(artwork by Burgess Voshell)
The Game Design of Cockfighting
By Jonathan Zungre
I love fights. I’ve seen boxing heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko at Madison Square Garden. I've watched wrestling and Taekwondo at the Beijing Olympics. I’ve seen underground MMA in Tokyo. I’ve been to the church that holds Muay Thai kickboxing bouts in their basement in New York City on weeknights. I’ve walked around an ancient Roman arena in Paris. I just love fights. But I had never seen an actual blood sport, one that by definition required something to bleed and die. I’d never seen bullfighting or cockfighting.
Part of me wanted to see cockfighting to analyse it as a game designer. Death in games is rare. Losing something, permanently, in a game is rare. Games are usually about gaining something: Points, levels, new loot or gear, wins, championships. Not many games are about loss. Real loss. As in, you, the player, losing something. This is very interesting to me.
Loss is prevalent in cockfighting. The loss of life for the animals, the loss of money for the gamblers. Is it too much to say that it’s the highest-stake game?
Cockfighting – or “Sabong” – is huge in the Philippines. My wife is from the Philippines, so every year or so we travel there. Mostly because she misses her friends and family, but also because she has a strong connection to her land and her country. Once, when we were walking through Mall of Asia, a fairly posh and absolutely humongous mall in Manila, we strolled by a cockfighting store. Do you remember how old video game stores at a mall would play video games on little TVs in the windows? This was just like that except instead of Super Mario World it was cockfighing. I stopped in my tracks, but my wife and all her friends kept walking like it wasn’t a big deal. It’s normal there, like we were passing an Orange Julius.
I was immediately interested, but I was also afraid. Afraid of what it would do to me. Afraid of what it would look like. Afraid that people would judge me when they heard I had gone to one. I was also afraid of the gambling aspect. Not because I have a problem with gambling too much, but because outside of a few poker games and slots, I haven’t a lot of experience with it. What if I did it wrong, and accidentally bet too much money? What if I got hustled?
My wife’s uncle told me a story about how he went to his first cockfight. There was a guy on the other side of the arena who kept pointing at him and trying to get his attention. So my wife’s uncle nodded to acknowledge him. After the cockfight, a wad of money came hurtling through the air across the arena and hit him in the chest. He had just won a bet that he didn’t know he had placed. But what if he had lost? He took the money, but made sure he didn’t look anyone in the eye afterwards, afraid that he might accidentally bid his life savings and get beat up because he couldn’t pay.
That’s probably what I was most afraid of – accidentally betting money and getting beat up. Or what if they just wanted an excuse to beat up the white American guy for the heck of it? That might be a fun diversion, right? Beat up the little American guy in between cockfights? I’d be like the halftime show.
When I’m simultaneously afraid of and interested in something, I usually convince myself that it’s something I need to do. I told my father-in-law that I wanted to go to see Sabong. Through my father in law’s connections (a lot things in Manila are done through connections), he got us tickets and a guide for the next big cockfight. I arrived with my father-in-law and brother-in-law just a few minutes before one of the year’s biggest cockfights – or hackfights as they are called there – was about to begin. I was nervous.
The first thing that surprised me about cockfighting is how legitimate and established a sport it is. The arena we went to was a professional space. It was large. I had imagined the place as a dirt-floored building or a back alley. I thought I’d be peering over a ring of people to see the fight. This place was a small sporting arena and had concession stands, tiered seating and air conditioning. It probably seated more than 1,500 people and felt like an arena where you might go see a minor league basketball team or hockey team play. The biggest cockfights have been held at Araneta Coliseum, a 25,000-person stadium that hosted the famous Thrilla in Manilla boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Even though the place was professional, I was still intimidated. A couple of tough-looking Filipino guys were staring at me. I tried to play it cool, but how can you? I wished I had some tattoos and looked like the type of guy who did this all the time, for whom it wasn’t a big deal.
I was the only white person there. There were no women in the arena. This is a place for locals. I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, but my brother-in-law said he felt that he was dressed too nicely in his collared shirt. Even as Filipinos, they felt a little out of place. There was a reason they had never seen Sabong: This is not something people in their circles do. There was a man in the upper deck of the arena who was getting a massage while he watched the cockfights. Not a full body massage, but he did have his shirt off.
My uncle’s guide greeted us at the door of the arena and got us through security, which involved metal detectors. He was a “Kristo” – a bet taker – whose title comes from taking bets with outstretched arms, reminiscent of a crucified Christ. He seemed to be in his mid-forties and an obvious veteran of this world. I felt a little safer.
When we got to our seats, I immediately noticed that the cock fighting pit wasn’t really a pit at all. It was a square raised platform a little higher than a boxing ring, but instead of ropes it had a clear sheets of plexiglass to contain the fighting cocks. The floor wasn’t canvas, it was dirt. But it didn’t look messy; it was clean, like a sumo wrestling platform.
