How would you like to get hit in the head? No? Well, for some that’s part of the thrill of a fight. And it’s about more than that. For this episode, we’re talking about fighting games with Guilty Gear player and martial artist Patrick Miller. On top of that, we ask psychologist Dr David Matsumoto (who also happens to be a judo coach) why some people enjoy the risk of the ring, and what judo players or boxers do to prepare themselves mentally for a big fight.
Click “more” for a full list of links and transcription.
One research paper on this topic – Sport Psychology in Combat Sport
Interview music is Twisted by Kevin MacLeod
SFX are from Guilty Gear Xrd Sign
Intro and outro music from Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 suoundtrack
Dr David Matsumoto, psychologist: Fights are dynamic, right? Things change second to second and in split seconds.
Ramlethal Valentine (soundbite): My name is Ramlethal Valentine. I declare war on all the world.
Dr David Matsumoto: Basically, one needs to be able to think critically while… your heart is pumping at 200 beats a minute.
Ramlethal Valentine (soundbite): All those unworthy to stand upon it will be destroyed.
Dr David Matsumoto: No normal mortal can do that. You’re essentially mentally dying when you’re at that point.
Ramlethal Valentine (soundbite): The future… is the past.
Dr David Matsumoto: You have to train people to think critically, on the fly, in the moment, while their bodies are amped.
Brendan Caldwell, host: Hello, and welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask smart people stupid questions inspired by video games. I’m Brendan, and I’m here to underhandedly teach you things through the lens of popular video games, with help from experts, both of real life topics and experts from the gaming world as well. This time we are talking about fighting games, whether that’s Street Fighter or Tekken or whatever. We always have a central question for the show and for this episode it is: why do some people like to fight? So stick around and you will hear from a psychologist who also happens to be a fully fledged judo coach… someone who will help us explore our question for this episode and maybe tell us a little bit more around that as well. But first, before we get to any of that, let me introduce my guest co-host this time, it’s fighting game extraordinaire Patrick Miller.
Patrick Miller, fightman: Hey, what’s up, everybody. Nice to meet you. And thanks for having me on the show, Brendan.
Brendan: For anyone who doesn’t know you, you play a lot of a particular fighting game, Guilty Gear, which is… it’s a fairly popular 2D fighter. You stream that and you help organize beginner competitions for players of that as well. Right?
Patrick: That’s right. I mean, I’ve had a long and rather storied history in fighting games. I started out more with Street Fighter and Capcom Vs SNK 2 and that kind of stuff, but I’ve always played… a wide variety of fighting games. And for the, I guess the most recent story arc in my fighting game career, has largely been focused on Guilty Gear.
Brendan: Yeah. We normally explain a particular game at the top of the show. I’m going to assume a lot of our listeners already understand fighting games as a genre, but maybe for some folks who have been absent from it for awhile, who might think of fighting games as simply Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, you can tell them, that’s not all there is out there in the genre, right?
Patrick: Yeah, absolutely not. So, you can think of fighting games in the same way that you can think of fighting in a movie or cartoons, anime, that kind of stuff. Right. Sometimes what you’re looking at is something that resembles a Kung Fu movie, right? Something you’d reasonably expect in like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, that kind of stuff. And sometimes you see… fighting games that look more like Dragon Ball or anime levels of power, right. Where people are getting smacked across the world. You have, you have big explosions. You have all kinds of fancy abilities, that kind of stuff. That tends to be the zone that Guilty Gear plays in. So Guilty Gear is really fast. It has a lot of wild, pretty wacky character designs. The character I like is a Ninja who’s also something of a weeb and he’s the president of his own kingdom. He’s a former drug addict. Like… he’s got a stacked character bio before we even start talking about his moveset, where he can teleport around, he can cling on walls, he can shoot projections of himself to trap you. All kinds of stuff, right. And he’s actually probably one of the less weird characters in that cast. There’s one in Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 named “Bedman” who is actually asleep, but he’s in a bed that kind of does the fighting for him.
Brendan: Yeah. I see you really often trying to push folks to try out this game. Maybe give me the one unique thing about it for anyone who doesn’t follow.
Patrick: The reason that I push people towards Guilty Gear honestly, is that it’s hard as f***. Like, there’s just, there’s just a lot of stuff. I mean, fighting games are all generally on the harder end in terms of inputs, in terms of speed, that kind of thing. Right. It’ll test your reaction times. It’ll test your ability to understand these pretty intricate systems and attack interactions… All fighting games do this to different degrees. Guilty Gear just does it a lot more and a lot more deeply than most other fighting games do. And for me… as a fighting game player, but also as a martial artist, I like to sink my teeth into stuff that feels like it’s worthy of, you know, a lot of time, right? We’re talking tens of thousands of hours spent mastering a thing for pretty much no reason other than it makes us feel good to be good at things. Right? And I find that that for me is… the purest and the most compelling source of gratification in fighting games. This is the thing that I think fighting games do better than any other games genre. I think Guilty Gear does it better than most, if not all games in the genre.
