I’m sitting cross-legged in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class filled with other game journalists. The instructor has just asked us a question: ‘anyone in the room ever been choked out?’
Awkwardly, tentatively, I’m the only person in the room to raise their arm. Yes, I have been choked out before.
There’s an explanation for this.
I grew up in Scotland — a cold, harsh country where people mostly while the hours away drinking and threatening to stab one another. Case in point: my friends and I used to strangle each other. For fun. As fans of WWF we’d take turns putting each other in a sleeping hold until we’d legitimately put each other to sleep. One day my Mum caught us doing it. She was pretty furious. She threatened to stab us.
Back then choking someone out was as simple as copying Rowdy Roddy Piper on television. His special move was the sleeper hold and, as a young Scottish kid pretending to beat up his buddies on the playground, his example was as good as any.
I’m about to find out that putting someone to sleep is way more complicated than wrapping my gangly arms around someone’s neck and squeezing really tightly.
But first, a tangent. I write about video games for a living. The Jiu Jitsu class I’m referring to took place at a preview event for EA Sports UFC, EA’s first attempt at a fully licensed UFC game.
Secondly, a clarification. I’m a huge fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Huge. I watch fights from all the organisations, Bellator, WSOF, UFC... I read websites daily. I subscribe to Reddit/r/MMA. I know the names of the fighters. I follow them on Twitter. My level of MMA fandom is almost at the level of my video game fandom.
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I sat cross legged in my very first Jiu Jitsu class thinking I knew what I was talking about and that I was ‘hot shit’.
I did not know what I was talking about. I am not ‘hot shit’.
I am just regular old shit.
Take the ‘Rear Naked Choke’ for example. The Rear Naked Choke, as far as I can decipher, is the closest thing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the strangling game my friends and I engaged in. Given my experience you’d think I’d be somewhat of an expert, but I was clueless. If I learned anything in my short time trying to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu it was this: even the simplest moves require set ups. Even the simplest moves are complicated.
With the rear naked choke I was supposed to have ‘hooks-in’. Meaning that I couldn’t just grab someone’s neck and start squeezing – that’s a position way too easy for an opponent to defend and escape from. In order to successfully choke someone out, it was important for me to take my legs, tie them up in my opponents legs then go for the choke.
And then the choke itself. Good technique was very specific and precise. You are supposed to grab your own bicep, you are supposed to squeeze at very specific points. I wasn’t aware of that. I wasn’t aware of any of this. In Scotland we just choked each other to sleep. For a laugh.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu it seems, is all in the details.
Which is all just a convoluted way of saying that EA Sports UFC is a game that takes care of those details. I suspect that’s why a horde of game journalists were invited to this class in the first place. To take the lesson, then head upstairs, play the game and then have that ‘whoa, I just did that in real life, that’s a fairly accurate rendition of the rear-naked-choke’.
The details. It’s all in the details. But what’s interesting about EA Sports UFC, and all sports video games for that matter, is this: it allows you the player to take those details for granted. It allows you to forget details in the way that masters forget them: in that the details become so well learned that you can simply fight on a higher plane, like an expert. MMA fighters with black belts in Jiu Jitsu aren’t fumbling and bumbling their way into a rear naked choke, wondering if they’ve got their left arm where their right arm should be — they move with the volition of muscle memory in full flow. Hours of practice render the most complicated moves instinctual and predatory. Sure, fighting is a thinking man’s game, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is often described as a physical, brutal chess game — but these men and women aren’t deliberating for hours over a single move, they’re buffed up Kasparovs chunking strategies dozens of moves ahead. Complicated manoeuvres flow easily and it all looks simple. It’s not simple.
But thankfully EA Sports UFC makes it simple — and I mean that in a positive way. I spent 20 minutes trying to learn the most efficient way to put another human being to sleep. I don’t want to do that in a video game about fighting. I want to be empowered, I want to do things that make me look super cool. I want the shortcut because video games are escapism and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Because, ultimately, every movement you make in video games is a metaphor. Some we take for granted, like a button press equals a punch in your opponent’s goddamn face. But when it comes to the subtle art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu those metaphors because a little more complicated to decipher. Exactly how will you represent that? How will you negate those 20 minutes I spent hugging another man, learning precise movements. How will you make that a video game thing.
I like EA’s solution. I really do. A mini game that wears its metaphor on its sleeve. A metaphor so simple and abstract that it’s actually difficult to describe it without making it sound like the most boring thing on the planet. At its simplest (and it is simple) you must defend by pushing the right analogue stick in one direction for a specific amount of time. The player attempting the submission can stop the defense by moving the right analogue stick in the same direction at the exact same time, but also must also be aware of timing movements on the left analogue stick to advance the submission.
It’s a good metaphor. It’s a metaphor that takes care of those pesky details and allows you to compete on that higher level. Almost as if you were an expert with thousands of hours of martial arts and didn’t just completely put the wrong arm onto the wrong bicep, almost as if you didn’t just completely fuck up one of the simplest moves because you have no idea what you were doing.
Like all good sports games, EA Sports UFC lets you pretend you know what the hell you’re doing.