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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Becoming a Virtual Ninja: Entering the World of UFC through Video Games

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Welcome back to Rhetorical Roundhouse, your home for martial arts through a cool, hip, rhetorical lens. Last time I shared some documents that could be of interest for anyone on the academic job market so be sure to check out those sample syllabi and writing center philosophy. This week, I’m going to be talking about a new area of research I’m exploring: mixed martial arts history and media.

It all started some weeks ago in quarantine--what is time even? My fellow shrimp, Dr. Josh Rea, was playing a college football video game that had more to do with recruiting athletes, program development, and the administrative work of managing a team than playing the game of football. I was intrigued when he told me that it was through games like this and watching football on TV or listening to sportscasters on the radio, that he learned how to effectively call plays in a game. He went so far as to tell me that his skill in this capacity is so high from playing these video games, that he could likely coach a high school team to victory given only the summer preseason to prepare them. In this hypothetical scenario, Josh would only be responsible for calling plays and managing coaches/trainers so as to isolate the skills he feels he’s developed through video game training. What I find fascinating, is his thorough belief, and my own inability to refute, that he has developed concrete, interpersonal, rhetorical skills in a virtual, fictional, context that would function effectively in a real, embodied, athletic arena.

When you think about it, Josh’s argument isn’t uncommon. Most instructors rely on simulations, case studies, role-playing, dramatizations, models, or other virtual environments as pedagogical tools. Many of these attempt to “game-ify” these environments to include elements of fun, competition, and tests of skill as a way of increasing buy-in or providing additional motivations for learners to engage with the material. Examples of how these game-ified learning environments vary from a biology student’s computer simulation of a frog dissection to an FBI agent’s remote training facility. Both environments aim to emulate various components of the REAL activity (dissecting a frog in biology class or storming a hideout in search of a wanted fugitives) in order for you to learn in safe environments first and mitigate the potential for danger later.

Maybe I’m starting an argument that doesn’t need to be started—my point is, I wanted to learn about new things that appealed to my interest in the real world by playing a video game.

A couple of factors are worth considering upfront:

1. During this process I realized that I have an inherent bias against video games as I’m sure many people do, as being a pointless waste of time.

Even other more traditional table-top or card games receive less criticism in this regard because of their embodied nature, usefulness in potentially awkward or boring social situations (double blind dates or Sunday afternoons with grandma) and perhaps also because of the infrequency with which most people play this kinds of games. Video games on the other hand carry the stigma of being isolating, all-consuming, unhealthy, time-wasting, and rather pointless.

Many things have changed since these stigmas were first developed, however. For example, there's been increased marketability of the way gaming technologies bring people together in ways that traditional board games cannot. Also, the enormity if artistic details, depth, and talent in contemporary video games are feats that deserve praise, critique, and study. And, there’s a niche but viable economy in the world of not only video game design, writing, development, production, etc. but competitive video game circuits as well that reclaim the bodies of disciplined gamers as professional athletes. For all these reasons, I knew that my inherent bias was questionable at best, but it wasn’t until I realized that I could learn more about embodied martial arts through virtual, disembodied martial practice, that I started thinking of "playing" as training and stopped thinking that I was wasting my time.

2. Until recently, I had no interest in learning about the UFC.

When I was first starting martial arts, UFC was becoming a popular mainstream media sensation and, where I grew up, it attracted a fan base of people who I found less than desirable. In fact, the stereotypical bro wearing a Tapout shirt leaning up against his lifted F150 in the K-mart parking lot became my mental image of the sport as a whole. As a result, I didn’t open myself up to seeing athletes in the UFC as fellow martial artists with incredible skill; instead, I only saw the kind of thick-skulled, low-class pugilism associated with a trailer park brawl. Yet again, an unfair characterization (of both the fan base as well as the institution of mixed martial arts as a whole), but one that I feel is not unique to just my worldview. As the UFC community has shifted and changed over the years, or, at least, my perception of it has, I've become more open-minded. Especially when I go to Google videos about Tae Kwon Do back kicks and I see Joe Rogan just crushing the heavy bag. Anyone who can kick like this has quite a bit more credibility in my book to critique and assess the skills of fighters. So if Rogan is calling these athletes talented martial artists and not just sadomasochists, then I’m listening.

Also, in the past few years, watching how different communities react to and discuss now-celebrity figures like Connor McGregor and Ronda Rousey in similar ways to how they might talk about Lebron James or Tom Brady have made me feel like UFC has entered the pantheon of accepted American sports. And, being that I know next to nothing about most of these sports (and often feel like I have little to contribute in many social environments as a result) this seemed like the best opportunity for me to improve my knowledge.

So, understanding that this project began from a point of recognizing initial biases is important because it helps set an intention for this whole enterprise. Essentially, by addressing my previous impressions of both video games and UFC upfront, I challenged myself to discover evidence supporting the opposite viewpoint. In other words, my research question becomes, can a play a video game for a particular purpose that I find useful: learning more about martial arts generally as well as my own embodied practice?