The second thing that surprised me about cockfighting is how many fights there are. An average MMA fight card has around nine or ten fights. A boxing card sometimes has as little as four or five. The hackfight we saw had 50 scheduled! 50! And I’m thinking that it’s not just the losers of the fights that die. A lot of times the winners also get very, very wounded. They have surgeons that stitch the winners up after fights, but I’m sure some of them don’t make it.
Before the cocks fight, there is a raucous round of impromptu wild betting. It sounds like a Wallstreet stock exchange floor. It's thunderous. You make bets with people around you, with official Kristos down front. It’s obvious that the Kristos know what they’re doing, so we made all our bets through our guide. I avoided eye contact with the bet takers, because I didn’t want to accidentally bet my way to a beating like my wife’s uncle almost did.
Another surprise is that cockfighting revolves more around the betting than it does around blood. Without the risk of losing money, cockfighting wouldn't be that interesting. With a couple of exceptions, all the fights I saw were bloodless and very short – on average 30 fleeting seconds of feathers flying. Nobody’s there to see blood; they’re there to gamble. The 50 cockfights scheduled aren’t 50 opportunities to see carnage. They’re 50 opportunities to make money.
That’s not to say that the cockfights aren’t violent. They’re kind of like chicken swordfights. Each cock has a two-inch blade fastened to its natural heel spur. The blade makes the fights go quickly, I’m guessing, so that more fights can fit on a card. With every ten fights there is a more high-profile cockfight, like a main event. Sometimes this pits two “fastest kill” award recipients against each other, which means both cocks have had the fastest kills at a previous event and have lived to fight again.
The main events make the already riotous betting go up to a whole new level. I saw one Kristo turn to the others and hold up a few fingers on each hand, indicating he was offering a good bet for a ton of money. More than five Kristos ran to him to take it. They came at him so hard and so fast that they slammed into him and jammed his extended fingers. Someone got the bet, but the poor Kristo was shaking his hand and cursing like he had stubbed it on a basketball. The Kristos moved faster than the cocks.
So how do you pick a winning cock? What makes a rooster look tough? Picking a winner is actually perhaps the most enjoyable part of the cockfighting game experience. What can you relate it to in video games? SaltyBet? But it’s better than SaltyBet. You’re betting real money with real people sitting around you. And you’re trying to figure out which animal is stronger in the most primal sense. How would you determine which is going to win a fight to the death? Since cocks are matched up based on weight, you can’t go by size. Color of feathers? Which farm or team the cock is from? Temperament? Do you look for confidence? What does confidence look like on a chicken?
I bade my time by watching a bunch of fights, trying to spot a common factor shared by the winners. The two cocks were always separated into one of two corners: Meron and Wala. “Meron” means “having” in Tagalog, meaning the cock already had bets on it, indicating that it’s the favorite to win. The “Wala” – or “without” – corner means the cock didn’t have any bets on it yet, and was the underdog. I did see some “Wala” underdogs win some fights, but it was pretty rare and I didn’t want that. I wanted a sure thing.
At some point, I saw them change the name plates to say that a “Meron” named Aimee was about to fight. Nice name. When Aimie showed up she arched her neck and crowed loudly, almost as if she was claiming the arena as her own. Now that's what I’m talking about, I thought. Confidence. This was my cock.
When we told our guide that I wanted to bet 500 Filipino pesos on Aimee, he nodded without much reaction. No enthusiasm. I later realised after a few more bets that we were betting laughably small amounts of money. We were playing penny slots amongst high rollers. Our Kristo was respectfully indulging us. Still, people took our bets, perhaps out of novelty.
Aimee was going up against an intimidating black and brown opponent named “Emperor,” which is a scary-sounding name, but he was the “Wala” so he couldn’t be that good, right?
Emperor came out hard against Aimee and tried to strike her with his spur. When the cocks fight, they often jump in the air at the same time and there’s a furious ruffling of feathers. Or, if one stays grounded, they sometimes jump over and land behind each other. Strangely enough, it resembles the fighting in Street Fighter 2. Street Fighter 2’s verticality makes it look a lot more like cockfighting than real street fighting.
Emperor and Aimee clashed in the air and fell to the ground. Emperor stayed upright while Aimee fell to her haunches, head slightly bowed, like a mother hen on her eggs. This is how you know one cock has landed a damaging blow. Aimee had been stabbed. Most cocks don’t recover from this.
When cocks get stabbed and fall to their haunches, it looks like they’re finished. They look defeated. But when the attacker draws near, they spring back to life like the fight has just begun. It looks like what we would describe as “heart” in human sports. It’s strangely inspiring. The cock is literally dying, but will not give up the fight.
When Emperor drew near, Aimee leapt high into the air and, in one motion, struck Emperor with her spur. An instant kill, and a remarkable and rare come-from-behind victory for Aimee. You could hear the shock roaring through the crowd.