Brendan: It sounds like you want to give them a baptism by fire. Like, don’t start at these easy fighting games. Just go straight to Guilty Gear.
Patrick: Yeah. I mean, it’s… “Easy” is… it kind of depends on your frame of reference, right? I find that Guilty Gear actually does often provide a better newer player experience than the more simple fighting games. Because the fact is that all of these fighting games have incredibly long and incredibly deep learning curves. It’s just the set of things that you’re learning changes from game to game. Frankly, I find that people can often be intimidated by the process of getting good at something – and specifically the process of being bad at something and then getting good at something. And so what I’ve noticed in myself, and I think with other people as well, is that Guilty Gear and fighting games in general, but especially Guilty Gear kind of shows you that if you can get good at this, you can get good at anything. You can take the approach that you use to learn how to play Guilty Gear. And you can…f apply it to all kinds of skills in life, which is really cool for video games.
Brendan: We’re going to chat more about your fighting experience, your own experience shortly, but for now we wanted to know: what makes a person enjoy fighting? What kind of person seeks one-on-one physical conflict in real life, not just in games. So to find out we spoke to Dr. David Matsumoto, a psychologist in California who has not only studied the psychology of fighting, but has been a judo fighter himself and a judo coach as well. Here’s what he had to tell us.
Brendan: Firstly, could you please introduce yourself to our lesson?
Dr David Matsumoto: My name is David Matsumoto. I’m a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and the director of a company called Humintell. I am also a judo player. I’ve done judo for 54 of my 61 years here. I’m also a former national coach for the United States for USA judo. And I’ve been a coach at several Olympic games and a bunch of world championships and all kinds of things like that.
Brendan: Is judo something that you’ve always practiced alongside your studies and research?
Dr David Matsumoto: Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve done judo long before I was a psychologist. I started judo when I was seven years old. I hated it. Until I was about 15 or 16 or so… And then I loved it. I didn’t become a psychologist until I was a psychology major in the university 40 years ago. And for the longest time I used to do research in psychology in my academic life that was divorced from my judo life. Because I wanted to keep them separate. But at one point they came together and I’ve kind of put them together ever since.
Potemkin (soundbite): Engaging hostile.
Brendan: Can you tell us… we’ve got a question every episode on our podcast, and this week it’s: why do some people like to fight?
Dr David Matsumoto: I think the psychology of combat artists and judo players and fighters like that really depends on the degree to which they’ve been trained to do what they’re doing, and the level of fighting or competition that they do. Because if you’re talking about a trained fighter in judo, that’s a very different individual than a person who is a beginner or even a hobbyist who goes frequently. And so there’s a big, big difference. But I mean, on your other question about why some people like to do that, I mean… the truth is some people are just in-born to seek such kinds of adventures, and fighting or martial arts and other kinds of things like that satisfy an internal need. For many people that internal need is in-born. So we can satisfy that in-born need from either finding a martial art or diving or parachute jumping or whatever… mountain climbing or whatever that might be. And then for some people… it’s a learned thing. I think for myself… to tell you the truth, I don’t think I was ever an in-born fighter, although I think I probably had some of the seed of “not liking to lose at things”, you know? And so it’s whatever seed that people have come into the world with, that is either blossomed in some way or nourished in some way or not.
Brendan: Most of us recoil from pain, from danger, naturally. Is there anything that makes fighters different in terms of their character? Or is it just getting over fear?
Dr David Matsumoto: Of course. I mean, there is a common thing between all fighters, whether they’re trained or… regardless of the degree they’re trained to, right. Everyone’s got to get over their fear or apprehension or worry or whatever adjective you want to call it. And of course the degree to which you get over it is part of the training. But once you step into the dojo, or once you step onto a mat, once you step into a ring… you’ve taken the first step of getting over it, right? So that’s why I always say that the biggest battle for example, for parents who have kids who do judo – it’s probably true in other martial arts too – it’s getting them to our door. Because once they get to our door, they’ve already taken that step, right? It’s really about overcoming that fear. And everybody’s got to do that, whether you’re trained or not. I think when you’re trained, you are more used to it. You’re habituated to it. And so you feed off that fear and you can then pivot and turn that into something else. You know, you leverage that.
Brendan: In fighting video games. Psychology is very important because it’s all about what move you make versus what move your opponent makes. There’s a bit of light game theory involved and trying to read your opponent. But why is psychology important in real life combat sports? I’m talking at the professional level. Isn’t a fight all about what the body can do? Not the mind?
