Digital Kayfabe: The Sport of Performance in Wrestling Video Games

In professional wrestling, “kayfabe” was once an insider term for the fictional reality of the in-ring product. Allegedly carnival lingo for “be fake,” kayfabe was once the business’s most sacred law, as it protected the financial stakes on which performers relied. So critical was this rule that when the heroic, masked Mr. Wrestling survived a 1975 plane crash, he fudged his identity and returned to the ring, still seriously injured, rather than admit he’d been flying with some of his most hated enemies against the norms of the day. Although kayfabe collapsed in the 1990s, it lives on today within wrestling videogames. The WWE2K series is explicitly packaged and marketed like the Madden of wrestling games, releasing annually with updated rosters, hyper-detailed models, and gameplay and aesthetics that fetishize authentic devotion to the source. But while WWE 2K17 is a sports game, professional wrestling is not a sport. The attraction developed in carnivals over a century ago precisely because “real” wrestling was considered too dull to draw crowds. What audiences see in the ring today is a carefully crafted dance, with each step of choreography explicitly tuned to evoke a particular emotional response. Wrestling games therefore exist somewhere between sport and performance. Designers have reverse-engineered a sport from wrestling’s heightened, flatly unrealistic combat. Painless maneuvers wrestlers use for aesthetic reasons can critically injure in a digital ring. Menus burst with arcane meters breaking wrestlers down with intense granularity, like separate hit point meters for each of a wrestler’s limbs. Players are not experiencing fidelity to a sport, but rather navigating the implicit structures of performance as a sport and, with digital matchmaking, using mastery of these now-actual rules in authentic competition against others. Ian Bogost suggests that sports video games are not merely simulation of a sport, but a legitimate method of playing, separating the rules of the game from the physical expression of those rules. (Bogost 129-141). If true, does wrestling’s translation into a sports game complicate the genre’s meaning? Has new media, after killing off kayfabe in the real world, finally granted truth to wrestling’s big lie? Bogost, Ian. How to Talk about Videogames. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2015. Print.

Curator's Note

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