but­tons at the same time.”

Many of the mar­tial artists Goto-Jones in­ter­viewed at the start of the pro­ject con­ceded that both dis­ci­plines de­mand the rep­e­ti­tion of phys­i­cal move­ments to the point of sub­li­ma­tion. But most were scep­ti­cal of any fur­ther sim­i­lar­i­ties. “For one, there’s a com­plete ab­sence of ac­tual phys­i­cal dan­ger in Street Fighter,” Goto-Jones says. “When Chun-Li is de­stroyed by Ken, for ex­am­ple, her player isn’t left bleed­ing on the floor.” The mar­tial artists would ar­gue the ab­sence of dan­ger and stress in play­ing fight­ing games creates a vast point of dif­fer­ence to the psy­chol­ogy and prac­tice of phys­i­cal mar­tial arts.

“It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing, how­ever, that few phys­i­cal mar­tial arts ac­tu­ally place fight­ers in much phys­i­cal dan­ger in the mod­ern pe­riod,” Goto-Jones says. “The ma­jor­ity are now sports, with light con­tact and heavy safety pads; the goal isn’t to kill your op­po­nent but to touch them at spe­cific points. It’s not ob­vi­ous that the psy­cho­log­i­cal stakes are any lower in a Street Fighter com­pe­ti­tion than in a Taek­wondo com­pe­ti­tion, es­pe­cially when ev­ery­one in­volved has trained so hard and in­vested so much of their iden­tity in the prac­tice.” Some mar­tial artists even saw Goto-Jones’ ar­gu­ment as a damn­ing in­dict­ment of the state of the mod­ern mar­tial

arts. “If they’re re­ally so sani­tised, per­haps they’ve lost all their mean­ing and power to­day?”

One dif­fer­ence that’s less easy to dis­miss is the dis­par­ity be­tween the purely phys­i­cal stresses that fight­ing videogames and mar­tial arts make on their prac­ti­tion­ers. “Street Fighter isn’t nearly as phys­i­cally de­mand­ing as snake-style kung fu,” Goto-Jones says. “You hardly ever sweat play­ing games. So the ques­tion be­comes whether or not the sub­li­ma­tion of pre­cise thumb and fin­ger move­ments can be as sig­nif­i­cant in both psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal terms as the sub­li­ma­tion of the move­ments of larger limbs, such as arms and legs.”

Un­de­ni­able, how­ever, is the fact that once mas­tery of the phys­i­cal as­pect has been achieved, both fight­ing games and earnest fight­ing be­come con­tests of the mind. To find out where the sim­i­lar­i­ties lay, Goto-Jones be­gan by ex­plor­ing the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tions of Bud­dhism, es­pe­cially Zen, and their re­la­tion­ship with the trans­for­ma­tive po­ten­tials of dis­ci­plined ac­tions. He re-trans­lated the clas­sics of the bushido tra­di­tion in Ja­pan to try to un­der­stand how the leg­endary war­rior monks con­cep­tu­alised the mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance of mar­tial train­ing and com­bat. Then he per­formed a great deal of field work, trav­el­ling to Osaka and Tokyo, New York and Lon­don, mul­ti­ple times each year to in­ter­view play­ers in ar­cades to find out whether or not they be­lieved in his hy­poth­e­sis or whether “they thought it was com­pletely stupid”.

While Goto-Jones in­ter­viewed hun­dreds of play­ers and mar­tial artists (in part via a sur­vey con­ducted with

Edge read­ers in 2010), scep­tics might ques­tion how able re­spon­dents were to give an­swers that were mean­ing­fully true. For ex­am­ple, a player may be­lieve that they’re learn­ing dis­ci­pline and other valu­able lessons from videogames, but test­ing whether or not those lessons are con­se­quen­tial out­side of the con­text of the game is highly dif­fi­cult. It’s a prob­lem, in fact, that’s not lim­ited to videogame play­ers. “The prob­lem of ver­i­fi­a­bil­ity is com­mon to nearly all claims of self­trans­for­ma­tion,” Goto-Jones says. “Cer­tainly our pro­ject doesn’t con­clude that Street Fighter will make you a bet­ter per­son – only that it seems plau­si­ble that gamers can en­gage with the game in such a way that aims to­wards that out­come, one ra­tio­nalised by and con­sis­tent with a 500-year-old philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion.

