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A Case for "Mindlessness" in Fighting Games

Updated: Mar 1, 2023


A lot of people reading this don't know this about me: but I'm really into Fighting Games.

I see a lot of parallels between fitness journeys and fighting games. Or, more specifically, playing fighting games with a competitive mindset.

I see them both as mediums for self-actualization that require high levels of accountability, a growth mindset, and analytical tools to find joy and empowerment. So I've always advocated for both pretty highly.

I've been a part of the fighting game community for about 20 years now, just before the Daigo Parry video originally surfaced on 360p screens, that had pixels so large, kids today would think they were watching Lego blocks being stop-animated by Art Clokey.

I started in the FGC as a Soulcalibur II player, way back in the Paleolithic era of 2004. Food and resources were scarce and Smash Bros. wasn't a fighting game.

We used the internet to make friends, IRL.

It was a very weird time.

I refuse to stop dressing like this

I was always seen as a very technically proficient player at the time, that often tried pushing the boundaries of execution in fighting games, back when such a thing was valued.

Particularly, in Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Back then, I was often dismissed by a lot of players as "Mindless". If I beat someone in a tournament; it wasn't because I was actually any good at the game, it was because my "Robotic", "Mindless" play was too hard too beat at that time. I just had an overabundance of "Tech Skill" and little "Mindgames' in my play.

A lot of players in that era got similar reputations, most notably "Mew2King" and "Dashizwiz".

For a long, LONG time, "Autopilot" was a pejorative term in the Fighting Game Community (FGC). It was shorthand for "Automatic Pilot".

People saw autopiloting as being "Mindless". Being Mindless was bad. Because fighting games were supposed to be mental and the less you used your mental - the less intelligent of a player you were.

Or something.

Shockingly enough, this attitude still persists.

Old memes die hard.

I'm here to make the case that if you're not autopiloting, to a very large degree, even - you're not playing the game optimally. Autopiloting, or what I will refer to from here on out by its psychological term - "Mindlessness" - is an absolutely key ingredient to being good at any fighting game.

From Cambridge Dictionary:

I think, with this perspective, you can start to see how primitive and detrimental dismissing Mindlessness in fighting game gameplay can be.

This isn't to say that being Mindful - being mentally present and aware in the moment; is not beneficial to competitive fighting game gameplay.

It is absolutely essential.

My effort here, is to highlight that Mindfulness is something that most people take for granted already: so I'm going to attempt to shore up the other side of the coin that I think most people aren't considering. There's an essential balance that needs to be struck, that I think a lot of players aren't realizing, so, I'm here to make sure that you put some respect on Mindlessness' name.


You don't want to grant your opponent access to your valuable and finite energetic stores when you don't have to.

Especially in a long bracket, that can last over the course of several days.

Mechanical execution is a vital aspect of fighting games, despite many jeremiads against the modern trend towards accessibility in the genre - often perpetuated by even old-heads like myself.

"Game's garbage, but I play it."

If you ask any professional competitive sports player how much they think about the execution of basic mechanical tasks during a performance - they'd likely tell you comparatively little. They train mechanical tasks often prior to performances (shooting a basketball, throwing a football, putting a gulf ball etc.). But thinking about those actions happens during a performance only if things are going very, very wrong with those basic actions.

That's bad, not just because it means you're performing poorly on a basic, mechanical level - but any focus on fixing those actions scatters your focus away from macro level tactical/strategical play in relation to your opponent.

In fighting games, we call that a Mental Stack.

To which, you'd be contributing to, needlessly, in a self-defeating fashion.

Consider Tom Brady.

Do you think he considers how to throw a perfect spiral during a game? Of course not. It's all muscle memory, where it needs to stay, unless some reevaluation of his mechanics are forced to come into play; whether it's because it needs to improve in some way, or his throw mechanics deteriorate in some way.

But during the game itself would be the absolute worst time to fall down a rabbit hole that could have him reconsidering how to mechanically deliver the football to an open receiver.

Imagine if Steph Curry had to think about how he was going to shoot every time he got behind the arc, when he's got 2 - 6 hands in his face - it's very unlikely he'd be the best 3 point shooter the league has ever seen. But even the best shooters in basketball have off stretches. Maybe the defense that night is pressuring him in a way that gets him out of his rhythm or is forcing him into consistently low percentage shots.

But I believe the worst thing that he could do on a night like that, is question the mechanics of each and every shot that goes up.

By some, that's called "getting into your own head" and can happen to even the best of us.

Continuing to alter the mechanics to "find your shot" during a game, or even during a season, I believe, can often make matters worse.

Best to wait until the halftime, at the very earliest, before you start addressing mechanics.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Backwards

Learning requires failure. Competitive pride often makes us forget this. This Learn-Fail relationship can be attributed to the smallest of things.

This relationship is built on Mindfulness. You have to have the capacity to break down the mechanics of a task, evaluate them one-by-one, and piece them back together into something technically proficient.

But this takes its toll.

Ever felt confident in your execution for a time - only to find that you're all of a sudden dropping setups and combos that were just second nature the week before?

Check to see if you've recently added anything new to your mechanical gameplay - new setups, new combos, or new tactics for a particular matchup.

These degradations in execution can often be traced back to that new element/s (check the Changing Technique section in the aforementioned article).

It often takes time for a new element to synthesize well with other mechanical tasks and create the harmony necessary for you to be able to go back to ruthlessly beating your opponents with habits you've expertly trained (sometimes, they may not synthesize at all).

