Friday, May 2, 2014

Hiatus

Hey there folks. As you can read from the title, I'm going to take a brief break from the regular updates to work on some other stuff. Life things, other writing projects, etc. You may have noticed (or maybe it's just me?) that the posts have all lately run towards similar themes and felt kind of samey. I've got some other stuff on my mind to work on and kind of feel like I'm really digging around to find stuff to write about. I think it's starting to show a bit.

So for the immediate future, my recommendation is to expect a break from regular updates. There may be a random update here and there, and you will know through the typical channels (Twitter, Facebook, or vague ripples on the Internet that make your browser quiver like a purring kitty-cat).

See you when I see you!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Form

Something that’s pretty interesting (to me, anyhow) is how people get taught the correct “form” for executing things. Or don’t get taught, or get taught badly. You learn a form from one coach, move on to another, and he or she starts having to undo all that horrible damage. Which, funnily enough, your third coach in the future also finds it necessary to undo.

For a given game, you have a certain result that you want to achieve. The ball wants to go in the net or down the field or into a cup. The game imposes restrictions on how you can interact with the elements of the game, from a ball to a stick to another player to the other nine players or whatever.

You also have certain restrictions; specifically, you have the restrictions imposed on you by your body. The more of your body involved in a motion, the more compound and complicated the motion becomes. Little adjustments and changes in one place will turn into an adjustment and change in another.

You try adjusting a swing by leaning a little more on one leg. To complete the swing after you start, you rotate. Because your balance is a little shifted, you tilt a bit as you swing and tighten an oblique muscle a bit extra. Tightening the muscle reduces a bit of the flexibility, which causes you to tilt your shoulder, which changes the angle of the swing a little. One little change rolls all the way down the line (well maybe it does so in a way completely unlike what I just described, I am not a kinesiologist).

In order to adjust for one thing, your body will try and preserve balance, keep you from falling over for no reason, whatever. Sometimes, if you mess with your form enough, you can injure yourself because your body isn’t a magical know-it-all being and hurts itself for no reason. Or it’s just trying to do what you tell it, which was a bad idea from the start.

You want a result. To get the result, you cultivate a form. If you’re going to compete in a given game for a long period of time, you will need to execute that form over and over again. Having a form that works against your body does you no favors, particularly in the long term. You will adjust one thing, tighten something else, over-rotate here, and after thousands of executions you will be seeing a doctor for your chronic pain. You can sometimes cobble a painful (but successful) form together out of bad habits, often by ignoring the specific needs of your body.

In most cases, the purpose of the form is to fulfill the function. The challenge is not to fulfill the function while mindlessly adhering to the form. Unless the form is very specifically stated in the rules of your game, I suppose. But if the goal of the game is “move the ball into the circle somehow,” then everything serves that. Even if your form looks bloody stupid it will become the norm after awhile if it’s better than everybody else’s.

In the context of video games, it’s kind of good that people don’t really stress over form (I can imagine the YouTube tutorials where somebody tells you that you need to make sure your index finger remains 1.25 inches away from your middle finger at all times to maximize muscular flexibility and coordination while inputting shoryukens, and I laugh at the imaginary nerd), though I think it deserves some kind of mention. Cultivating your own form is important. The form exists for purposes of consistency, and consistent performance is an indicator of developed skill.

If you are going to do something over and over again, you want to have a form that permits you to do it the same way. If you position your hands to execute it one way this time, and a different way another time… well, you increase the odds that something little will interfere. Your body learns heavily through repetition. Changing parameters will change output.

Little changes in one part of the body affect others. If you tuck your arm in next to your side a little more today than you did yesterday, it bends, twists, and tenses just a little differently. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the more precise a motion needs to be, the more consistency is demanded. Some games come down to executions measured in tenths of an inch and sixtieths of a second. You do not want anything interfering with your comfort and repetition more than necessary. You already have enough to deal with in competition from nerves making you shaky and tensing your muscles. Position your arm a bit differently and you change the angle your hand and thumb move, and now you are performing a motion slightly different from the one you practiced. Not a big deal, unless it’s the clutch moment and something you should have been able to rely on goes a little wrong. People lose hundreds or thousands of dollars by frames and by pixels. Stuff like that matters.

