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Conference Calls: how Seth Killian became a Street Fightin' Man

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"Part of it is straight anger and punishing people," says Seth Killian--aka S-kill, a national champion at the video-arcade game Street Fighter II. "You're publicly humiliating them. There are a lot of people whose lives are bereft of other socially apparent achievements. They are straight-up losers. But put in a certain context, some 14-year-old 300-pound kid is a real star--he's the best player in four states."

Killian grew up in Oak Park, a town that banned video arcades, but occasionally he'd ride his bicycle across the city limits to play in Chicago, and in the early 90s he discovered Street Fighter II. Designed by Yoshiki Okamoto, the game features a multicultural cast of eight characters, each with a distinct fighting style. A player chooses one of them and tries to knock out his opponent, using a joystick to move the character and six buttons to deliver different punches (jab, strong, fierce) and kicks (short, forward, roundhouse).

In high school Killian was a casual player, but as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign he encountered maverick "system-cracking" players who would find errors and oddities in the original programming and exploit them for added leverage. "Not only could they beat you, but they were cocky, sneering engineers," he says. Killian was eager to vanquish them, but he respected their acuity and was transfixed by the game's inner workings. "What seemed like overpowering tactics didn't ruin the game. It made it a much richer game, though this was not the master plan of the designers unfolding. They're far better than the guys who designed the game."

Soon he was beating them, though his ruthless style wasn't always welcome. ("I got thrown out of arcades," he confesses.) Lesser opponents often disparage such merciless tactics as "cheap," but in one of the lordly columns on his Web site (www.shoryuken.com), Killian scoffs at their presumptuousness: "Remember--when you claim something is 'cheap,' especially if it's something the designers clearly intended to be there, you're attempting a very sophisticated judgment. Since most of you are morons, this is usually a very bad idea."

After three and a half years studying bioengineering, Killian changed his major to philosophy. "The prospect of spending the rest of my life sitting in a lab and maybe 30 years later doing my own research didn't appeal to me," he says. Now 27, he's writing a doctoral dissertation about bioethics, but as soon as that's finished he wants to write the inside story of the Street Fighter subculture. "The primary constituency of this market has aged considerably since its inception," he says. "The people who grew up on this stuff and played Street Fighter enough to make it a billion-dollar franchise are now anywhere from their late teens to their mid-30s. However, the writing regarding the phenomenon hasn't aged at all; it's in cheap magazines that advertise things like bubble gum."

Last year Killian traveled to Tokyo for the first international Street Fighter competition, which was televised, complete with smoke machines and scantily clad women. This Friday at 9:30 AM he'll take part in a more subdued program, joining a roundtable discussion titled "Video Games and Civil Society" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago. At 7 PM on Saturday, University of Chicago students Kaveh Askari and Michelle Puetz will screen a short documentary on Chicago's video game scene, at Donnelley Biological Sciences Learning Center, 924 E. 57th. Both events are part of "Playing by the Rules: Video Games and Cultural Policy," a conference sponsored by the U. of C.'s Cultural Policy Center; for more information call 773-702-4407.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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