The premise of Nintendo’s ARMS is an exercise in minimalism: one day, a bunch of people woke up with springs where their arms used to be, which led to the creation of a boxing league for the spring-armed. That’s all. The game thus subscribes to a deterministic theory of athleticism, as its fighters, rather than working and training hard, are able to compete simply because they were granted the tools to do so. But a great deal of the game’s charm stems from the fact that its athletic determinism doesn’t lie along racial or gendered lines. There are four female fighters, at least two of whom are women of color. (Race in the game is ambiguous; it’s unclear if Mechanica, for example, is white, Asian, both or neither.) You can also play as non-humans, like Helix, a blob of DNA, and Byte and Barq, a robotic police officer and dog duo. Master Mummy, an undead competitor, is the ultimate testament to the potential of sports to transcend everything, not merely gender and race (and species), but even life and death.
The reception that one character in particular has received, however, complicates ARMS’s utopian vision of sports. Twintelle, a woman of color, has punching-springs not in her arms, but in her hair. Given how loaded of a topic natural hair is, Nintendo’s choice to weaponize the hair of a woman of color has prompted mixed reactions, with some arguing against her design, and others defending it.
Surely, though, there’s value in portraying a woman of color whose hair, rather than fueling stigma and discrimination, is a wellspring of power. Positive socio-cultural representations in videogames can be empowering. But in the context of fighting games, rare are occurrences like the developers of Killer Instinct overhauling the wardrobe of Thunder, a Nez Perce character, with the help of Nez Perce consultants and archives. More common are characters like Street Fighter’s Dhalsim, who draws on multiple stereotypes as a turban-clad Indian yogi. This is not to say that it’s unacceptable to like Dhalsim—it’s hard to resist a fire-breathing yoga master—but that it’s worth questioning why characters of color can be so predictably designed. (Ryu, Street Fighter’s frontman, was orphaned in Japan; maybe it’s easier to create characters who defy physical stereotypes when their ancestry is uncertain, or when they originate from the same country as the developers.)
Gender is another front on which fighting game character design errs on the side of predictability. The women of ARMS are, for the most part, reasonably-clothed. But in many other fighting games, you wouldn’t have to look far to find skimpy outfits wholly unconducive to punching and kicking and forming fireballs. Indeed, the general attitude toward dressing female fighting game characters seems to be quite crude. When Street Fighter V’s Ryu received a shirtless and bearded variant costume, fans (sometimes thoughtfully) embraced it as “Hot Ryu.” But for many of the game’s female characters, like Laura and Cammy, baring flesh is the baseline. For them to show chests and midsections and legs is so normal as to be adjective-less, not “hot” but expected.
If videogames want their non-white-male characters to be predictable, so too do American sports want their non-white-male athletes to fit a certain mold. History has made undeniable that those who threaten the conservative politics that undergird American professional sports are either hounded or shunned. Contemporary examples include the gendered and racial treatment that the Williams sisters receive, and the fact that Colin Kaepernick remains a free agent. (There’s a poetic irony to the term “free agent,” in his case.) Kaepernick’s experience has roots in the same forces that spawned All Lives Matter, the Trump presidency and myriad other reactionary movements. When it comes to history and politics, sports aren’t transcendent: they’re illuminating.
The conservative social politics of sports are apparent not only within game worlds—through, for instance, reductive character designs—but also in videogame-playing communities. While the professional fighting game community (FGC) is fairly diverse in regards to race, professional female- and queer-identifying players remain both rare and mistreated. Ricki Ortiz, a Street Fighter V player who is transgender, has praised the FGC’s openness, but explained to BBC Three that with droves of online spectators comes an abundant supply of hateful comments about her gender identity. Of course, society at large is still far from totally welcoming of non-cisgender people. Videogame-playing communities are not uniquely abominable. But the issue at play, here, is that focusing solely on the content within games belies the troubling social politics that pervade the ever-expanding professional scenes around them.
Consider one of the behemoths of esports, albeit not a fighting game: Dota 2. The International 7, the latest iteration of the game’s annual championship tournament, is currently underway with a prize pool of more than $23 million. The competition began with 18 teams in the running, totaling 106 players and coaches hailing from 28 countries. That’s an impressive array of backgrounds, to be sure. But not a single player or coach is a woman; not a single one is from the African continent; not a single one is black. The teams themselves are relatively diverse, in terms of nationality—there are five on which all five players are from different countries—but the esport more broadly seems to be closed-off to broad swaths of the world’s population. (In that sense, Dota 2 resembles countless other products of American corporations.)
Perhaps progressive social change can extend outward, from inside of games to the world around them. If so, ARMS has taken a step in the right direction with much of its roster. But the game stumbles, too. According to its lore, ARMS’s most powerful fighter is Max Brass, a macho white man. He’s the ARMS League’s commissioner and the defending champion of its Grand Prix, and anyone trying to win his title must first defeat him. But when you play through the Grand Prix as Brass, there’s no alternate defending champion: you fight another Max Brass. Brass, then, is a reminder that despite whatever semblance of egalitarianism sports project, the truest power continues to rest in the same white, male, reactionary hands that have always held it.
Maybe you win as Twintelle, and avenge something timeless and bloody. But next time you boot the game up, when you enter the Grand Prix anew, Twintelle won’t be the defending champion. It’ll still be Max Brass—and it’s tough to shake the feeling that it always will be.
Niv M. Sultan writes about the socioeconomics of pop culture. You can follow him on Twitter.