Dr David Matsumoto: Oh my God. No. I mean… I hear a lot about how everything is mental or 95% is mental… That kinda is not true because, you’re right… that’s a statement that builds upon the fact that people have been physically honed to a certain point where they can move instinctually. So there’s no question about that. There’s no question about what you just suggested… You take a player going to the world championships or the Olympics in judo or any sport. You know, there’s so much physical training involved that you’re exactly right. People are running on instinct. You’re right. But you never separate the mental from the physical, even throughout all of that physical training, you’re building the mental strength and the resilience to get through all kinds of things that occur. So when you’re talking about top level competition, everybody’s physically trained well, everybody’s at peak performance level. Nobody will guess, everybody can instinctually move in a certain way. So then what differentiates them, at that situation, often is how well they deal with the pressure.
Potemkin (soundbite): Try to stay conscious!
Brendan: The pressure that you’re talking about there, the stress that a fighter might face before the match, the stress they’ll face during the fight… Why is this such an important thing to focus on?
Dr David Matsumoto: It’s not important to focus on the stress, it’s important to focus on the ways in which one has developed to regulate or manage that stress. But what happens is when you’re training, you’re developing ways dealing with that stress. It could be just breathing. It could be just focusing on something else in your opponent. So whatever… has worked for you in the training to get to that point, that’s what you’re focusing on.
Brendan: What are some of the things a fighter might do before a match to psychologically prepare themselves, apart from those things?
Dr David Matsumoto: In my experience, the best thing that a person can do to prepare for the fight is to have a pre-fight sequence that does several things. It allows them to focus on the pre-fight sequence. You know, it’s like a ritual of some sort, that also brings their body and their physiology up to the point where they’re ready to fight. 25-26 years ago when I was at the US Olympic committee -the Olympic training center – we could clock the athletes’ heart rates at 200 beats a minute. And you’re not going to take somebody who’s been sitting around thinking about things to go out into a match and go from a resting state of 60 to 200 and be functional. They just can’t. You gotta bring your physiology up to that point, so that you’re walking into the match, not at 200, but you know, close to it, so that the change in physiology is not that different. So going back to your question, what we want to do is develop pre-fight sequences, whatever ritual that is. You want to do that over a 20-30 minute period, where it’s a series of exercises, so that you’re not doing something new at the time of competition. So now we’ve been training something for a month, two months or something like that. Then it’s a pre-competition routine that gets our bodies ready. And by doing that, you get our minds ready. You know, when we hit competition day, you can engage in that routine and concentrate on that routine. Now, you don’t have to be worrying about the other fighters. You don’t have to work, be worried about the crowd. You don’t have to be worried about the sounds around you and all that kind of stuff. And so it’s that. That’s what I mean by a pre-fight routine.
Sin Kiske (soundbite): Now I’m all fired up! Come on, let’s go again.
Announcer: Sin wins!
Brendan: I watch some fighting game tournaments. These are the video games, I mean. Some players will listen to music to pump themselves up before a fight, for example. Is that something that real life fighters would or should do in real life?
Dr David Matsumoto: A lot of real life fighters do listen to music while they are engaging in their pre-fight routine. And in between. After you’ve done your pre-flight routine – you’re not walking straight into a match. And so a lot of players use some kind of music. They find their tunes. However, there are people who don’t want that, there are people who want to just be by themselves and sit in a quiet place. There’s other people who don’t want the music. They want to be sitting around with their friends and chatting… in my experience, everybody’s really different. And every athlete I’ve trained, I need to learn… what the routine is that optimizes their performance for themselves. And sometimes they don’t know it. And so there’s a lot of… learning curve that occurs in training and in little competitions before the big one, so that we can learn what is optimal for that player. Then we can adopt it and just keep using it.
Brendan: Did you have a certain routine yourself whenever you competed? Like, did you listen to a certain song?
Dr David Matsumoto: Now you’re talking about 40 years ago and yeah, I had the music thing for myself too. But you know, 40 years ago, there’s no such thing as ear pods. That means… Sony Walkman, I think… had not yet come out when I was still competing. So like, again, in my day, there’s no putting in your earphones and listening to music, but everybody had something
Brendan: During a fight, though, how can someone be clear-headed? There’s so much going on, it happens so quickly. Is there any way for fighters to cope with that or do most fighters just have to rely on the instinct or the training and the conditioning?
Dr David Matsumoto: Well, it’s both. I mean, fights are dynamic, right? Things change second to second and in split seconds. At one point you may be on top of the match… and [in] the next half a second, you’re way behind. That’s kind of the way a lot of these matches go. And basically one needs to be able to think critically while your body, your heart is pumping at 200 beats a minute. Again, nobody can do that. No normal mortal can do that. You have to train people to think critically, on the fly, in the moment, while their bodies are amped.
