Photo credit Robert Paul @tempusrob
On the last day of January 2012, the National Football League was named in a lawsuit that alleged that the league “deliberately ignored and actively concealed” the facts about traumatic brain injuries such as concussions. Despite the league’s attempts to downplay the issue, the topic became a part of the national consciousness in the years that followed. Will Smith dramatized the issue in an award-winning 2015 movie, the NFL paid out almost a billion dollars in settlements, and every major sports league adopted concussion protocols.
But while the NFL was doing its best to obfuscate the consequences of brain injuries, Nikhil “Aeriqui” DeLaHaye was living them. Just a few months after that January 2012 lawsuit, DeLaHaye was rehearsing for an event at his high school when he fell and hit his head on the concrete. The impact was so severe that it caused a seizure. Worse, its effects lingered, putting Delahaye through “some of the most difficult years of my life.” His thinking was foggy, his motor functions were impaired, “and all the while I was struggling in school due to post-concussion symptoms, struggling socially because I didn’t have much of a support system, and struggling to try to make sure I could finish my high school work in time to be able to go to college.”
Thankfully, the Virginia native did eventually recover. Not only did he manage to finish high school, he earned a full scholarship to the University of Miami, graduated with a degree in Public Health, and went on to earn a Master’s in Health Administration. Part of his rehab occurred under the supervision of medical specialists. But for another portion, he took matters into his own hands, speeding his convalescence with an unorthodox rehabilitation program: playing fighting games.
Aside from requiring patients to rest until the most severe symptoms have receded, researchers have established little in the way of a consensus when it comes to treating concussions. In some studies, gaming seems to speed recovery. But other experts say that gaming can actively subvert the healing process.
Either way, there are few or no studies that attempt to treat concussions with fighting games, which are among the most cognitively and manually demanding video games. To succeed at fighting games, players have to master complex and counter-intuitive control schemes, memorize large amounts of technical data, quickly assess their opponents’ tendencies, and then act on all of that information in real time while under stress. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this one genre tests players in ways that span the entire video gaming spectrum.
For DeLaHaye, the foray into fighting games began with Injustice: Gods Among Us. As a lifelong fan of DC comics, he was instantly drawn to the game’s iconic characters. Although he still had trouble concentrating and executing the game’s commands, “I decided I wanted to put effort and time into [it] to get better. I spent many nights going through Test Your Might [a community-led forum] and looking for information and then testing that information on one of my training partners.
“I would lose over and over and over again because of brain fog and frustration,” he says, “but eventually there was a breakthrough. One night I came back and beat my training partner 10-0 and it was one of the most powerful moments I could remember. I thought to myself, ‘If I can struggle through all of this and against all odds manage to adapt and overcome this, then maybe I can adapt and overcome everything else.’”
Healing Himself, Healing His Communities
Next up for DeLaHaye was Street Fighter IV. After picking Nightwing, one of the more technical characters in Injustice, he stepped it up by choosing to main Ibuki in his new game. Her game plan was even harder to execute, and “the dexterity required really strained my brain and left me exhausted after a lot of training sessions. In addition, I was struggling under the weight of my college workload and my post-concussion symptoms were not letting up…Things really felt bleak.”
While DeLaHaye’s injury was rare, his feelings weren’t. All fighting game players share the experiences of feeling frustrated, worn down, or defeated. Rather than facing them alone, fighting gamers have formed a worldwide community of comradeship and support. By choosing to “struggle through [and] overcome” his hardships, DeLaHaye secured his membership in the Fighting Game Community, and it was the community that helped him keep moving forward.
He found his way to the University of Miami’s Video Games Club, which at the time “was mostly [Ultimate] Marvel [vs. Capcom 3] players who just wanted to run sets, but it would eventually evolve into something much more. I was able to make friends and learn.” He took his lumps, too: at one point, he played a friend for eight hours without winning a single match. “But I kept going and kept trying because I wasn’t just fighting for myself to get better.” He decided he had to fight for his community, too.
As a player who conducted a good deal of his research online, DeLaHaye had been exposed to the ugly side of gaming culture. There were “a lot of community leaders not being good examples and creating pockets of negativity,” he says. “I wanted to do my best to rise above that and make better communities wherever I went.” This mission renewed his motivation. Before he graduated, he would lead his school’s Games Club and use his position to “build a community of progressive minded gamers from all different genres.”
Adapt And Thrive
As he continued to grow within the scene, DeLaHaye’s concussion symptoms diminished until they were almost entirely gone. He picked up more new games and characters, including Maya and Mira in Killer Instinct and Master Raven in Tekken 7.
At his first major, Combo Breaker 2017, he got so jittery that his motor issues resurfaced. “I drowned in pools heavy,” he says. “I tanked, and it hurt.”
But he stuck to the lessons that he’d learned in the years before, and he persevered. “All those years of recovering from my concussion and teaching myself how to learn paid off, as I would become a notable player within the South Florida scene, all while juggling graduate school full time. So really it was the culmination of wanting to be a great community leader and wanting to constantly improve myself that led me to stick with and fall in love with fighting games.”
Fighting games ushered DeLaHaye into a world where he could make a real difference, both for himself and for others. “To this day, I always try to introduce new people to them because beyond the physical and mental rehabilitation they gave me, they gave me a sense of purpose that brought me through my darkest times. And every time I play I always want to play for all the people out there who might have gone through something similar to me. I want to show them that even through adversity or disability, it’s possible to adapt, survive, overcome, and thrive.”
DeLaHaye knows that his journey isn’t over yet. He still wants to improve as a competitor, and he will always fight for the causes that he believes in. “I might not be the smartest, fastest, or strongest, but I will always be the last one standing because I walked through a lot of fire to get there. And for the rest of my life, I always see myself just wanting to press some buttons on a setup and see how far I can go.”
To support DeLaHaye and keep up with his story, follow him on YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and SoundCloud.
Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) is a novelist who works in software and lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His first book is set in the FGC and will be available for sale soon. To learn more, follow him on Twitter and check out his official website.