Keeping Kayfabe

Pro wrestling plays out important narrative contradictions about competition and collusion, but academic analyses rarely get past calling it ‘fake’ and ‘gay’

When Sharon Mazer published Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle in 1998, its object — the genre of performance known variously as “professional wrestling” or “sports entertainment” — was revving up to enter one of the biggest boom periods in its history. She spent two-thirds of her book talking about the training school she observed, in proper sociological form, and it was so reminiscent of a play for authenticity that it reads suspiciously similar to many a wrestling forum post of a mark trying to prove he’s smart to the business.

Professional wrestling is exactly the sort of thing that seems as though it should have an academic cottage industry around it; probably the most famous piece of writing about it is by Roland Fucking Barthes, and that includes a history invoking carnival, the popularization of television, and corporate expansion in the early years of neoliberalism. Yet instead of theorizing or periodization, sociological studies trickle out and never seem to get past, “I know it’s fake, you do too. Let’s talk about this other thing … I do get it, I’m smart to the business, don’t worry! (Appendix: it is kinda gay though, isn’t it?)”

What exists of a literature outside of the academic ranges from fanzines and affiliate blogs to impressive histories and miniature empires within the podcast and memoir industries. All of this, of course, by enthusiasts or erstwhile performers. Professional wrestling, as an offshoot of the carnival around the turn of the 20th century, has a term for this kind of investment; it’s called working. Often, working someone means tricking someone into buying in, by way of convincing them it was real. But just as often that latter part doesn’t really matter.

Sharon Mazer got worked, in other words — not into investing in a competitive spectacle where no competition was to be found, but into the cultural insularity that demands at minimum a demonstration of authentic fandom as a condition of possibility for acceptance. Pieces of her book are interesting as a polemic on the structural ramifications of gender in the genre, but even these are suspect; she got worked.

The latest academic book on professional wrestling, R. Tyson Smith’s Fighting for Recognition, manages to be the endless ethnography without even including the polemic.

Recognition isn’t so much bad as it is a book for which the audience seems nonexistent. I say this as someone who is not only interested in reading nearly any (nonautobiographical) wrestling book I can get my hands on, but who has a special fondness for academic writing, who has been regularly impressed with Duke University Press’s output and would love a rigorous feminist critique of professional wrestling. And while Smith gestures toward that with a chapter theorizing the genre as a uniquely masculine form of emotional labor, it inevitably returns to the ethnography.

For someone who is not invested in that particular pedagogy, however, it ends up being dull and occasionally infuriating. The infuriating bits come from statements like, “Few identities, even soldier and boxer, automatically connote the hardened manliness of ‘wrestler.'” This in a text about how pro wrestling is a complex navigation of masculinity via recognition and authenticity, one which came out three decades after everyone ‘learned’ it was fake (and gay). Or: “Performers want to make contact with the more fleshy parts of the body, so they usually avoid closed fists. Open fists soften the blows and make the contact noise more audible,” a claim that isn’t untrue but is also aggressively ahistorical to the point of being insulting.

This is actually a consequence of professional wrestling’s regulation by state athletic commissions, which would stop matches in which the ostensible rules (dating from catch wrestling) were broken. This limitation was turned into an opportunity, allowing smacks that resonated further to become standard.

Recognition also bears similarities to the book Drawing Heat by Jim Freedman, who similarly lived and worked with a small, independent group  of wrestlers who were attempting to carve a niche for themselves outside the monopolistic ruling group. Freedman, despite being referred to as “the professor” throughout by the wrestlers, wrote the book in the style of a gonzo journalist; for him, the strange phenomenon of pro wrestling was more story than subject. By taking this approach, Freedman managed to write about the particular engagements with masculinity and economics that professional wrestlers deal with without stumbling into the trap of fetishizing them. Read together with Mazer’s Sport and SpectacleDrawing Heat‘s holes become more informative on the issues than Smith’s Recognition, despite its eagerness to address those issues.

Luckily, another recently released text allows for critical reflection on professional wrestling that avoids the narrative pitfall and the ethnographic piddling. It happens to be WWE SuperCard, a free-to-play mobile collectible-card game based on developer Cat Daddy Games’ previous MyNBA2K14 (particularly its MyTeam Mobile game mode). To play, you download the app and link it to your Facebook, Google, or iOS GameCenter account, receive some cards with arbitrary statistics and the likenesses of “Superstars, “Legends,” or “Divas” — the job titles given to the individuals contracted to perform as on-screen or live-event talent by the WWE corporation, which runs the most prominent pro-wrestling franchise — and get to battling AI-controlled versions of other players’ decks.

As a game, WWE SuperCard revolves around the production and reproduction of a transient win-state, which is also known as grinding; the player engages in a relatively trivial set of actions that produce discrete outputs that are fed back into these same actions. In Final Fantasy, this is wandering aimlessly to kill weak monsters to level up to be able to kill a stronger monster; in SuperCard, this is playing the game. These outputs make the player, at least nominally, better, in that the numbers involved are higher, strategies are developed over time, and the adjectival nouns are intensified. The bizarre way in which using a wrestler who is near universally despised becomes a sort of humblebrag; a legendary, one player might say to another, yes, but a legendary Eva Marie, of all characters, the least competent performer, and somehow she is overpowered? These moments where a card’s stats break with the tenuous justifications given them by the player are instructive of how the play interfaces with the fiction.

There’s a certain irony to WWE SuperCard being an iteration on an NBA card game. The WWE, the most successful professional wrestling promotion of all time, became that way through decades of disavowal of the similarities between the genre and sports, in ways that have ranged from public whistle-blowing by the owner — Vince MacMahon, Jr., who did so to remove professional wrestling from the purview of athletic commissions — to taking the company public.