Brendan: How can you practice controlling those emotions? Or how do you simulate the mental demands of a real fight?
Dr David Matsumoto: You know how you simulate the mental demands of a real fight? Have somebody do physical exercise that brings their heart rate up to 200 beats a minute – and it’s impossible for a novice, right? I mean, even at 200 beats a minute, we’re talking about well-trained athletes… The problem is just bringing them up. No one can learn anything. You know… you’re essentially mentally dying when you’re at that point. You gotta take months to keep bringing people up to that level so that they habituate to it physically, as well as mentally. At that point, you can start training them to think different ways… and intervening in their process. But until they’ve habituated, physically and mentally, to being at that level, at their max level, for some sustained amount of time. It’s really impossible to – in my experience – it’s impossible to train that in.
Brendan: When you say “intervene”, what do you mean? Do you just stop them and say, okay, now you should think about doing this move or…?
Dr David Matsumoto: So if there was a mistake, you stop the process or – there’s many ways to do this – but one way is to stop the process, have them think that through, have them think what happened, what was it feeling like? What could they do differently, blah, blah, blah. And then you get them to go back. Get back in and try it another way… then drill that scenario, right? Bring their heart rates up and drill the new scenario. Because nobody can do new scenarios for the first time when your heart rate is going like that. Another thing to do is, even away from training, part of training is video review, right? So you’re doing video review and you’re getting people to think critically about what they could do differently… to be more effective. So you build the schemata, the cognitive schemata in their head of what it is, so that you can refer to it when you’re in the training situation.
Guilty Gear soundbite: So it seems. I think one of us is just unlucky.
Brendan: We’ve talked about getting into the right frame of mind if you’re about to enter the ring, but there’s no magic formula to thinking yourself to victory, is there? Is there any psychologist’s trick that we just don’t know about that we as video game players might be able to harness?
Dr David Matsumoto: Oh my God, no… I’m so sorry to say, but no. And in fact, you bring up an interesting point about the difference between research and application. I mean, when I was training the Olympic… the national teams, one of the things that the psychologists advised us at that time was to do a lot of mental energy…
Brendan: Mental imagery, when you say that, that’s just imagining yourself holding the trophy or with your hands raised in the air, after having won the fight you’re about to enter?
Dr David Matsumoto: Yeah, it’s… essentially, that’s what it is. I mean… there’s a lot of different types of mental imagery, right? People can mentally image training sequences, people can mentally image doing different things tactically. You hear about those basketball players, mentally imaging themselves to do a hundred free throws and getting a hundred free throws in all the time. And you know, mental imagery is great… but you gotta place it, put it into its place because it doesn’t matter how many times you think you can imagine yourself on the podium. If you can’t function when your heart is beating 200 beats a minute, nothing is going to work. I mean, it just doesn’t happen. So once you get people there, sure… use mental imagery there, but there’s no magic mental pill that one can magically go from zero to the best. If there is one, please let me know and I’d like to take a couple.
Bedman (soundbite): It’s never going to matter how much you want it, when you’re up against someone who can kill you with a sneeze.
Brendan: How big a factor is motivation during a fight? If I’m playing a fighting game to have fun, I’m not really caring about winning any of my matches, is that gonna go better for me? Or is it going to make me complacent?
Dr David Matsumoto: Well, motivation is everything. If you’re not motivated, you’re not going to convince yourself that I want to go back to put myself in that 200 heartbeats a minute. I mean… it’s not easy, but yeah, you’re right. If you’re not motivated to win, then don’t expect to win. Now, what’s really interesting, I think, is that some people do have – even who are really trained – some people do have some kind of an unconscious block to wanting to be successful. And there is a situation that I think some kind of psychological analysis or intervention may be able to help that.
Brendan: You mean that some people might have a nagging thought, that they never really addressed, that they’re not going to be able to be the champion? They’re not going to be able to lift that trophy? It’s like the reverse of the mental image.
Dr David Matsumoto: Yeah. Yes, I think so. I think that exists in some people. They may not admit it, but yeah, I think that exists.
Brendan: When I lose a match in a fighting game sometimes I get frustrated. I get annoyed. I feel embarrassed. My pride is wounded. I might shout. You know, in a real life combat sport, those emotions are greatly magnified. What can anyone do about that emotional fallout? And how… what can I do to stop myself from bursting into tears when I lose a fight in Tekken?
