Every week I show up to my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) class, even though I’m a beginner and get crushed by everyone else at the club. Despite tapping out again and again, I don’t go home feeling defeated and discouraged. The reasons why is something I’ve thought about in detail; I’m a video game designer and critic so analyzing the psychology of play is my jam. As a BJJ beginner, I’m hooked it has the same fundamental engagement pillars that result in successful game design.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art all about grappling and submissions on the ground. When fighters are rolling, they’re replicating a life and death struggle, trying to outmaneuver their opponent to get an advantageous position. Eventually, one fighter will secure a choke or limb lock causing the other to “tap out,” signaling their conceit before getting injured. At the end of my Jiu-Jitsu classes, we do several rounds of 5-minute rolls with different partners. Depending on how much of a skill disparity there is, I could be tapping out every 30 seconds or none at all. Rolling Jiu-Jitsu isn’t just a win or lose situation; it can be deconstructed into countless moves and counters. Every time I escape from a weak position or pass my opponent’s guard (legs), there’s a clear success state which is immensely gratifying. So even though my eventual tap out is a definitive failure state, it’s the end point of a dynamic struggle.
A core pillar of engagement is direct gratification and intuitive feedback. The minor success states exist in BJJ because of their intuitive impact; beginners only experience gratifying moments if the consequences of an action are tangible. The gratification doesn’t come from scoring points in some abstract ruleset, it comes directly from knowing you outmaneuvered your opponent and now are in a better position than before. Feedback is how players perceive they’re doing and understanding when things go well or poorly. For a game to have intuitive feedback, players need to know what the steps are to victory and how they’re positioned in relation to those steps. Winning a round of BJJ is simple conceptually: Pass the guard (legs), get to a superior position, execute a submission. The finer details of BJJ are very complicated, but those three objectives provide a reference point for how players advance and regress through those states. It narrows the scope of complexity by compartmentalizing different interaction types; when I start a roll of Jiu-Jitsu I’m not thinking about chokes and hooks, just how to pass or maintain the guard.
Another great thing about free rolling Jiu-Jitsu is the potential for draws; there’s no winner if neither fighter can submit their opponent before the timer runs. I have no expectations that I’ll be tapping out my experienced peers, but I don’t have to. If I manage to survive the full 5 minutes without tapping that’s a huge personal victory. Draws and stalemates provide extra tension and are an excellent solution for matching players with wide skill disparities. Stalemating is one of the many reasons why Chess is such a masterpiece, the player with the upper hand has to stay on their toes else they can throw away the win. Stalemating in Jiu-Jitsu also allows for a focused scope of beginner learning, they can emphasize improving their defense instead of attacks and submissions.
Not getting discouraged after losses is crucial and Jiu-Jitsu mitigates this because of the instantaneous and clean slate nature of rerolling. When I tap out I don’t sit and dwell on my loss, and we don’t have to reschedule and prepare anything. We immediately get up and go again. I can simply ignore a defeat and focus on doing better next time. A full reset means my last four losses does not influence my new fresh attempt. Alternatively, the stop-start nature of tapping can provide a respite where the defeated fighter asks their opponent for advice or showing them the move they just lost to. Picking up on your weaknesses and mistakes is crucial to improving as BJJ is all about technique. Size and strength obviously matter, but if you’re able to master the moves of BJJ, you can win over bigger and stronger opponents.
This emphasis on technique makes BJJ more approachable, as every week you noticeably improve as you learn more moves and how to respond in certain situations. If improvement is only physical and not mental, then growth is very gradual and not as noticeable. Memorizing techniques and using them to escape out of a bad position is exhilarating, especially against someone bigger or more experienced. The cognitive emphasis over sheer brute force screens out the meatheads, ego doesn’t get you far in BJJ. Humility is required to learn and improve, and being humble is your only choice when being choked out by a woman or a teenager. I’m sure it’s no coincidence the people who train at my club are friendly, respectful and keen to help beginners. I’ve only trained at one BJJ club before, but I suspect the fact that my instructor, Dion, is the lightest guy in the class helps create that culture of modesty and respect. Firstly, it signals by example that fighters don’t have to get big to be successful. Secondly, if some brutish meathead comes in and wants to feel tough by beating up the instructor, he’s going to go home humiliated. That guy either won’t come back or will do so with an entirely new perspective on his ability. The mats don’t care about your pride.
Game theory aside, BJJ provides something hard to get anywhere else; a replication of a life and death struggle in a safe environment. You’re up against someone trying to choke you out or break your limbs, with the only thing preventing that being your mastery of the human body. Of course, your opponent isn’t actually trying to do you any harm and won’t unless you refuse to tap out, but the struggle feels and is real. I can’t explain what something so primal is like, but there’s a part of our psychology that wires us for that conflict and physical struggle. It provides a peak experience of adrenaline and other hormones that are truly addictive and makes us feel alive, all while getting a great workout. And yet unwinding after that rush I experience something meditative and tranquil. I can always tap out or fall back on the soft mats, but one day that may not be the case. Training BJJ helps put things in perspective and makes me more grateful for life in general. It’s so easy to take for granted and forget about the capacity for human violence and suffering in our peaceful and sheltered lives. Your “first world problems” are trivialized when an hour ago your only problem was survival.
In Summary, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gets beginners hooked because it excels in the engagement pillars that are universal across game design. BJJ has immense gratification due to an endless breakdown of attacks, counters, and maneuvers. The intuitive nature and simple concept of BJJ provide feedback for how the fighters are doing. BJJ emphases technique rather than sheer strength, so it’s accessible and makes improvement more tangible while deterring meatheads with ego. The potential for statemates means less experienced fighters have a viable goal to aim for and can focus their training. BJJ’s replication of a life and death struggle in a safe environment provides a peak experience and puts your life in perspective. Thanks to everyone at my club for being awesome to train with.