“We can also show that neu­ro­log­i­cal changes can and do oc­cur in gamers, and that gamers with con­tem­pla­tive or med­i­ta­tive ap­proaches to gam­ing achieve dif­fer­ent changes than those who sim­ply play for fun or com­pe­ti­tion.” Goto-Jones has even loftier hopes for the re­sults of his re­search that re­late to his love of and, in his words, ad­vo­cacy for the medium. “It’s one thing to say that games don’t nec­es­sar­ily make peo­ple vi­o­lent, but it’s quite an­other to say that play­ing a spe­cific va­ri­ety of games brings about an eth­i­cal self-trans­for­ma­tion of a player that makes them into a bet­ter per­son,” he says.

Five years af­ter it be­gan, Goto-Jones’ work is al­most com­plete. The three PhD dis­ser­ta­tions that formed part of the fund­ing’s de­liv­er­ables are writ­ten. Goto-Jones’ find­ings will be pub­lished later this year in a book ti­tled The Vir­tual Ninja Man­i­festo (pub­lished by Row­man & Lit­tle­field) and, per­haps most fit­tingly, the univer­sity is host­ing the Vir­tual Ninja Tour­na­ment, an in­vi­ta­tional Street Fighter V com­pe­ti­tion, in The Hague in the sum­mer. For Goto-Jones, the re­sult of five years of study has been to ac­cept that the videogame medium might have the ca­pac­ity to re­place the spir­i­tual and philo­soph­i­cal func­tion of dis­ci­plined pur­suits like the mar­tial arts. If that claim seems out­landish, just wait for the combo finisher. “We might have found a way to make Street Fighter into a po­lit­i­cally rad­i­cal and eth­i­cally re­spon­si­ble so­cial move­ment,” he says.

Goto-Jones’ work has been rig­or­ous, and his pedi­gree as an aca­demic and re­searcher is unim­peach­able. For any­one who has lost a sum­mer hol­i­day to com­mit­ting the sho­ryuken mo­tion to mus­cle mem­ory, or who has learned to gracefully ac­cept a de­feat at the ar­cade as a nec­es­sary step in the life­long jour­ney of self­im­prove­ment, at least some of his study’s claims will res­onate. While some will re­main scep­ti­cal, any­one who’s felt the im­pact of time spent in a videogame’s re­al­ity can at least surely back Goto-Jones’ ad­mirable aim to find out whether games can have pos­i­tive ef­fects on the hu­man mind, and the way in which we view the world and our place in it. “As videogames be­come in­creas­ingly per­va­sive, I hope this work sig­nals the pos­si­bil­ity that we should be able to re­flect on our play in more philo­soph­i­cally so­phis­ti­cated ways,” he ex­plains. “Just as we’re all open to the pos­si­bil­ity that read­ing a great novel will make us into dif­fer­ent, per­haps even bet­ter, peo­ple, we should be able to re­flect crit­i­cally on the ways in which games can be trans­for­ma­tive be­cause of their na­ture.”

Per­haps, in the end, the mo­ti­va­tion for all this work wasn’t in prov­ing a grand philo­soph­i­cal the­o­rem, but rather in giv­ing a stu­dent his sup­port. “Ul­ti­mately, I hope we find a way to show that Donna wasn’t fool­ing her­self when she said that Street Fighter changed her life and made her into a bet­ter per­son.”

The first ver­sion of the Vir­tual Ninja Man­i­festo is avail­able to down­load in PDF form from www. bit.ly/vn­in­japdf and in iOS-friendly for­mat from www.bit.ly/vn­in­jaios

Chris Goto-Jones, pro­fes­sor of Com­par­a­tive Phi­los­o­phy & Political Thought, Lei­den Univer­sity

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