Dr David Matsumoto: Well, I think that there’s little to stop what you’re going to… what reactions you’re going to have. The immediate reactions are the immediate reactions, and they’re going to be what they’re going to be. I think the real issue is after you’ve had the immediate reaction, the next day or the next week, or however long you’re going to go through that… The question is, what do you do at that point? Do you pick yourself up? Do you reappraise? Do you want to go back in, find ways to be effective and successful, or not? I mean, I think that’s really where the keys of success or not are.
Millia Rage (soundbite): Why don’t you quit?
Dr David Matsumoto: Now what’s interesting to me is I always think that it’s interesting to see… what those immediate reactions are. Because those who are angry after they lose are eventually… essentially are different than those who are sad after they lose. And in my experience, anecdotally, those who get angry after they lose, generally get better and become more successful later on. Those who are sad after they lose, generally do not. I mean, in general, in generalities. One of the reasons why, is because anger is about goal obstruction. So when you lose, losing was obviously an obstruction to a goal. Sadness is about loss. And the focus on sadness is oneself. And so if your focus is on oneself, you may or may not want to get better, but… if your focus is on the obstruction, then you want to get over the obstruction. And so, again, in general, in my experience, people who are getting angry or frustrated that they lost… generally will find ways to get better and become successful, more than those who get sad afterwards.
Brendan: That’s good to know whenever I yell.
Dr David Matsumoto: Yeah. Um, good luck with that. But again, it comes back to what you do later on, right? One can then be irate and continue to be irate. A lot of people then say: “Oh, the referee blew the call. Oh, my uniform was like this. Oh, that other guy did something else. Oh, blah, blah, blah.” And they can maintain their anger like that. But that doesn’t do anything either. At some point in order to get better, one has to turn one’s own thinking into “how can I be better?” Not “what did everybody else do that made me fail?” How can I be better? What’s under my control to get better? And what can I do to make that better? That’s probably true, regardless of whatever you’re talking about, whether it’s gaming or judo or writing a paper or doing anything.
Brendan: Dr. Matsumoto thank you very much for joining us.
Dr David Matsumoto: It was my pleasure. I hope it was useful.
Ky Kiske (soundbite): Sol, victory is mine.
Brendan: That was Dr. David Matsumoto, psychologist and former judo coach. If you would like to hear a slightly longer version of that interview, you can find that at patreon.com/heylesson, where subscribers for $2 a month or more will get access to longer unabridged interviews with all of our experts that we speak to. So if that, or the possibility of video updates, behind the scenes stuff, or a bonus episode every month, interests you – just go to patreon.com/heylesson or click the links in the show notes below. Patrick, what did you make of that interview? Was it okay? I was worried when I sent it to you. “Oh, no. Patrick’s probably heard all this before.”
Patrick: As someone who has spent almost as much time playing IRL fighting games or martial arts, as I have playing virtual fighting games, you kind of hear a pretty similar set of takes. It was actually really interesting to hear the interview coming from a judo coach specifically, because judo is a very different martial art and offers different rewards. Like, if I look at judo as a game designer, and also as someone who is a longtime Brazilian jiu jitsu player… and for those who don’t know, Brazilian jiu jitsu and judo are very similar martial arts. In some respects, we share a lot of the same techniques and a lot of the same strategies, but the rule sets are so different that they end up encouraging a very different attitude and a very different experience. My wife is also a judo player actually, and I tease her about it sometimes because it is a really emotional sport. It is very explosive. And when it comes to the complexity of a grappling, especially stand-up grappling, judo is really cool because it compresses a lot of complexity into what is often very short, fast moments, because the match often ends the moment one player hits the ground. And so when you’re talking about the psychology of martial arts from a judo coach specifically, you’re going to get a different take than if you asked a Muay Thai fighter or a mixed martial artist or Brazilian jiu jitsu or so on and so forth. So I thought it was actually super cool to listen to that interview and hear it from, specifically, a judo player.
Brendan: He said, some people would have a pre-fight routine. That’s something that they should try to set up. Do you have any pre-fight routine before a session of Guilty Gear. Any music that you listen to pump yourself up?
Patrick: So music, not so much. There are definitely players in our local scene who will listen to music to pump themselves up. For me, actually, I guess it might be the Guilty Gear menu theme, because that’s the intro queued for my stream. That kind of puts me in a nice place, because you’re going to be in the menu before going into the match, anyway. It just kind of resets me. But actually what I do is, I’ll usually try and warm myself up about 45 minutes before the match, like physically. By which I mean, I’ll do jumping jacks or burpees, or I’ve got… a punching bag at my house. So I’ll just get a couple light rounds in because I need to get my blood flowing and just sitting down and playing in training mode won’t necessarily do that. So I usually try and start by warming up my body and my heart. And then I’ll get ideally like 15 to 20 minutes in training mode, just practicing my stuff.
