Torill Mortensen

Torill Elvira Mortensen is an associate professor in the department of Digital Design at the IT University of Copenhagen. Her research focuses on games and social media, and her most recent book is the 2015 anthology “The Dark Side of Game Play: Controversial Issues in Playful Environments.”

For the Love of Fighting Games

by Torill Mortensen

The Culture of Digital Fighting Games is a monography on 158 pages, containing 7 chapters. It presents a historical background of fighting games, an overview of current culture, a discussion of the connection between competitive play and casual play, and one chapter discussing ethnicity and gender.

Todd Harper has written a book that resonates with thorough research, love of the object, experience and interest in fighting games, and a background in the arcades he describes. From this he has built a central hypothesis about fighting games. According to Harper, the culture of current fighting games comes out of the game arcades. He describes the structure of turn-taking and the community of the arcades, and draws clear lines from the arcades to the current competitive play events. The arcade roots of fighting games have become the anchoring tropes of his book, and they function well to describe the tensions of technological change in a culture that is consistently on the cutting edge, but simultaneously surprisingly conservative.

A walk-through of arcades

In the introduction, Harper presents his project, a one-year study of fighting games, as part of which he has visited several tournaments, and interviewed ten players. To analyze this material, he draws on the theories surrounding hardcore vs casual play, leaning on Jesper Juul's work on casual play, the connection between performativity and identity, referencing Judith Butler, and play as practice, with a loose nod to Mia Consalvo's work. This leads to a five-part definition of fighting games, which works well to describe the object to us, and limit his presentation (pp. 13-14). And this is a good bridge to the next chapter, where he describes arcade play.

Harper's description of arcade play is a walk-through of research and writing on arcades in America. The authors he cites are describing the arcade as a thing of the past, as there are very few descriptions of the arcade from the period when it was a common piece of popular culture. Like so many other everyday experiences, the arcade culture was lost to the changes of society and technology before it was appreciated and properly studied and understood. What we are left with is descriptions of the arcades from people who used them, for play, for socializing, and for performance. This means that the descriptions of the arcades, as Harper finds them and presents them to us, are full of love, enthusiasm and nostalgia, and we learn about the arcades as a lost paradise of play for the authors and players who speak of it. The technological revolution that washed away the arcades did leave some physical traces though, and we get to see these, as Harper has found and presented the "arcade stick," an often self-made controlling device, which players serious about their play bring to competitions. It's built to mirror the layout of the arcade, and is, according to the players, more sensitive and precise than other input devices.

Tournaments, spectatorship and hardcore play

The second chapter grounds and justifies the hypothesis that current fighting game culture is rooted in the arcades, and Harper moves on to play practice. In this third chapter he addresses tournament play, and the hardcore/casual dichotomy starts coming into play. The different play-styles used in the competitions Harper studies are analyzed in relation to the reactions from audiences and the status different moves and avatars hold. This part is an interesting, deep description of play as spectatorship, as it describes the skill levels of the players as well as that of the audience. In order to appreciate what happens on the screen during play, the audience needs to understand it, and this understanding, while supported by commentary, is rooted in the play of the audience. And here the hardcore/casual dichotomy is brought into play, as hardcore, in this case, is how the competitive players play, carefully bound by rules in order to create a competition based on skill, dependent on a level playing field, while casual is everything else, where play is mainly for enjoyment, not for dominance.

In the next two chapters, Harper explores playing together, online and offline, and the resulting communities. Here the lines between fighting games and other digital games start blurring, both for Harper and the players. It's clear that they play different types of games, and the ludic logic of a less competitive game style is not lost on the players even if they are fans of fighting games. This is also where Harper encounters what he speaks of as bad behavior. In chapter four he describes the confessions of a player who does not play according to the ideals of the tournaments (p. 79). This leads to a discussion of the shared goals of players, which is, like most of the other discussions of the gamer culture presented in this book, both thoughtful and loving, despite the "bad" behavior of the player prompting that discussion.

Community bias

And it is at this point that the suspicion born in chapter two is sharpened. This book, published in 2014 and based on research from 2009, could probably not have been written one year later. Despite the mentions of Butler's theories of performativity, Harper does very little to uncover the roots of the toxic behavior which the game research community came to expect after the game culture uproar of 2014-2015. This does not mean he fully ignores the problem. In chapter six, "Asian Hands' and Women's Invitational," Harper discusses ethnicity and gender in the fighting game communities, and here it is clear that racism, misogyny and classism is common. In this chapter the good cheer of the inclusive fighting game community, as described in the previous chapters, falls away as a black female player describes how she has been received, from micro-aggressions in the arcades to outright aggression in play situations online and offline. This chapter does a solid job at describing the American players' exotism in their admiration of Asian players, ascribing the Asians' skills to race rather than repetition and systematic practice, their lowered expectations of white girls, who are rewarded just for being present, and the outright disgust at playing against a black woman. And it is in this chapter that it becomes fairly clear who "the players" are: American men.

This bias is visible in the nostalgia of chapter 2 if you look at who Harper cites, who describe the unified, open and welcoming arcade culture, and the lack of negative experiences, aggression or unfair play in chapters 3-5. The described culture is homogenous, and clearly a culture of participants with a surplus of time and resources. It is important to realize that this does not mean Harper is wrong or has done bad research. With his background, his point of view, and his aim of description rather than criticism, he has done a solid job reporting the culture as it is experienced by what is most likely still a vast majority of the participants. And in chapter six, where he addresses the problems of diversity, he again does a good job at showing, through interviews and observations, some of the problems we now know are common.

A snapshot of a culture

The strength of chapter six makes chapter seven fall short. After this presentation of intersectionality and identity politics, when Judith Butler is used in a general manner, without precise references, to underline the importance of performance in general, it rings hollow. Chapter seven is tricky, as the final chapter it is supposed to pull all the threads of the book together and point onwards, but it doesn't really grab hold of the main threads. Rather than a critical discussion of what hardcore play is, on the background of the culture it confirms, or a question of what values the arcade really strengthened, on the background of the lack of diversity made clear in chapter six, it becomes a quick summary of the many discussions touched upon in the book, and a few points about what can be done later.

The Culture of Digital Fighting Games: Performance and Practice, is most of all a loving homage to a culture in rapid change. It makes clear some of the challenges of the scholar studying contemporary culture, both in the problems of describing the arcade culture after it has dwindled, and in the problems of the rapid technological and cultural change that makes cultural criticism old-fashioned as it is being performed. It is still a solid discussion of one point of view, at one point of time, and as such it is both interesting and valuable.


Harper, T. (2014). The Culture of Digital Fighting Games: Performance and Practice. New York/London: Routledge

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