People obsess over their equipment because little differences (a wider grip, a bit of less tension in something, whatever) throws of little sensitivities you develop over years of practice. Almost any competitor will tell you “ugh, something feels off” when little things are different, and the “off” feeling heavily contributes to discomfort and lack of focus, diminishing performance. If I remember right, Starcraft player Flash was known for using a ruler to measure the distance of the keyboard from the edge of the desk when he traveled to events. Why not? Everything counts when it comes to maintaining form. If you go to fighting game tournaments, sometimes you see players sitting in front of the big crowd on the big stage… on the floor, stick in lap. If that’s how they practice at home, that is what will increase their consistency and make them feel comfortable. It might look silly, but so does dropping bread and butters.

It’s not something people mention a lot (for gaming, anyhow) but I felt like talking about it a bit. Try and practice things the way that you will execute them in competition. On the flip side, when you get to competitions, try and set things up so you are playing just like you do at home. When you practice something, pay close attention to how you hold a controller or stick or approach your keyboard. Get your form down. Don’t introduce pointless variables unless you want to surprise yourself with sudden inconsistencies.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Friday, April 25, 2014

Shame and Embarrassment

There are a few themes that keep popping up when I write. They are basically the core principles of my worldview, or at least the ones I try to keep in mind.

One of them is that you should try and deal with reality as it is (or as close as you can get to perceiving it that way). We have a lot of biases and flawed tendencies that keep us from doing this, so sometimes it means working a little extra hard. Sometimes that means not trusting yourself 100% when you think or feel something. As the saying goes, you’re only human. This goes for your emotions.

Another principle is that emotional responses should serve you. They exist to motivate you and guide your action. If you recognize that an emotional response is not helping, or that your attitude towards that emotion isn’t helping… you should make effort to change it.

That’s also based on the principle that your emotional responses are not absolutes. Your rational, conscious mind can encourage you to focus on different things, to adjust your attitude. This doesn’t mean you can suddenly, magically banish all emotion and be a living computer whenever you want. But you can make certain shifts by intentionally trying to look at things a different way. This works both in the short term and the long term.

Why would you try to change your emotions? Because of another principle: your emotions are not hard indicators of reality out there. Emotions tell you something about yourself. Two people in the same situation will respond a little differently, because they are different people. An emotional response tells you about your values and attitudes and beliefs and perceptions. It's a flawed system, one with limited capacities.

And that’s where you bring it back to the first one I mentioned. We are only human. Our emotions and attitudes guide our behavior, but they are susceptible to bias. We shouldn’t always trust them, except to tell us a little something about ourselves. So we come to the subject of this post, which is embarrassment.

Situations are not embarrassing. They are not inherently shameful or embarrassing or awkward until we apply the emotion to the situation. Something cannot be embarrassing if you are not embarrassed. Something cannot be shameful unless you are ashamed. The level of embarrassment and shame involved in something is based on you, not the thing.

I mean, sometimes other people are willing to help out and let us know. That they’re ashamed or embarrassed on our behalf and we should feel that way too. Thanks, buddies.

Shame and embarrassment are principally based on what we want other people to think and perceive about us. So when we feel it after a situation or experience, it’s because we are convinced that people now perceive us in a way we don’t want. When we feel it before a situation, it’s because we predict that the situation will have an outcome that makes people think of us a certain way.

There is another side to it, which is sometimes we get embarrassed or ashamed because of what we want to be, or think we should be, and whether the situation reflects that. So it’s not always about other people, though the publicity of our shame and embarrassment (or the possibility of its publicity) usually enhances the feeling.

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So what’s the point of addressing all that?

