Practicing for Enlightenment With Video Games

Meet the Zen and Bruce Lee disciples who approach fighting games like a martial art.

A woman sitting cross-legged on a bench
Chris Goto-Jones / Siku

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.

Gōken sits in Jedi-like calm at the locus of a nascent transnational subculture: gamers who approach fighting games as martial arts. This dispersed community is self-consciously old school, converging on street arcades to interact in person rather than only playing online. Whether their game of choice is Street Fighter, Tekken, or Super Smash Bros., they talk about their activity in terms of training, discipline, and mastery. Their goal: ethical self-cultivation.

Amid concern that violent video games encourage violence in the real world, this subculture’s approach to virtual combat and killing might seem unusual. In fact, while today’s debate around video-game violence is focused on the gun-based genre of first-person shooters, fighting games were an early flash point, with the excessively gory Mortal Kombat franchise stealing the headlines in the 1990s.

But these virtual ninja, as I have come to call them, say they aren’t interested in gratuitous graphic violence, only in skill. Their approach to fighting games evokes a different tradition—that of the martial arts themselves. Following the “kung-fu craze” of the 1960s and 1970s, the martial arts sparked a moral panic: How could training to kill someone with a single strike be good for society? Should martial arts be banned or licensed like weapons? But then Bruce Lee and his tantalizing blend of spiritual cultivation and superlative martial prowess opened Western audiences to the possibility that training to punch and kick might not be about violence, but could also be a form of training for Enlightenment.

Echoing Lee, these virtual ninja argue that how and why you play matters. They say that, when approached in a particular way, fighting games can make you a better person.

Massaging my aching hands, I glance over at Gōken and tell him I’m done. He doesn’t turn away from the screen. “Train harder,” he mutters in accented English. “Become better.”

My fascination with the possibility that fighting games might be instruments of self-transformation began nearly 10 years ago, when one of my students claimed that the most important lessons she’d learned as an undergraduate came not from reading the classics, but from playing Street Fighter IV. Eventually, with a research grant in hand, I spent five years on a virtual fight tour, interviewing gamers in Tokyo; Osaka, Japan; Singapore; Seoul, Korea; Hong Kong; Amsterdam; London; New York; and San Francisco. (As is standard in academic research, Gōken and my other interviewees from this period were promised confidentiality.)

The unusual community I discovered had cells in arcades all over the world, sometimes unaware that they were participating in an incipient international movement. But in each case, they were striving to play (and live) in accordance with what I’ve come to call the Virtual Ninja Manifesto. Members of this scattered community strive to master the tortuous control schemes of fighting games, devoting months or years of practice to a single game, sometimes even to a single character. Outside of gaming, they share literary tastes: They quote Lao Tzu, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Bruce Lee, and Yoda with easy fluency.

This level of commitment is not typical of most gamers. “The majority of my friends hate fighting games,” observes Taylor Koch, a fighting gamer in Victoria, Canada, who goes by the gaming tag Taweko. Unlike games designed so that players can enjoy them with only minimal time investment, fighting games “require so much solo practice in order to get the combos down,” or even to get some basic level of competency, Koch says.

(Chris Goto-Jones / Siku)

But virtual ninja go even further than most other fighting gamers, including the serious e-sports competitors at global video-game events like the Evolution World Championships (EVO) or the Capcom Cup. Like some real-life martial artists, gamers in this subculture often look on tournaments as corruptions of their art that prioritize victory over mastery. They lament the way that tournaments, in their view, reward quick fixes, repetitive moves, and cheap techniques like “button-mashing”—the frenzied method of pressing random buttons as rapidly as possible in the hope that you’ll get lucky and win.

In fact, the point—in theory, at least—isn’t about winning at all. It’s the experience of satisfaction and calm that arises from the authenticity of the challenge. In this worldview, losing well is better than winning poorly. Koch suggests that true fighting gamers must “accept the repetitive hard work and know how to lose and learn before they can win.”