Learning something new can throw mechanical execution completely out of whack for a time.

As you can see, the goal is often to be as habitual, as mindless, as possible, within as many areas of competitive gameplay as possible.

Until opponents disrupt our comfort zone via applied pressure...

Mindlessness Can Enhance the Mindful Aspects of your Gameplay

Where the term/concept of The Mental Stack in Competitive Fighting Games originated might be unknown at this point, but it is likely derived from Psychological "Function Stacking", which is related to the MBTI Personality Test.

The goal in any competitive setting in terms of performance is to approximate what Sports Psychologists and Athletes call "Flow State".

This is a subjective feeling of a perfect harmony between execution, concentration, and creativity - Mindlessness and Mindfulness. You're essentially decapitating your opponents with your Yin/Yang disc and you're barely even conscious of it.

"Hey, sorry, did you drop this???"

Most people have experienced this mental state during some of their favorite, challenging activities at one point or another; whether it's jogging, playing a chess game, or playing Street Fighter.

But getting there is easier said than done. It happens very rarely, and there's very little scientific evidence determining how to replicate it.

But that is the ideal.

The less you're focused on what your hands are doing, the more you can focus on what your opponent is doing, to approximate that flow state.

Fighting Games are highly variable, strategic, high-speed Chess matches, that require on-the-fly adaptations that benefit from faster reactions. To a lot of experienced fighting game players; this much is obvious, but, where I think they take this for granted is how in control they can actually be in terms of what they automate from moment to moment.

If you're feeling pressure, anxiety, or uncertainty at any point in a match - that's a good sign that there's something there that needs to be automated.

Starting with beginners: If you're someone that drops combos and setups a lot, but you can perform them 10/10 times in training mode - you need to work on being more Mindless about your in-game execution. You're likely feeling too pressured by the competitive environment to allow mechanical tasks you should be confident in to do their job. Exposure therapy obviously helps here.

You might be anxious about getting hit by a certain normal in neutral - you need to automate your spacing better in that matchup. When that becomes more Mindless - you can focus more on whiff punishing the button you're scared of, or anti-airing if they choose to take that route at that spacing.

You might feel anxious about finishing off a low life, high-metered opponent - you need to automate aspects of your Endgame Strategy better with those variables in mind. Single-pixel comebacks are built off players not having a definitive, go-to strategy, or even mindset, that keeps them entirely too Mindful in a circumstance where they have a clear advantage.

Often players in this situation are playing "Not to lose" rather than "Playing to Win", which causes them to clam up and fall to opponents that can pick up on that.

If you're uncertain about how to punish a particular normal on block, how to respond if a normal is only slightly negative, how to respond if your opponent varies their actions with the understanding that you know how to respond to that slightly negative situation, etc...

...What to do if your opponent is patient, what to do if they're aggressive...

You have some Mindlessness you may need to work into your game.

THE 150K Combo Drop

What kind of thoughts do you think Phenom might have been experiencing during the flubbing of this combo? Maybe any number of things:

  1. "This is it. If I land this, the tournament is over and I win $150,000".

  2. "What is the optimal combo here? I think I'll just go for this one."

  3. "Hopefully the spacing is appropriate for this confirm."

  4. "I don't think I need to delay the DP at this spacing."

  5. All of the Above (and potentially more)

Full disclosure: though I watch a lot of SFV, I don't play the game, so I don't know a lot of its higher-level intricacies.

That said, I don't think we'll ever know for sure what was happening with Phenom's execution at that moment in time. I wouldn't be surprised if not even Phenom himself knows. From what I've been told, this is a relatively easy confirm that cost him that match. But I think it's safe to say that he was far from being in a flow state during the execution of that combo.

Often times when executing a task in a high-pressure situation, like a very easy combo on a world stage when competing for 150K; we overthink the details of the execution, thinking that's going to be some form of insurance.

Spoiler: it isn't.

"All-right. Combo's good, so far. Let me make sure I don't screw up this TK DP and actually hit 23 in the motion this - **** ME"

Okay, that's not totally fair. Sometimes, that works.

But that is far from ideal, because it's a clear mechanical deficiency being highlighted that needs addressing so that better attention can be paid elsewhere.

Like what the nature of your followup Mixup will be, or the overall narrative playing out in the match.

The goal should be to automate every aspect of your gameplay as much as feasibly possible. To be as mindless as your opponent will allow.

Simulate as much as you can in training mode and practice executing the most correct responses to your opponent's wide variety of potential actions until they become as habitual and mindless as possible. Only when they force you to become more mindful of a particular interaction should that change.

And play as much as possible.

In Conclusion

Our brains work to habituate our daily lives. It wants to do this work, with minimal effort, because as stated previously - mental effort requires quantifiable energy.

To emphasize: the same energetic stores you use to run, jump, and bench press - your brain uses approximately 20% of those calories just to operate daily. This is key to the body's maintaining of its homeostasis, which it is always fighting to achieve when it gets taken out of its comfort zone.

This isn't something to just passively know but to harness and understand to make us better fighting game players.

Mindlessness/Mindfulness work in tandem to help us create a productive feedback loop that can make us our most competitive selves. Where anxiousness, pressure, and nervousness creep in - we need to be mindful of what's happening in the environment outside and inside of the game, to ensure mechanical, mindless execution aspects are not deteriorated as a result.

"Where am I thinking too much? Where am I thinking too little?"

Be Mindlessly Mindful.


- Kye

World Fitness Association Certified Personal Trainer, with almost 10 years in the industry.

Also really loves fighting games.

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