For starters, we want to ask ourselves, what point is there to embarrassment and shame? As emotions and behavior guides, how do they help? They usually seem to just make us feel crappy. They also encourage us to shame and embarrass others for not fitting in line with certain values, performances, or roles. There are many parts of the world that rely heavily on shame, which leads to repression, which--historically--leads to unfortunate results.

It’s a powerful emotion. That makes it a very powerful guide for action. Where the action goes, of course, depends on what embarrasses and shames you. Again, emotions say something about you, not necessarily what’s going on out there. So what embarrasses you? Why does it embarrass you? Where did you obtain this value or attitude?

Shame as a social mechanism is pretty damn strong. It makes everybody want to be perceived a certain way, which means people actively broadcast (or attempt to broadcast) certain traits. Even if you don’t buy into it, you may believe that everybody else does. So you share and contribute to the pool. Failure to match up to those things is what shames us, even when we don’t control the thing that causes the discrepancy.

In fact, when we don’t control it, that can be even worse. Like maybe you are ashamed of an innate trait you are born with that prevents you from meeting standards or expectations that you want to meet. You value X, but because of this thing you were born with, you cannot be X or live up to X. That means that any time you think about it, you are forced to confront a shameful failure, one that's innate to your existence. Welcome to the land of low self-esteem, enjoy your permanent stay.

In the context of competition, a lot of the time we really want to be good at something. And so if we make a really amateur error after years of practice, that might embarrass us. If we get destroyed by a large margin, that might embarrass us. If we lose to somebody we “should have” beaten, that might embarrass us.

Hey, it’s not just what you do. Sometimes you worry about what other people do because you believe that people will associate you with that failure. This is one of the things that causes us to push our values on other people, to try and shame people into falling in line with what we value. And vice-versa, obviously.

So let’s go back to the principles and try to derive some benefit from this situation. How can embarrassment and shame potentially serve us on a personal level? Let’s move away from the scarier, larger scale idea of social control through mutual shaming. How can you take the personal feelings of shame and embarrassment and use them to some kind of advantage from within?

Well, this should be stating the obvious, but the rule is this: if you feel the emotion after the fact, it’s for improvement and learning. It becomes a motivator to do something or approach something differently. If you feel the emotion beforehand, it’s typically a prediction of how you think you will feel depending on certain outcomes. This makes it designed to retool your behavior to get the optimal one. If you predict shame and embarrassment, the goal is to change your approach. The prediction of possible shame will increase stress levels in your body. The stress response will then prime you to escape the potentially shaming situation, or it will gear your body and brain to handle it in a way that leads to success.

Or, as everybody who has ever made an error or done dumb things under pressure and stress knows, it screws us up, compounding the shame and embarrassment. You predict that if you make a mistake or choke or mess up, you will be ashamed and embarrassed. So your brain goes full-throttle on the adrenaline, and it makes you so shaky and jumpy that you can barely function, and then you screw up and now you feel even worse. Maybe because you couldn’t stop thinking about how embarrassing it was/would be to actually focus on what you were doing.

Thanks for helping, brain.

Oh, here is a good one. You are so embarrassed that you start trying to cover up the failure or mistake. Maybe, in the context of a game, you are supposed to be good, you are supposed to have skill, but you lost. So quickly, to avoid being seen as a failure, or to avoid feeling like one internally, you make excuses. You start scrambling to provide everybody with reasons why the failure wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have done anything. Anybody would have failed in your shoes, maybe even worse than you did! Not your problem. Some flaw in reality, some stroke of horrible luck. It’s the game’s fault, perhaps. Maybe so. But apart from the people that support you with die-hard fanaticism, it can leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.

That’s the fun part of shame and embarrassment. Our quick and instinctual attempts to hide it often make us exhibit other traits which people--the ones we’re worried about impressing--also perceive as shameful. Jeez, it’s bad enough to be a screw-up, but one that makes excuses? Just get out, bro. You’re embarrassing yourself.

