When I was a child growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, I discovered a portal that shone in dazzling Technicolor onto a world that was – due to poverty, conflict and division – too often monochrome. It’s easy to romanticize and retrofit the 1980s and early ’90s as a time of neon lights and synthesizers, while overlooking the austerity of a pre-internet era in which access to culture outside capital cities was often so limited that it took on mythic proportions, required crate-digging and tape-sourcing quests, and was hoarded jealously. One exception was the transportive space of the amusement arcade, with its cacophony of sound and lights. My friends and I were soon banned from our local arcade – partly for minor acts of delinquency but mostly for being skint in a place that was fuelled by profit. Fortunately, we had one last refuge: at the back of a video-rental store on my street, in a working-class area of my hometown, Derry, was a single arcade game. That was all we needed.
Street Fighter II (1991) was just a game, in the sense that it was designed to eat as many coins as any other, yet it was so much more. It constituted an intense competitive arena in which the young people of the neighbourhood, and a multitude of others around the world, could test their skills and assert themselves. It also provided a sanctuary when you walked in and found you had the game all to yourself for as long as you could afford to play it. Play is a form of engagement with the world and a way of finding your place in it, a means of establishing community but also sovereignty; it offers you the ability to escape, be alone and enjoy it. Through Street Fighter II, you discovered the demarcation lines of where you ended and others began, noticing those who played psychotically and how the game spilled out into real-life confrontations. Gradually, you became aware of your own abilities to memorize secret moves and formulate strategies. You found out who you were by testing yourself.
Street Fighter II was also a window onto other worlds. It didn’t matter that the game’s portrayals of different characters and global settings were clichéd to a ridiculous degree. (The Russian wrestler Zangief, for instance, was originally intended to be called Vodka Gobalsky.) We were too young to notice anything but the sense of limitless curiosity that it inspired, especially when we began to realize that the scenes were based on actual places. It felt intoxicating, precisely because of our ignorance and innocence, to see the elephant-headed god Ganesha in the backdrop of Dhalsim’s temple or the hammer and sickle on Zangief’s factory floor (at a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing) or the entrancing ukiyo-e-style tiles of E. Honda’s bathhouse. With astonishment,
I learned that the moonlit castle in Ryu’s stage was based on a real one, Matsue Castle in Japan, and that the giant reclining Buddha in Sagat’s level could be found in Ayutthaya, Thailand. The streets and markets of Chun-Li’s Hong Kong seemed to beckon to us to explore. Street Fighter II may have been just a game, but it gave us a tantalizing sense that real life, with all its promise, was out there waiting for us when we grew up and left home.
In the two decades since I played Street Fighter II, the world has been completely transformed by the internet, mobile technology and globalization. The country I grew up in was changed by a peace process, however flawed that has been. With the international lockdowns of the current COVID-19 crisis, however, it occasionally feels like we are back in that monochrome time that seemed like it would never end; searching for portals not just to distract or inspire us but in the hope they might somehow lead the way to the future. The world is out there still and what we return to will depend on how we act together. It’s not just a game anymore; perhaps it never really was.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 212 with the headline ‘Battlegrounds’.
Main image: Jon Rafman, Codes of Honor, 2011. Courtesy: the artist and Seventeen, London