Debates rage about the social and political functions of videogames. Videogames allow us to enter the bodies and minds of virtual others, explore worlds that exist only in the imagination, and do things well outside the bounds of our own abilities and freedoms. Many of the repercussions of these simulative activities are unknown quantities. We know that games are a peerless teaching activity, but it’s unclear whether they’re able to teach anything other than how they are to be played.
I research what’s called procedural rhetoric. Briefly, it’s the study of expression and persuasion through rules alone. This field of inquiry finds a comfortable home in the current state of game studies and development: For the first time in history (it began sooner if you count Fluxus), we are beginning to consider the designers of games to be artists, and procedural rhetoric is the purest expression of that art. This is the study of games divorced from their original form, as folk traditions and sports without easily identifiable creators. What does procedural rhetoric have to say about sports?
Sports bring groups of people together into simulated conflict predicated on a voluntary, peaceful acquiescence to a set of arbitrary rules. At the most basic level, the procedural rhetoric of a sport is fairness. In the case of videogames, we refer to this as a game’s balance. It means that, no matter what character or weapon build you pick, you have a fighting chance. Something fun about the rhetoric of fairness is that it’s also the driving rhetoric of capitalism and of democracy. We know, from experience with the latter social structures, that this fairness is built upon innumerable ideologies.
The interesting thing about a “fair” system isn’t its creator’s expressive goal. It’s what people do to game that system: to figure out how it’s broken, to exploit its cracks and assumptions, and to thus change how, from that point forward, everyone else has to think about navigating that system. This is how sports developed and evolved before there were game designers. And it’s how competitive videogames, or e-sports, change in the hands of their players away from their original designs. Somebody finds an “unbeatable” strategy or innovative tactic, and an entire community of players scramble to even the odds for themselves.
We call a game a sport when we begin to recognize its players, not its designers, as artists. The fairness of sports, like the fairness of any other designed system, only holds true assuming the equality of its participants. This fairness is an illusion that we hold simply for the pleasure of seeing it shattered. And we call this shattering a flourish.
Tokido becomes Akuma, an alternate reality mind game.