It’s a messy emotion. When we ask, “how can embarrassment or shame help me deal with reality as it is?” we don’t actually come up with lots of good answers. The first thing we typically do with shameful, embarrassing experiences (or actions or characteristics or whatever) is try to hide them or justify them. That is the pretty frequently the opposite of dealing with things as they are. Avoid thinking about stuff? Avoid letting people know it happened? Try and hide it or make up reasons to feel better? You can’t handle things if you pretend they aren’t there. If it’s there, it’s there, and you must confront it. Well, you don’t have to. But it helps.

It makes me feel like conditioning yourself away from the emotions of shame and embarrassment is a much better response than trying to tame it. It leads to such impulsive and restrictive behaviors that I don’t see many benefits. But let’s say you can’t seem to annihilate your feelings of embarrassment or shame (you know, because you are a human being). How do you use them?

First, shame and embarrassment will tell you what you value, if you listen to them. It tells you what you want to be, or at the very least how you want to be perceived. If you trace the feelings back a bit, they can indicate when you will start feeling different kinds of pressure. It also helps you understand which situations are likely to provoke knee-jerk responses.

In competitive games, sometimes you can try to actively embarrass another person and provoke them into playing impulsively as they try to make up ground. If you understand yourself, it becomes a lot less likely that this kind of thing will happen to you. It can be very rough if somebody uses an advantage to mock you and make you look bad, but it’s even worse if that makes you play poorly and predictably. Being manipulable is not considered a quality of champions for a reason.

Another thing to make sure you are doing is that, at the very least, you are using shame and embarrassment to change your performance rather than your image. People who worry about image and what others say about them, for whom appearance is the basis of embarrassment, will spend more time arguing after a bad performance than reviewing. They will spend more time in public-relations damage-control mode than actually fixing the problems that damaged them. That is the kind of thinking that leads to excuses rather than action. I think, if you’re determined to hang onto your shame, it’s more beneficial if at least you attach it to what you do rather than what people think you do. You’ll probably get a bit more mileage that way.

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Specialization

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

--Robert A. Heinlein

I like this quote. I might actually like it too much. In fact, I know I like it too much, when you consider that I disagree with it.

Specialization is the absolute homie. Specialization is how, as society, we advance. Through obsession. Through spending, sometimes, unhealthy amounts of time on single things. Specialization is what happens when you have a massive number of people and the infrastructure to ensure that one person’s ability can be transferred into output that benefits a large number of people. You have the opportunity to become insanely good at things, because you don't have to spend your time doing other stuff.

And of course this further gets enhanced through the implementation of technology. One of its primary purposes is drastically multiplying effort into a greater output. This saves time. If one person farms and feeds thousands of people, then we can afford to have just a few farmers who get very good at what they do. Because other specialists will find a way to amplify their own outputs and get stuff done for you as well

So now we don’t all have to farm our own food, make our own clothes, build our own houses and mend our own fences. Other people, people much better at it than us, can do it for us. With technology, they can do it for almost everybody. That's how you end up with a large civilization: specialists.

It may benefit me to know how to sew, sure. But that does not mean that, given my limited amount of time, I should make all my own clothes. A specialist (particularly one armed with talent and technology suited to the specialty) is able to make more clothes better and faster. They learn more, develop more. They can distill the knowledge better and then later when I get tired of writing blog posts and I do want to learn to sew, they even know the best way to teach me to save me the most time.

And so the case is made for specialization, and why you should focus on getting good at very specific things. When it comes down to it, if there is something that only you (or you and a very tiny number of people) can or want to be amazing at, then you probably should go for it. It will take time and obsession to push it to the levels that astonish, amaze, and advance us. Spend that time, share the results with others.

Having said that….I have a personal problem here, which is that I genuinely believe I have the capacity to get good at just about anything (except basketball). I do like the Heinlein quote. I want to be good at everything and understand everything and not just be a specialist. Sometimes I agonize over not being the best at things that I barely invest time into. I don't want to be a specialist in one thing, I want to master everything.

