Classless Meritocracy: A Love Letter to UK Fighting Games Community

Being a white gal and writing about this community while not even playing Fighting Games competitively may inevitably be seen as a bit fetishistic. I must acknowledge — there is no way for me to escape that - I am in love, almost willing to ignore the more complicated sides of the scene.

Me and a mate were having a few pints and playing some board games at Meltdown gaming bar in London the other day. When discussing the venue, he made a remark: ‘Yeah, I’ve been here a few times. Always a very different crowd, isn’t it? FGC by far the sexiest.’ 
It’s true! Fighting Games Community (FGC) is loud, confident and most importantly, hilarious. The cussing that goes on is on another level, I mostly can’t keep up. The image is obviously helped by the fact that the FGC has a very strong connection to the grime scene. There are more than a few grime songs filled with references to fighting games — where do you think Skepta’s ‘we got the game on smash’ in ‘Man (Gang)’ or D double E ‘s— streetfighter come from?

Violent City event in Manor House, London. Photo: James A. Holland aka Sendo

So yes, whether you are competing or not, being part of a fighting game tournament or session, is already a pretty entertaining and heart-warming ordeal. However, today I want to talk about something else. Today I want to acknowledge how FGC made me rethink my views on meritocracy. As a good little leftie I was always very wary of the concept. I am not planning to sound like Theresa May any time soon, but I believe there are sound reasons to promote the idea, particularly within smaller organisations and groups.

While I call myself an anarcho-syndicalist (we’ll park the ‘syndicalist’ part aside for the purpose of this essay), my understanding of anarchism seems to somewhat differ from some of my friends’ that hold more pronounced radical politics. I acknowledge that hierarchies exist. As much as I try and fight them everywhere around me, they exist, whether it’s the colour of one’s skin, how much wealth one’s parents have, or how eloquently one talks about politics. What anarchism means to me, is being free to consent (!)to certain hierarchies around me, agreeing that some individuals or groups may be ‘better’, or have more expertise at certain tasks than others. They can then be given an opportunity to get on with that task, make ‘administrative’ decisions, if necessary, given that we have a level playing field to acquire those skills to be ‘better’.*

Although one could argue that all competitive gaming has a kind of meritocracy in common, in the FGC this really stands out. In most other video game formats, it is the time and money that the player invests that ultimately leads to their advantage. Fighting games don’t really work that way — of course practising, and practising a lot, is important, but what’s crucial is practising in a live context, against other, better players. No amount of playing online will bring the perfection that competing against current champions will. That and issues of latency (the time between pressing a button and it registering in the game) mean showing your face at live tournaments and sessions. The vast majority of the FGC are working-class folk that cannot spend days practising, but even if some can, this won’t give them any serious advantage.

Violent City event in Manor House, London. Photo: James A. Holland aka Sendo

There is a historical precedent for this classless meritocracy — arcade culture. Most of the players insist that the money they put in the arcade machines was not given to them by their parents, but earned through household chores, collecting bottles and cans for return deposits, newspaper routes, or other odd jobs. But even if one had more coins lining their pocket, if they lose — they must go to back to the end of the queue. In more busy arcades waiting for their next turn can be hours. If one lived in a less busy area and still had them coins, chances are they have mastered the arcade mode and perhaps have even become good against one or two mates, but nothing will make a better player than a diversity of opponents.

So the respect in FGC comes with how good one is at the game. As mentioned before, coming from an environment with so many hidden hierarchies (eloquence, looks, clothes, education or lack there of), there was something so sobering about the objectivity in FGC meritocracy. One, that unlike Conservative understanding of meritocracy, does not involve class privilege.

And so if someone who was average suddenly becomes amazing — celebrations of that person are in order. Whether that involves trolling with gifs and general banter is another thing, but the player succeeding feels rewarded.

70th birthday celebrations in Russia

This brings me back to my roots of growing up in an ex-USSR country and something that I miss now living in a more Western country — collective experiences and celebrations. Things like massive 2–3 day birthday parties for everyone, not just the popular ones! Toasts at the dinner table, go-arounds to remember their favourite stories about the person, or memories of an event. Small things, but things that make people feel special. We must celebrate each other more.

FGC does that with banter, passion, style and without the selective subjectivity than often plagues the left.

*The problem we have in politics right now, of course, is that it’s the dictatorship of the majority (or even first past the post, in UK context) that conducts decisions. Anarchism would require a lot more local solutions for ‘governance’, but here I’m trailing off to a political manifesto…