Brendan: This is dedication. This is like real life body dedication to a video game. Dr. Matsumoto says that he doesn’t believe that he was a born fighter. He didn’t have that desire to fight inherently, but he might’ve just disliked losing. Is there any other trait common to fighters, do you think, or even fighting game players?
Patrick: Certainly disliking losing can be a really strong motivation. Especially when you’re looking at competitive people, right. And competitive fighters, because there are lots of people who play fighting games or do martial arts and are plenty passionate about it, but don’t necessarily compete. Right? And the kind of discipline, the kind of motivation you need to do this competitively is really where you have to not like losing… And in that case… dislike losing so much that you will push yourself harder. You’ll use those feelings that come out of it to work harder. Like, I don’t enjoy losing, but it’s not as strong a motivator. I tend to be more motivated by the process of gaining mastery and gaining insight. When I can understand a martial art or a fighting game better, and I can feel my growth. That’s actually a bigger motivation to me than the loss from competing. So I find that my motivation to improve doesn’t necessarily carry me as hard as someone who gets super frustrated about losing, but it ends up being a lot more sustainable for me.
Brendan: Dr. Matsumoto has been a coach and you’re, I guess, something of a coach yourself, because you’ve run these tournaments for beginner players. You make videos about fighting games that are very beginner friendly. Is there anything he said that carries across the disciplines so to speak? Or is it, is it actually comical to consider what we do with our hands on a joystick as being similar to what fighters do in the ring?
Patrick: As someone who has also coached martial arts, I was a boxing coach and I’ve taught jiu jitsu before. Yeah… I don’t think there’s any disparity between the two. Realistically, there are all kinds of fighting in the world and they’re all kind of real and kind of fake in some ways, right? In judo – that is kind of “fake” fighting. Cause you’re not allowed to punch anybody, right? And Brazilian jiu jitsu – same thing, right? Fighting games, they take away the pain element. You don’t have to worry about getting hurt by the other person physically when you’re playing a fighting game. But fundamentally… the tension in a martial art match or the tension in a fighting game match is basically the same thing. I want to do something because it feels good. I want to press this series of buttons, or… I want to execute this series of moves with my body because it feels good. But there’s a problem. And that problem is the other person doesn’t want me to do it to them. So I need to do it to them before they do what they want to do to me. Right? In fighting games, you replace the physical pain of getting hit, or getting thrown, getting choked, whatever, with having the thing you want to do interrupted. And I’m sure everyone who’s ever touched a fighting game can relate to this, right? Other games are much more flexible about allowing you to get into the state of flow, where you’re seeing your actions have effects. That let you initiate other actions. In fighting games, you’re constantly fighting for the right to actually play the video game. And it… frankly, I see people do better with pain than I do with frustration. Like, that pain is something just like any other negative stimulus, right? Pain is something that you can eventually learn to deal with. I remember when I first got started boxing, I was scared of getting hit. And then I got hit a couple of times. I realized it’s not actually that big a deal.
Brendan: [laughing] It’s more annoying to have somebody interrupt your turn in a combo…?
Patrick: Yeah. Cause like… when you get hit by a good punch – and I realize not everyone here feels this way – but when you get hit by a good punch… with me? I will usually smile. I’ll be like, “yo, that, that was well done. You earned that hit, the follow through was…” Even when you’re on the receiving end of a punch, there’s still a sense of satisfaction to it. You’re like, “Oh man, that was awesome. I would like to do that to you.” But when you’re getting hit in a fighting game, you’re just watching your avatar get kind of beat helplessly until the string is over. Right? And I play a super squishy Ninja character, right? He’s got the lowest health in the game and he’s got these pathetic cries like, “Oh no, no, no” when he’s getting hit. That feels terrible.
Brendan: David talks about how professionals, when they’re fighting, their heart rate is flying. It’s like 200 beats a minute. And he says that it’s impossible to think critically under that psychological duress. Because fighting games don’t have that pain element you’re talking about, do you think they have an advantage here because obviously you’re not exercising your body? You don’t feel that pain. That must allow for a clearer head during a fight, right?
Patrick: Yes and no. So some of this I think actually is a product of a Dr. Matsumoto situated knowledge in judo. There is absolutely no time to work, to think about anything, because throws are explosive and they happen really fast. So judo matches [are] often two players already having their muscle memory trained to act faster than they could reasonably think… Brazilian jiu jitsu can be a lot slower in certain moments. And so you actually do have time to think about stuff a little bit more. And it’s the same thing in fighting games, right? Some fighting games are so explosive that most of what you’re doing is operating off of training. That’s been imprinted in your brain and in your hands so hard that it might as well be instinct. Right? And so your ability to change a strategy or to reflect in the course of a match is really, really low. And that’s why you see players go back to like the character select screen and then pick the same character in between the games. Right. It’s because they’re giving themselves time to think because they couldn’t think in the match itself. But yeah, the specific phenomenon that you’re describing is absolutely a thing. And that’s part of training for competition specifically… you have to be able to operate faster. And giving yourself time to think is… it’s a luxury that few people can actually afford in either fighting games or real fighting.
