I am determined not to let anyone see it, but my hands hurt. A lot. It’s like the day after a particularly horrible session at the gym, but with all the pain focused into my thumbs and fingertips.
The flashing countdown on my screen taunts me: “Continue?” Behind these goading letters, my digital avatar—the archetypal Japanese martial artist, Ryu—lies in broken humiliation at the feet of a petit Chinese fighter with twin pigtails. She shrugs and giggles, as though coy, while Ryu bleeds out on the ground.
I’m in a popular street arcade in Nakano, Tokyo, where I’ve been playing the video game Ultra Street Fighter IV for about half an hour. I’ve lost count of my defeats and my coins. My opponent, seated at the machine next to mine, is a notoriously mysterious figure in the city’s fighting-game scene. As usual, his youthful face is hidden in the shadow of a black hoodie. The gamers here all know him, but none of them know his real name—and nobody asks. In this neon-riddled world, gamers call him Gōken, after the elder master in the Street Fighter franchise.
People come from all over the city to match themselves against Gōken. Some say they’re from rival arcades, like warriors in a postmodern rendition of dōjō yaburi (dojo storming), the feudal Japanese tradition in which martial artists from one school challenge fighters from other schools to duels. But others come for a different reason: They are on a quest to find a worthy opponent. They’ve come hoping to lose beautifully—to try their best and to be beaten by someone who transcends them. They are looking for a master, not an enemy.