Connecting My Research Experience to Theory

This question is also part of the scholarly work that Chris Goto-Jones (2016) does in his book The Virtual Ninja Manifesto. The introduction to the study describes a student who said that the major lessons she learned in college came from playing Street Fighter IV and that it helped her become a better person overall. Goto-Jones probes this narrative and discovers that many other gamers, particularly those playing martial arts video games or MAVs, experience similar transformational moments of self-cultivation through regimented practice.

There is such a sizable population of gamers who adopt the martial arts mythos fed to them through various other forms of pop culture media, as well as gamers who learn about martial arts through primary sources embedded in these media. Goto-Jones describes various references to texts like the Hagakure in films Ghost Dog or even as world building elements in games. The book goes so far as to call the disciplined practice of Street Fighter a martial art in itself. Goto-Jones does present the caveat, however, that this is largely due to the intention set by the individual gamers. This is not uncommon in the martial arts world, though. For example, in my dissertation research, I noted that one of the Tae Kwon Do manuals I examined, Tedeschi (2000), remarked how the symbolism of palgwe and taegeuk inherent in the design of pumsae were usually unknown to or dismissed by many practioners as irrelevant. Those practitioners, like myself, who perform pumsae with the intention of conducting critical embodied reflection, however, achieve their goal through practice and find different meaning in the same techniques.

That being said, my quest to improve my knowledge of martial arts (both ones I actively practice and ones which I have significantly less experience with) as well as the UFC and MMA community by playing a video game, slotted right in to the kind of intention setting that Goto-Jones describes. So I figured that I would use my foray into EA's UFC 3 (the most recent game in the franchise) to see if I could perhaps illustrate some of the theoretical points in Goto-Jone’s work.

In addition, I wanted to lend credence to similar arguments like the ones Paul Bowman consistently makes about the importance of martial arts media in defining “martial arts.” To make that work, I decided that I would use the game as a way to embody a particular fighter, invest in their (fictionalized) career, and study their (real) fighting techniques, but I would need a different media to help me understand the martial institution of UFC historically and rhetorically. So, to round everything out, I decided I might as well subscribe to UFC’s streaming service Fight Pass, to catch up on fights from the sports nearly 30 year history. To work my way through this massive library, I chose to simply start with a character in the game and then watch their most memorable fights for context.

Altogether this series of blog posts will discuss these three cornerstone texts: EA Sports video game UFC 3 (2018), Chris Goto-Jones's book The Virtual Ninja Manifesto, and classic fights on UFC Fight Pass. As I proceed through this, I would like to also make connections to interesting research being done in the field of martial arts studies specifically regarding UFC, MMA, the advent of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, violence in combat sports, and martial arts video games as pedagogical tools. Hopefully by the end of this process I’ve got some interesting content for an article of my own, who knows? Right now, I’m just playing and writing to learn. Maybe I’ll just end up having so much fun that I find more video games that allow me to repeat this experiment, like the Fight Night franchise, for example, to learn about the sport of boxing…

Apparently this one has a story mode written by Spike Lee?!

Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game

For now, let’s just dive right in with some first impressions of the game. UFC 3 features Conner McGregor as the poster child for MMA on the title's cover, and he plays a big part in the opening cinematic/tutorial experience. For me, I’d never actually seen McGregor fight except for his boxing bout against Mayweather, a fight that I found to be a bit ridiculous in a number of ways. Instead, I only had this image of him as a braggadocious Rocky villain for a new generation. Instead, I learned immediately that he achieved something that only a handful of UFC champions ever have, a title belt in two weight divisions. I was paying attention. The game sets McGregor up as the champion of champions and, if you play career mode, taking his title is your big goal. Having this presence lurking behind each fight I played and each sparring session I trained in provided a constant motivation to improve, especially since I chose to play first as another striker, Chan Sung Jung the Korean Zombie. Why did I choose him first? Because he was in McGregor’s weight class and he was the first Korean fighter I saw. I wanted to see some Taekwondo kicks and, according to a quick Wikipedia glance (because obviously I had never heard of this guy before) I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Chan Sung Jung earned the nickname Zombie because of his ability to take punishment and keep moving forward. That’s all I needed to know to craft a play style for the game. It focused on learning how to stand and strike really well, employ powerful head kicks, and finish fights with a ground and pound. This style suited my own comfort-level as a martial artist with ground fighting versus striking, and allowed my first play through to focus on my strengths so I could learn some fundamentals about the ground along the way. After playing through with Jung and learning the basics of the video game interface itself, id be better prepared to play with a submission expert and learn more about jiu-jitsu and wrestling.