Brendan: It makes sense to me, now that you say that. I’ve seen in fighting game tournaments, like, I’ve watched some Tekken tournaments and players will, like you say, swap out to the main menu as if they’re going to choose another character or try to switch it up and then they’ll just go right back in.
Brendan: I never thought that that’s just because they need some time to think about what their next strategy is going to be.
Patrick: And we’ve seen players get better about managing their mental state. Tokido is a professional Street Fighter player who actively exercises in addition to playing fighting games. We see this with some of the Tekken players too. Like, Jeondding has a great gym routine from what I understand. And in getting better control of their bodies, they’re also better able to sustain those high heart rates and… more easily able to recover. So you’ll listen… you’ll actually see high level players often at the menu screen in between a match, they’ll take their pulse and they’ll check, they’ll see, “okay, how fast is this going? We’ll take some deep breaths, maybe get a sip of water. And then go back in.” Fighting games are very communicative. It’s you and the other player kind of developing this rhythm, developing this flow to a match, right. Something which you would see less of in judo again, because it’s so explosive. But it’s really common in something like Muay Thai or a striking sport, where the match is kind of dictated as a rhythmic exchange between both players. And in fighting games, the same thing happens. It’s just often only in the heads of the two players. Right? And so taking a break in between can be a chance to kind of interrupt that conversation.
Brendan: At one point he was saying, there can be people with this unconscious block to wanting to succeed or win a fight, almost like they can’t imagine that win. Have you ever felt that or come across that?
Patrick: Yes, absolutely. There was this… this stuck with me for a while in my competitive career where, going into bracket, especially in a local scene where you’ve played a lot, you kind of already know who you expect to beat and who you expect to lose to. And after you have that evaluation… some people will just carry themselves with every match thinking, “Oh, anyone can get it. I’m the best. I know I’m the best here. All I need to do is prove it.” And so they don’t have to worry about this. But I would often find that if I got a lead on someone that I knew was better than I was… I… my head would just be full of visions of me blowing it. And sure enough, I would blow it. I have choked on a lot of key tournament matches, especially when I was younger. Still do to this day, but less so. And it’s… I think it’s entirely a psychological thing. There is – wrapped up in these games which are, you know, tests of skill – also some chance or some variation to it based on human psychology and all these other factors. Like, sometimes you’re just in a situation where you’re like, “Oh, things are going too well… I can’t wait to see how I mess this one up.” Right? And that’s a block that you have to get over if you want to keep competing and compete successfully.
Brendan: What about anger? Because David also spoke about dealing with anger, like blaming the referee or blaming your uniform for malfunctioning or something like that. Do you think… that same kind of purposeless anger exists as well in fighting games?
Patrick: I mean, absolutely. There are things to get angry about and places where people will displace blame from themselves, right? Improving at a fighting game, improving at anything really, especially anything as hard as this (but especially in fighting and fighting games) is tricky because if you take a hundred percent of the blame on yourself, that means you have to be able to deal with a hundred percent of that blame. Right? And sometimes that’s just too much reality. So I see some people who are perfectly okay taking complete ownership over their losses and to them, that’s fine. And so they have a list of things that they need to work on based on, you know, whatever it is that happened in the match. And that’s okay. There are other people who will blame it on the stick. They will blame it on their opponent’s stick. They will blame it on lights. They will blame it on lag. You know, whatever. Because displacing that [blame] is what they need to do in order to keep playing.
Brendan: So you don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to shift blame? It’s just whatever works for the person?
Patrick: I would describe it as a maladaptive strategy. I don’t think it’s good in the long term, but like… look, I don’t know all the things that you have gotten good at in your life, other than writing and talking about games.
Brendan: And I’m not even that good at those things.