In January 2018, as my fight tour came to a close, my colleagues and I at the University of Victoria organized a Virtual Ninja Tournament—an open Street Fighter V competition for gamers at the university, supported by Capcom Vancouver. This was an opportunity for me to see whether there were virtual ninja in my classrooms. And even though it was a competition, the first-ever Virtual Ninja Champion, Jun Nguyen, aka iLLFader, explained his victory in the fundamental terms of the virtual-ninja subculture. “Calmness and tactfulness will get you through the toughest opponents,” he said. “Getting titled and salty will not.”

For the virtual ninja, fighting games are more than e-sports. They are a way of life, or perhaps a way of being. “Playing fighting games is a journey,” Nguyen says.

Unsurprisingly, many competitive players tend to see this self-conscious Zen narrative as an elaborate version of what the pro-fighting gamer and commentator Seth Killian, has called the “scrub” mentality: All this talk about self-perfection is really just a way to make you feel better when you lose. Nonetheless, many of the most successful tournament players speak of entering what sports psychologists refer to as the “zone,” a mental state of “flow” or hyper focus that immerses them in the game to the exclusion of everything else. The well-known Street Fighter champion Daigo Umehara, aka The Beast, has said that the now-famous “miraculous reversal play” that won him the first match of the semifinal of the 2004 Evolution Championships emerged from just such a state of immersive concentration.

A more significant point of contention is the same as that which has challenged martial artists for centuries. While no one doubts that training improves technical skill, what evidence is there that it also improves people ethically or spiritually? When we say that discipline makes us better, when (and under what conditions) do we mean more than that it makes us better at something?

(Chris Goto-Jones / Siku)

For members of this virtual-ninja community, the answer resides in similar processes to those cited in 17th-century Zen texts on swordsmanship, such as Takuan Sōhō’s The Unfettered Mind or Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. For Sōhō, disciplined repetition of precise physical actions, to the point at which the practitioner forgets about the skills required to perform them, liberates you from your ego. This moment of forgetting (or unfettering) the self produces something like the state of “flow” that virtual ninja and athletes desire: Actions become spontaneous, free, and completely unselfish—technically and ethically better.

The gamer raiden_nut7, from Colorado, is one of the many virtual ninja who described achieving this state in gaming. He relates to the idea of “no-mind” that emerges from constant practice in The Book of Five Rings. “I’ve been practicing for so long that it just kind of happens by itself,” he says. “I don’t need to think about it, and certainly not about my thumbs. If you’re worried about your thumbs it’s already over.”

This suggests that, with fightsticks rather than swords, disciplined training in Street Fighter or other fighting games can, in fact, take the form of self-cultivation—and, in a similar way to any dedicated practice, might open the door to ethical self-betterment. Indeed, there is something tantalizingly literal about the idea that a virtual martial art works like an actual martial art in this way, just adapted to the technology of our times.

When asked about this virtual-ninja mode of engagement with fighting games, Umehara recognized the idea of gaming as a “practice of pure discipline”: “I completely agree that Street Fighter has made me into the better person that I am today,” he told me.

Standing up from the arcade machine in Nakano, I find it difficult to imagine that I have just had a spiritual experience. Exhausted, I’m torn between crawling away in shame, bowing out of respect, and prodding Gōken to see whether I can break his studied composure.

While I consider these options, someone else has already slipped into my place and a new bout has begun. Once again, Gōken’s fingers are a blur of explosive precision. I realize that there is a haphazard line of people waiting to test themselves against the hooded master. They are strewn around the arcade, eyeing his machine while playing other games or talking on their cell phones.

The next few bouts go the same way, with Gōken unmoved by his opponents as they swear and yell and grimace with frustrated effort. Most of the defeated remain to watch the subsequent fights. Some take notes. They gradually draw into a ring around the quiet master—not challengers, but students.

Suddenly, there’s a collective intake of breath. The screens show Gōken’s avatar crumpled at the feet of his opponent. A young girl with a ponytail and fingerless, white-lace gloves has beaten him. She yelps, torn between disbelief and jubilation, and I watch for Gōken’s response. But his composure remains unbroken. Silently, he waits for the girl to calm down and take her place in the circle. Then, the next player, a 30-something salaryman in suit and tie, moves to the console for his lesson.