Fighting games are about flow. Flow is an aspect of interactivity that evolves when a large proportion of actions and reactions become dictated by the participants' subconscious. Flow happens everywhere: It's the fugue state where hours pass by in seconds and you forget yourself in your activity.

It may seem presumptuous to attribute such a heady physiological phenomenon to a mere game, but it is a natural result of the way you play any game:

  • You exert control over the game according to its rules.
  • Its state changes.
  • You process the change.
  • You respond again, dynamically altering your control input based on the new game state, forming a cycle that repeats until an end state is achieved.

You can achieve flow in single-player games, but the sophisticated level of play possibilities created by a good fighting game makes it difficult, if not impossible to create an AI-controlled opponent even half as interesting to play against as a fellow carbon unit. Please note that I specifically use the term interesting rather than difficult here: A computer-controlled opponent can be programmed to be so difficult as to be unbeatable, but the ability to truly learn and flow during a bout is unique to two human players.

Flow in Fighting Games

What makes fighting games especially good at encouraging a state of flow between two human opponents? First-person shooters are somewhat analogous in their competitive formats, but they offer a much more complex web of overall play possibilities: Simply put, there are more factors. Sometimes you can't see your opponent. Sometimes there are more of one type of weapon than another on the map. Sometimes you are playing with an overarching objective, like "Protect the hostages" or "Eat the hostages' spleens". Part of what distinguishes fighting games from other games ise their simplicity: Two characters (game objects) with limited interaction with their environment, who have the sole purpose of defeating the other character.

At the end of the day, it's a matter of degrees. Some fighting game fans consider a game like Super Smash Bros. to be "not a fighting game" because it introduces unique aspects of play like items, dynamic environments and power-ups that are unconventional or nonexistent in other fighting games. Some of these fans, still enamored of SSB's fighting system, configure the game to be played on a flat level with no items, making it as similar to conventional fighting games as possible. Whether the semantic (and largely useless) debate of its status as a "real fighting game" is settled one way or the other, it's still a totally awesome game in which flow is quite possible.

Part of what makes flow so accessible in fighting games is the lack of any in-game mechanics other than the interaction between the two players. It is possible for two players to know everything there is to know about the foundations behind the game's behavior. A knee-jerk response to this assertion might be to assume that at this point, the game becomes redundant and boring, but such a knee-jerker should make note of games such as Chess, which are fully comprehensible in terms of rules and emergent behavior, but have maintained rich competitive communities for hundreds of years. Actually, such a game is just beginning to come into its prime when a community of players understands all, or most, of its inner workings.

Flow Between Two Human Players

At this time, flow in a fighting game cannot be achieved to a high degree with a computer opponent. When two experienced humans play against each other in a good, balanced fighting game, a complex language of interactivity is built on-the-fly. Each player must keep her character alive while paying enough attention to her opponent to find weaknesses in her playing style. A thorough familiarity with the game's mechanics, and the abilities of each character, is part and parcel of a player's ability to size up and defeat an opponent.

There is a zen of fighting games that is analogous to many skill-based activities. It is characterized by a universal progression: Players begin as awkward novices who, in the name of improving, consciously force themselves to play a certain way, based on what they perceives (through intuition or coaching) to be "the right" way. Then, as experienced players, many of the awkward and consciously-induced elements of play have become second nature, handled by the subconscious; leaving the conscious mind free to examine the opponent's patterns without jeopardizing the round.

Fighting Game Flow

Flow is different in every fighting game. In some games, two well-matched players in a state of flow will go for minutes at a time without either player taking any damage, each attack or advance countered or thwarted. In others, depending on play styles, players may "Perfect" each other back-and-forth, taking no damage when defeating the other player in a round. It is always detectable as a general silence falling between the two players, and a lack of recklessness in their play styles (though some gamers can make reckless play work).

Achieving flow during a bout with another player can be remarkably exhilarating for an activity that seems so mundane on the surface. It is extremely rewarding, however, and not just from a social standpoint: The clearness of mind and purpose is almost meditative, and can actually be relaxing in the long run. Regardless of its foundations and feelings, flow is almost universally appreciated by experienced players and spectators alike. If it happens to you, don't forget to shake your opponent's hand afterwards, especially if she thrashed you. Emotions like anger and jealousy will only cloud your flow thereafter.