Codes of Honor

This article was originally published in Rhizome.

Chinatown Fair arcade closed down on February 28th, 2011, after over 50 years. Gamers are still in mourning. CF, as it was known, was one of the last videogame arcades in America where one could count on finding top-level competition. I spent the better part of 2009 in that dingy, dim-lit arcade at the end of Mott street, which was the battlegound for the best players in the history of pro-gaming.

The first Street Fighter release in a decade—Street Fighter IV—just came out, sparking a short-lived renaissance in the fighting game community. I got to know the regulars at the arcade and began conducting daily video interviews, asking them to recall their greatest memories at the joysticks. I set up a YouTube channel, which was widely followed and the comment section became a major forum for debate in the community. During that year, I learned that to be a top-pro one could not simply master the technical aspect of the game; to compete at the highest level one needed to have a strong character and a deep understanding of human psychology. I learned that pro-gamers ascribe to the values and virtues of the classical archetypes of yore: honor, respect for the other, and excellence. Hardcore gamers have an experience of acheivement so intense that, although limited in scope and time, it is forever difficult to equal. Although nothing can rival the high they get from defeating a worthy opponent or the reputation during their reign, the fame is as fleeting as the high of the win. And so I learned of the tragic element that is inherent to the experience of videogaming.

I learned of many celebrated gamers but as legends go, no one topped Eddie Lee, the East Coast Champ. Eddie is recognized as the pioneer of the New York-style of gameplay, a variation of the “Turtle-Style.” Considered the most frustrating of all combat forms, turtling requires infinite patience. The strategy demands that one play a zero-risk game, keeping the perfect distance from the opponent, waiting for the enemy to make a mistake, but never taking the initiative, just waiting patiently for him to slip. When he finally does, he is punished. This was the style Eddie Lee felt he had to pass on—not the brave crowd-pleasing grace of the “Rushdown” fighter, but the calculated brutality of the defensive master that shuns all desire for spectacle. Part of the appeal to the story of Eddie Lee was that he suddenly and mysteriously dropped out of the tournament scene at the height of his powers. It was rumoured that he went on to use these very skills to become a successful Wall Street day trader.

When I found the legend of Eddie Lee, I found the center to my film. In order to portray the tension between regret for the time spent playing without a visible legacy and nostalgia for the thrill of the game, I integrate three perspectives: i) a narrator in a virtual world who reminisces about his days as a pro-gamer, ii) a Chinatown Fair regular who recounts his greatest memory, and iii) classic cut-scenes from the games themselves. In this way,  Codes of Honor moves through actual, virtual, and imaginary space and time.

Rather than adopting the popular perspective on gaming as a way of escaping life, engaging in violence or being antisocial, the film focuses on the gamers’ pure joy in their hard-sought achievements, the thrill of high-level competition, the significance it gives their lives, and the communities they create. We see the journey of a professional gamer as he moves from the prized moment when he masters a game or defeats an arch-rival to the despairing moment when he realizes his legacy will soon be forgotten. We see him confront a question that faces us all: in a world where history and tradition mean less and less, how do we achieve redemption? How do we even construct a continuous self?