Philosony - Ryu's Episteme



This Thanksgiving I want to give the bulk of my thanks to one company for helping me answer a question that has been bothering me for over 15 years. The company? Capcom. The question? Put simply, do I really have preternatural Street Fighter skills?

I still remember the first time I saw a SF2 arcade machine. It was at Walley World Six Flags Magic Mountain in the Spring of 1991, and the first character I chose was Dhalsim. The inspired lovechild of Iyengar and Reed Richards got me hooked and my freshman year of high school was a non-stop deluge of fierces, roundhouses, and quarters. There was no practice mode, no free play, and no internet to turn to for tips and tricks. Becoming a BAMF in a fighting game back then took nonstop on-the-job training. And I trained well - so well, in fact, that I soon ran out of people willing to sacrifice their money for my amusement. Even when the home version arrived my friends soon tired of me whupping on them. Being able to defeat them with my eyes closed probably didn't help. The thought of being a big fish in a small pond never occurred to me. All I knew was that I had a gift and no one could prove me wrong.* Would that natural talent hold up if I ever faced real competition?

Let me come back to that because this post isn't about my skills (or the lack thereof). What makes Street Fighter special to me is how I've managed to excel despite lacking the technical knowledge and strategy that is common today. Some jargon might be in order here. One of the primary fields within philosophy is something called epistemology - the study of knowledge. What counts as knowledge, what does the term mean, and how do we know when we know something? It's a fairly frustrating endeavor that typically leads to the conclusion that the only thing I know with 100% unflagging certainty is that I exist (the pastiche "I think, therefore I am", or cogito ergo sum if you really want to clear out the bar). The minute we start asking questions about what knowledge is we realize that we have a big problem in English because there are many different ways that we use "to know". There's your basic factual knowledge (I know that Ryu and Ken had the same teacher), practical knowledge (I know how to counter Vega's dives), and acquaintance knowledge (I know who Akuma is) among others.

Of these distinctions the difference between practical and factual (or technical) knowledge is most important here. We can distinguish them by referring to knowing "how" (practical) and knowing "that" (factual). For example, I know that a dragon punch is done by smoothly and rapidly pressing F,D,DF and a punch button. But as you probably recall, factual knowing, knowing that it's done this way, is a far cry from being able to successfully execute it. Knowing how to do a dragon punch means pulling it off in-game, ideally at will. Moreover, it isn't necessary to have the factual knowledge of a dragon punch to have the practical knowledge. Early on I used to achieve my rising dragon fists with a double fireball motion. It got the job done (I knew how in the sense that I could do it) even if I didn't have accurate factual knowledge of the move (I didn't know that there were only 3 direction inputs).

Over the years I spent time learning the tekkenical aspects of other virtual fighters, but my knowledge of SF stayed purely practical, decidedly old school. Concepts like buffering, frame counts, or priority don't exist in my Shadaloo lexicon. I saw the term "Meaty Attack" for the first time looking at the game info screen of SSF2THDR. Don't get me wrong, I understand the need for game play analysis and obtuse technical knowledge at high levels of play. That becomes a fact of life in any game or sport. But there's something pure about instinct driven play and learning from experience rather than from gamefaqs. I learned the hard way (with many a wasted quarter) not to jump over Dhalsim's fireballs unless you wanted a heel to the chin, and that was how I measured the caliber of my soul. I know. Three bad puns. Let it sink in. I'm not apologizing.

Nor am I alone in thinking there might be something lost when a game gets too technical. Just a couple years ago infamous chess master Bobby Fischer lamented the state of modern chess, saying that a novice today could beat past grand masters because so much of the modern game depends on memorized openings. This highly technical aspect of the game diminishes the creativity that characterized many past chess greats. Can the same be said of a game like Street Fighter? Is high level play an exercise in reflexes and internalized technical statistics rather than a creative battle of wits?

Think about any directly competitive endeavor in which you excel. Who is a more difficult opponent, another high level but ultimately less skilled player, or an intermediate one? In my experience the intermediate players are harder to beat because, well, they're unpredictable. An intermediate player may not know better than to try high risk, low payout moves, but if the high level player doesn't expect them (because who in their right mind, you might think, would do that?) they might succeed. Perhaps if those intermediate players continue to improve without falling into the technical ruts of their betters they can take the game, any game, in a new direction.

So now, the challenge question that I'm sure you've suffered through this entire piece to have answered. Do I really have preternatural Street Fighter II skills? Of course not. Don't get me wrong, I've held my own and am fairly confident that I could trounce my share of trash-talking rappers, but I've met my match on more than a few occasions. I suppose it's far past time I hit the books and actually learn what a meaty attack is, even if a little vegetarian part of me dies inside doing it. What do you think folks? Is it essential to master both the technical and practical aspects of games to compete these days? Or is there still room for untrained, natural talent in the vicious and cutthroat online world?

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*Alright, so I probably wasn't really the best arooound, but time has a way of altering memory in extreme ways.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.