Our Kristo walked over to me and gave me the 1,000 Filipino pesos that I had just won from my nameless, faceless bet taker. It was absolutely exhilarating. I leaned over to my brother-in-law and, in a state of shock, said: “I just bet and won money at a cockfight.” He was as surprised as I was.
I can say without a doubt that betting and winning money at a live cockfight was one of the most intense game experiences I have ever had. I can understand why hundreds of years of culture can exist around this game. It’s bonkers. There’s something about the risk of betting money that’s intrinsically exhilarating, but it’s amplified when you’re betting on something as high-stake and as final as life and death.
From a game design perspective, death – real death – is an interesting game mechanic, and it helps the betting process. First, it’s decisive. There’s never any question as to which cock won the fight: One is walking around and one is not. For the first time, I began to see why cockfighting is an international phenomenon. It’s not because the people watching it are sadists or barbarians. It comes down to the appraising of the fighters, the betting of real money, the beating someone else, and lastly, maybe least importantly, the real-world profit. When you win, you win a gambling game and a strategy game against another real person for real world gain. You were smarter and gutsier and for that you are rewarded in cash. It’s absolutely intoxicating.
A toll started to take place. Most cockfights had seemed bloodless, but suddenly in one fight a cock from the “Wala” corner had its pure white feathers turn bright red. Worse, it twitched and flapped its arms while dying. It was gruesome and sad. I then realised perhaps the dark plumage of earlier birds had disguised all the blood. People didn’t come to see blood, but there was plenty of it.
A dilemma: What do you spend blood money on? A nice necklace for your wife? A six-piece chicken nugget set at McDonalds? Winning money from cockfighting was exhilarating, but the thought of using any of it felt terrible. Blood money felt dirty and it felt like I had to spend it on something dirty or wasteful. This is probably why criminal king pins buy yachts, cocaine and tigers. Could you ever spend ill-gotten gains on something mundane? It’s interesting to imagine hitmen out there paying for their Netflix subscriptions with assassination money.
After ten minutes the high of winning money faded, and I could feel the weight of the money in my hand. I wanted to lose it. My father-in-law hadn’t fared so well in the betting, he was a thousand pesos down, and my brother-in-law hadn’t bet at all. I offered him my money so he could bet, but he declined. I decided to bet my winnings on another cock and let the gods of the arena decide if I should be set back to zero.
I picked a “Wala” corner. I thought it might be even more exhilarating to bet on an underdog and win. A risky bet, maybe a sloppy bet.
I picked a great “Wala” named Big Hoss from a cock fighting farm that had Texas in their name. I didn’t know if this meant that the fighting cocks were from Texas or that the farm was Texan in spirit. What I liked about Big Hoss was that he was the only cock I had seen that acknowledged the presence of the crowd. He stared at the crowd and attacked the plexiglass. Big Hoss was a renegade and would not be a pawn in our game. I imagined Big Hoss was giving us all the middle finger, and at that point in the night, I kind of liked that about him.
Unfortunately, Big Hoss was large and got pitted against another heavyweight that absolutely destroyed him. It lasted less than 30 seconds. When they separated the cocks, they had to pull the spur out of Big Hoss’ body – it was lodged so tightly. The gambler I lost to didn’t have to try nearly as hard to separate my money from me.
We left about one-third into the night. As we left, we tried to give the rest of the money to our Kristo guide, but he declined. I don’t really know why he indulged us and our small-time bets all night and then refused the tip.
As we left the arena, I started to process cockfighting as a game, and real death as a mechanic. What does real death add to this game? I have two ideas. First, it’s incredibly decisive. There is never any dispute as to which cock won the fight, and which gambler has won money.
A problem with modern boxing is that often it’s hard to know who won the fight. It’s not as decisive as a game about punching should be. When I saw Heavyweight Champ Klitschko at Madison Square Garden, I had a hard time judging who won. Klitschko and other current boxers have great defense, and when only a few punches are landed each round, what decides the winner and the loser? In a cockfight, the loser is dead.
Second, real death gives the game intrinsically high stakes. There’s a seriousness and danger to cockfight-betting that isn’t present in other forms of gambling. When you appraise a fighting cock, the bet you’re making is literally a life-or-death decision. That creates an intensity absent from a lot of betting games. It feels something like the best part of drafting games or the choices in deckbuilding games, amplified by several magnitudes.
In video games, we have nothing like cockfighting. Nothing as intense, nothing as dangerous. Even “hardcore” games like Bloodborne give you infinite deaths. Rogue-likes and other games with permadeath let you start over. There aren’t a lot of digital games that make you lose something permanently, or that replicate and leverage the seriousness and finality of death. The game mechanics that exist in real-world games have yet to make their way into the realm of digital games.
As a game designer, I have to wonder: Could we borrow from cockfighting to make our games better while leaving out the problematic elements? Could we design digital fighting games where the created characters' files are deleted after they lose one too many fights? Can we even design new games that have valid or compelling betting mechanics? For real money? Based on the compelling experience I had watching Sabong, I think it’s only a matter of time.