Professional wrestling is a scripted performance of a competitive sport; the act of obscuring that performance is traditionally called “keeping kayfabe.” A short history: Kayfabe as obscurantism was, like “working,” relic of the carnival origins of professional wrestling and its subsequent regulation by state athletic commissions. To protect wrestling as a business, it was necessary to pretend it was a sport. It was necessary to simulate fair competition.

Through whatever accident of history, the active performance of competition was never a primary concern of the northeast promoters. They — Vince MacMahon, Sr., and especially Vince MacMahon, Jr. — owned the corporation that took the genre over, and the primacy of the ruse faded. Instead of a means of “protecting the business,” it became in MacMahon’s hands an end, a moving piece within the drama.

And it was a piece that, when moved, became the basis of the only two major pro-wrestling boom periods of the last half century, known to fans as the Golden Age (1985 to 1990) and the Attitude Era (1997 to 2002). Fans, in retrospect, like to pretend that these periods were remarkable not for their baldness but for their being moments in which corporate competition yielded exceptional televisual products. When the Ted Turner–owned WCW challenged the WWE (and for a year and a half, won, at least in ratings) the WWE responded with the strategy it had employed before: Break kayfabe, and work within new parameters. The official narrative to this day remains that competition compelled excellence, not that the particular charisma of independently contracted performers was combined with a tried and true strategy to work an audience.

But that official explanation ignores that the entire history of wrestling is the history of monopolistic collusion. This is less a matter of the lack of available information than it is the willful self-application of kayfabe by fans. Kayfabe, after all, is the name given to techniques for obscuring that cooperation is operative at all: It is a name for valorizing competition.

Keeping this in mind is crucial to understanding just how the combination of a particular genre of performance with the form of digital games hinges on this same valorization. Games which hinge on power fantasies themselves require an obscurantist approach to cooperation, usually by way of metrics (like the kill:death ratio, or the single-player leader board), just as does the capitalist mode of production more broadly. The question of how each goes about achieving that obscurity is where the work comes into play.

Ludonarrative dissonance is a term coined by Clint Hocking to pinpoint an issue with constructing thematic unity in games. The game Bioshock, he argued, seemed “to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story.” Hocking’s central point is that a game, as an exercise in mechanics, should remember to revise those mechanics in light of the narrative created to justify them. For Bioshock, this problem arose in its attempt to critique Ayn Randian Objectivism. The narrative suggested the philosophy was full of holes, but the mechanics created a world in which it was the only possible reality. By suggesting the mechanics be made to better exemplify the narrative, Hocking started a discussion about how to approach game design holistically, by folding the narrative elements in with the traditional game stuff — how you shoot, walk, and grab things.

The concept has been a specter of the growing critical wing of the enthusiast games press since its publication; arguments range from its applicability to other individual games to its actual definition to whether or not it even represents a functional problem. What seems to be largely missing from this conversation is an attempt at defining on what conditions the term works. Focused as it is on the diachronic construction of narrative, it can only be read into a text. Without ranging too far afield, this means that it is functionally immaterial whether or not it exists.

What WWE SuperCard suggests, however, is that there is another face on which this read-into dissonance can be established — at the synchronic level. Despite functionally lacking a narrative, the game’s mechanics of competition and statistical superiority are at odds with its iconographic depiction of performers. This contradiction happens at all moments, in each and over all, rather than developing through them. Call it ludoiconographic dissonance.

Kayfabe is always a form of dissonance, whether as an honest attempt to lie to a mark or as a performance of roles for an in crowd. And the history of professional wrestling video games is a history of keeping a compromised kayfabe, from the 2K series back through the Smackdown vs. Raw games to the Fire Pro series or Saturday Night Slammasters. The open secret has always been out, but the games pretend at ignorance: Playing professional wrestling, as a digital game, means inhabiting the role of a performer as a straightforward competitor.

People can tell stories over time, but when the kayfabe’s made static and statistical, something ends up giving. SuperCard‘s dissonance is that it is a game built in a genre (/economic model) that relies on progression and accumulation yet which leverages a brand that refuses them (insofar as they are ideologically bonded to competition, against cooperation) for its iconography.

There are a number of takeaways here. In leveraging the legacy of professional-wrestling video games and marrying it to the new “generous” free-to-play economy of mobile games, Cat Daddy Games has achieved a small feat: For all the synchronic dissonance of the game itself, it rings harmonious. Not in its play, its mediated, authorized interaction with coded rule sets, but in its economics. Just as kayfabe has moved from a method of suckering in marks to a performance that hinges on the premise of complicity of knowledge (that still buys in), SuperCard‘s existence as a game published by Take-Two Interactive means that it is going to neither make nor break the bank for anyone involved, which allows it to avoid the most predatory forms of social-game monetization. And if you give “gamers” a mobile game on a free-to-play model with an even slightly less predatory monetization strategy than what has become the standard, they’ll happily shower you with the discretionary income they are constantly threatening to withhold. A gamer is a mark, and monetization strategies are kayfabe.

The other takeaway is that the texts that evolve from professional wrestling are, among other things, complex, dense, and contradictory, linked to histories worth engaging and capable of critical reflection that includes, but is not limited to, how fake and gay it is. Hopefully the next time an academic publisher decides to populate this niche (presumably in 15 years), they will take the lessons of books like Smith’s Recognition to heart. For all its issues, Recognition clearly respects the men who perform and never forgets that the tension between competition and cooperation forms the backbone of a reasonable analysis of pro wrestling.