Mapping the Fighter's Body onto a Controller: Parts VS. Punches

This strategy worked out well because UFC 3 features a rich level of complexity in how you fight, maneuver, counter, and flow. For a beginner player like me, it was challenging just to learn the basics of striking, let alone how to perform takedowns, ground transitions, and submissions. Part of this had to do with an interesting button-mapping scheme. Playing on a PlayStation the square and triangle buttons correspond to left and right hand accordingly, and the X and circle buttons left and right kick. What I find interesting about the left/right designation is that, as a striker, I don’t think about my physical body by its parts (left side, right side), instead, I think about my body in terms of its available techniques in a given context (jab and cross). This is important when switching stances in the game or playing with a southpaw—left is still left and right is still right. Again, in kicking, I'd think of front leg and back leg because I’m differentiating my body based on functions like speed versus power instead of relative descriptors like left and right. It’s not a huge problem for the game—in many ways you simply learn to use the controller as an extension of your body to control a projection of your body. The first stages of this process are a kind of translation (square = left hand) but eventually, this becomes embodied knowledge and I could enter commands with the speed of a button-masher because of training and repetition.

Other than that, striking in the game is actually pretty satisfying, if not a bit overpowered. Once I became fairly adept at the controls after many play sessions extending into the wee hours of the morning, I could actually apply some of my own technical knowledge of striking to situations in the game. For example, once I could move my character in fluid ways that I like to move when I spar, I could employ tactics that I knew were effective like sidestepping a punch combination to kick to the lead leg. The kind of timing or embodied kairos I have cultivated actually does port over nicely to the digital octagon. In fact, it wasn’t long before I could make my avatar move in ways that my physical body cannot and I got to test some of the techniques that really only exist in theory for me, not in practical application of my own sparring. Suddenly, certain combinations I dream of pulling off in real life were available to me, at my fingertips. That’s partially why it felt so good to bait McGregor into the single-leg takedown attempt only for me to counter with a fade-away jumping back kick square to his jaw. A knockout in the 3rd round of my title fight with one of the most iconic and powerful kicks in all of Tae Kwon Do. Victories just don’t get much more satisfying than that.


Ways to Play: Embodying a Fight Persona

The game itself turned out to be something I liked to play—really liked to play. But would my experience watching Jung actually fight in the UFC be equally enjoyable? Turns out the answer is yes. I searched for a watch list and come across this article to help me figure out how to watch Jung's career unfold. Notably, this article was published before Jung’s fight in December of last year with last-minute replacement, Frankie Edgar and I would certainly add that performance to the list.

Certain things about these fights stood out. First, the longest of them was Jung's first fight against Leonard Garcia where he, much to my surprise, lost by decision. I remember feeling shocked and suddenly very invested in Jung’s career and narrative arc. The only time I’ve ever felt like that about a sports figure has been while watching a 30 for 30 documentary or a historical fiction movie like Remember the Titans or, more classically, Brian’s Song. The fact that this one fight--the skill of the athletes, the excitement of the commentators, the roar of the crowd--that it could make me want retribution for Jung was exhilarating. I kept watching and I kept learning. For example, the rematch against Garcia where Jung made history by tapping him out with the Twister submission fascinated me because it offered something that the game wasn’t providing me at the time. I could see, up close and personal, through the magic of instant replay and slow-mo technology, exactly what the "twister" was, how Jung set it up, and why it resulted in a submission.

In the game, I’m too focused on actually trying to escape from ground attacks that I rarely attempted submissions. However, I did notice that Jung had the twister move in his arsenal, a technique I had never before heard of. Because, however, the submission system in UFC 3 is mini-game based, I often found it hard to actually focus visually on the fighters and their technique/position. Instead, I was following red and blue lights as they blinked across the screen.

Watching the second Garcia fight, by contrast, was a true clinic on what how tricky ground fighting can be. Funnily enough, when interviewed, Jung said he learned the twister though Eddie Bravo’s YouTube videos. Seems like I’m not the only one trying to improve my martial arts practice though digital media.

Finally, while none of the fights ended in the spectacular title-earning kick that mine did, I will say it was validating you see the striking power and evasive speed of Jung in the Hominick fight. Yes, I started trying to slip hooks like this and counter punch in the game. In fact, I was motivated to play more authentically like the athlete I was becoming increasingly familiar with. So much so that I considered reversing the order of my media consumption/participation for the next fighter. How would it change my play/learning experience to attempt to emulate the real fighting style of say, Ronda Rousey, as opposed to just the disjointed collection of her techniques presented in the game interface? I suppose we shall just have to see…

I think that’s likely enough for today. I’m exciting to continually add to this project over time and share with you my journal into better understanding UFC and mixed martial arts.

As always, if you have any recommendations for fighters to investigate, supplemental media worth looking at, or research to consider, please share in the comment section.

The next installment of this series will focus on the history of UFC, something that I hope my friend and colleague Kyle Barrowman can help shed some light on, and the debut of Gracie jiu-jitsu as the martial arts boogeyman.

Until then, thanks for reading.


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