Patrick: Tight. [laughter] But when it comes to getting good at stuff, you have to take things in bits and pieces, right? I’m sure if… I don’t know if you play guitar or if you have a friend who plays his guitar. You probably at least have a couple of friends who’ve tried to play guitar at one point and then dropped it, right? And when you get into a musical instrument, especially as an adult, it’s kind of easy to say upfront: “I want to learn to do everything the right way.” I guess the fighting game equivalent of this is hopping right into training mode, watching all the YouTube videos about what your character is supposed to do and not playing a single game against another person, until you already have optimal punishes. Oh and by the way, you’re learning a hit box because you thought that was the thing to do to learn the optimal controller – all at the same time, right? Yes. You might be optimizing your time, but you’re also often… maximizing the amount of s*** that you need to deal with. And really the amount of frustration that you might be experiencing in a given session, right? Whenever you’re doing something that takes a long time to learn, you need to balance for… how effectively can you use your time, but also how can you minimize frustration. And I see this all the time. People get into any hard skill, whether it’s fighting games, fighting, lifting weights… writing… drawing. And they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to get into this. I’m going to put a lot of work in this month”. And they’re going to do everything that people tell them to do to optimize their time, but they don’t minimize the frustration. And so what they end up with is a month of experience where they’re extremely frustrated. Because they’re just running into these walls that they don’t realize they’re not actually supposed to be running into quite yet. And then they’re like, “Well, this isn’t a good time. So I’m going to stop.”
Brendan: Is the best thing then to first of all learn to enjoy the thing that you’re learning before worrying about the fine detail?
Patrick: Yeah. I guess the way I would put it is this, right… And this is an approach that makes sense to me mostly because I tend to find things that I fall in love with and do them for a very long time. I’ve been playing fighting games competitively since I was 16. It’s been a while since I was 16, right? Same with the martial arts. I picked up martial arts. I just did not stop doing martial arts. Right? And so for me, I could have burned myself out trying to get better than someone else who I thought was my rival or a little bit ahead of me, six months in. I’m still training. I’m still doing this 15, 20 years in, and they’re not. These things are lifestyles. These things are our life passions and pursuits, right? It doesn’t matter how much progress you make in the first month or three, if you end up quitting shortly after.
Brendan: As a player of these [games] and I guess as a martial artist yourself, out of everything that Dr. Matsumoto told us, what stood out to you the most?
Patrick: I really think that the thing that stuck out to me was – and you mentioned this earlier – it was when he was talking about how people feel after they lose. And the difference between, “is this within my expectations for myself or not?” Because I… I definitely feel as a coach, I understand what he’s saying about how the people who get the most frustrated, the most disappointed, the most angry with themselves after a loss tend to be the ones who are going to be more willing to put in the work. And I get it, because as a coach, if your player feels disappointed with themselves, it is easy to take that disappointment and channel it into “here’s the work that you need to do in order to get better so that you never feel this again”. It is just a little bit easier to work with that, but I don’t think that that alone is required for competitors. So for anyone who listened to that part of the interview, and is like, “Oh, well, I don’t feel like that way. Maybe competition just isn’t for me” or “maybe getting into competitive fighting games or martial arts isn’t for me”. I would submit that there is a lot more to it than just that. I’ve worked with plenty of people who end up being successful in competition. They probably won’t be Evo winners or Olympic gold medalists. Most of us won’t. But they will have enriched their lives because they found it in themselves to do something competitive. It doesn’t require frustration with yourself. It doesn’t require disappointment with yourself. You can want to be stronger without beating yourself up, or feeling s****y because you’re confronted with proof that you’re not as strong as you want, or as you thought you were, that you wanted to be.
Brendan: All right. Cool. Well, that’s all we have time for. I’m afraid. You’ve been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brendan and my guest this week, co-host Patrick Miller. Thank you very much for coming on, Patrick.
Patrick: My pleasure.
Brendan: If people have enjoyed your chat, is there anywhere they can go to find you online if they seek a virtual coach in the arts of Guilty Gear, for example?
Patrick: Absolutely. So I stream on Twitch, usually around four days a week, it’ll be Monday through Thursday, around 8:30 PM till around 10:30-11. This is Pacific time. We do mostly Guilty Gear, but we mix it up. Sometimes we’ll watch amateur MMA videos, which is a lot of fun. We run the Wednesday night fights NorCal Guilty Gear tournament. We run some other tournaments as well. And I also write a lot about fighting games and really the intersection of fighting games and martial arts. So if you’re interested in this topic, you can find my work at patreon.com/pattheflip. All my content is free, but… I really appreciate the people who support it because it’s nice to see people out there paying for writing. I’m sure you can relate to that [laughter].
Brendan: I certainly can, I’m about to do my own spiel. If you’ve enjoyed the show, lessoner, please consider supporting us. If you can’t do that just sharing this episode with somebody you think might enjoy it is useful as well, because maybe that person in your life who likes fighting games might also like one of our other episodes on cave diving or parasites or interior design, who knows. Before we close out, finally, I want to say a big thanks to a trio of supporters of ours. Big thanks to Bok Choy, big thanks to Horrendomonas and a big thanks to Milk Is Gross And Bad For You. Finally, once again, thank you to you, Patrick, for all your help.
Patrick: Yeah, my pleasure.
Brendan: And to everyone out there. Thanks for lessoning. Bye-bye.