Tactics and Fireballs

The arcade game boom of the 1970s and 80s was fading and interest in video games was waning when the entire industry was suddenly jolted back into relevance with the appearance of Capcom’s Street Fighter II in 1991. Though the invention of the two-player fighting game is often traced back to Tim Skelly’s 1979 dueling game Warrior, it wasn’t until Street Fighter II appeared with its cast of playable characters, each with their own assortment of special moves, that the fighting game genre took off. Pac-Man and pinball may have lost their appeal, but Ken and Ryu brought players–and their quarters–back into the arcades.

One thing that became immediately obvious to everyone in the video game industry was how often players would come back to play the game in order to work on their skills and better their performance. The range of techniques and tactics employed in Street Fighter II went far beyond what players had seen in games like Donkey Kong and Q*bert, and many players engrossed themselves in the quest for mastery.

Though it was more complicated than the games that preceded it, the moves of any particular character were still easy enough for the casual player to learn–which meant that success in the game was dependent on a player’s tactics. Players would develop and practice assorted tactical choices in order to beat their opponents. When is the best time to use a certain move? How far away should I be in order to have the best chance of success? Players deliberately worked to improve the choices they made in the game.

The processes involved in learning tactics in fighting video games parallel how tactics are learned in fencing. It is those processes–as they pertain to tactics, in particular–that makes learning fencing particularly engrossing.

Learning is often distinguished as either occurring implicitly or explicitly (or as some combination of the two). Implicit learning refers to learning that occurs incidentally, without any intent to learn an underlying rule structure–often without any particular intent to learn anything at all. Children first learn their native languages implicitly–they may understand the rules of grammar enough to make proper sentences, but they cannot necessarily explain what those rules are. Explicit learning refers to educational situations in which the various structures involved are explored and defined. If you learn a language in terms of conjugations and declinations, you are learning it explicitly. The ability to verbalize the specific rules of a situation (e.g. “When the opponent searches for my blade, I should hit with disengage.”) is indicative of explicit learning.

Much of what we learn in fencing (and video games) happens implicitly. Many of the nuances of how fencers prepare their actions and which actions they choose in certain situations may, for many fencers, be learned implicitly. In fact, research shows that many things are much better learned implicitly than explicitly. According to the work of Gabriele Wulf* and others, sports technique is acquired faster, more permanently, and can be correctly performed under higher levels of stress when learned implicitly. When it comes to tactics, however, the question becomes more complicated.

Research by Markus Raab at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin suggests that the less tactically complex a sports activity is, the more valuable implicit learning is; conversely the more tactically complex the activity, the more efficacious explicit learning will be. In other words, when an activity has a smaller number and variety of choices, it can be learned better implicitly. When an activity has more choices and more variations, explicit learning will better prepare the student. (It should be noted that any explicit learning will necessarily also contain implicit elements.) All of this is very valuable information for fencers and coaches.

The first lesson here is that fencers looking to excel should be focusing more of their conscious effort on improving their tactics than their technique. This is not to say that fencers should ignore their technical development, but rather that technique can be expected to improve a lot “on its own” if it is couched in the proper tactical context.

Secondly, fencers should be fairly deliberate about their tactical development. The coach, of course, can be very helpful here, but there are many ways for a fencer to improve his tactical understanding on his own. Remember, young children often develop a fairly sophisticated understanding of video game tactics without the help of a coach. Fighting games, like Street Fighter II, have many of the same tactical concepts as fencing, which players are able to master independently. (The benefits of independent explicit learning on tactical development is one of the reasons why fencers should keep fencing journals.)

Finally, it should be realized that there is no such thing as fencing training devoid of tactical learning. Tactics are, fundamentally, decision-making in bouts. It is impossible to fence without making decisions (though they may not be very good decisions). A fencer without any understanding of tactics would stand dumbly in place waiting to be hit. That, however, doesn’t happen because from the moment a student gets on the strip for the first time, he begins learning–often implicitly–certain basic tactical notions.

By understanding how we learn–and particularly the role played by both implicit and explicit learning on technique and tactics–we can structure our training to accelerate our improvement and maximize our results which, of course, for our opponents means game over.

*see Wulf’s Attention and Motor Skill Learning.