This is the thing though, the thing that I personally tend to forget. It actually isn’t that hard to develop a baseline competency in things. Even if you consider yourself a slow learner, most things are comprised of basics and avoiding major errors. Being okay enough at something, just okay enough to do it in a pinch is--if I had to guess--more what Heinlein is talking about. We don’t all need to be doctors, but without a doctor around you’d want to know the very basics of first aid. You won't always have doctors with you. Sometimes doctors get injured, for instance.

We don’t all need to be crazy genius mathematicians. Not all of us are going to expand the field of mathematics. In fact, many of the people that are amazing at math and really really love it (you know, in a way that worries other people) don’t even do it. Many people will spend a lot of time pursuing dead ends and wrong theories and making goofy mistakes. The more you pursue mastery of a thing, the more likely you will spend time doing crazy esoteric things that don't work. But just saying, "screw it, I won't learn how to do arithmetic," that's doing yourself a major disservice, for a bunch of reasons.

This is where the meaning of the quote should intersect with the benefits of specializing, and where I do think it’s worth it not to worship specialization too much. Being incapable of functioning independently of other specialists, being literally good at only one thing and incapable of other stuff is flawed. It’s true in the context of life and society, but it’s also true in the further-narrowed context of games and skills.

There’s nothing wrong with being a specialist, or acknowledging that other specialists will have abilities you don’t (or even can’t) have. But using that as an excuse to completely forego the training of a skill at all is a poor attitude. Again, this is particularly important when you (ironically) do want to specialize in something, because across the broad spectrum of sub-skills that make up the whole thing, you still want a given level of basic competency in everything. At the very least it needs to be enough to get by until you can play the game or pursue the skill in the realms you control.

Those are my thoughts for today. Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

What Makes A Game Competitive?

I spent most of my competitive gaming life playing SSBM, and if you browse enough different places online, you’ll see mixed reactions to the game. The main question is “why are you trying to make a party game competitive?” and I suppose that’s a pretty fair question.

Of course, the moment you stop talking to competitive gamers and start talking to other people who maybe spectate or participate in “real sports,” they will then ask you why you’re wasting time competing in video games where you just sit on your butt. It doesn't seem very competitive, it seems like a waste of time. The very notion is ridiculous to them.

And if you ask people who don’t have time to play or watch sports because they have three jobs, they will ask why everybody is wasting their damn time kicking and throwing balls around when there is real work to be done. Fair is fair, I guess.

But let’s take a step back and assume that competing in games and sports is an okay way to spend our time. How do you decide which games are worth it? Which ones count as “competitive” and which ones would it be silly to spend your time on? I don’t think it’s terribly complicated, but it starts a lot of curious internet arguments.

First things first: different games test different skills. The main reason we pick certain games to compete in is because we find them to test skills that we enjoy executing. I guess you can try to make value judgments about the different people who prefer different skills, but really, it's heavily a matter of preference. For some reason, we decide that we really want to get good at a thing. Somebody out there wants to get good at sinking trick-shots in billiards. He or she thinks it's super cool.

If you get enough people who want to get good at the same game or skillset, and you come up with a useful ruleset for testing and comparing their skills, you have a competition. Simple as that.


Now, the one you like just might not be the one somebody else likes, for a bunch of different reasons. Somebody might prefer the snail’s pace of measured strategic planning. Some people prefer the twitch-reflex, snap judgment scenario. So finding something worth competing in is, more often than not, about finding skills you like practicing and executing. That says more about you than any inherent quality in the game.

Another thing that people discuss when arguing something’s competitiveness is its skill ceiling. What is the best you can conceivably become? Can you even reach the skill levels that are theoretically possible? If it’s high enough, it means there’s always something to practice, something to strive for.

I accept this a bit, but not entirely. It’s definitely useful to have a high skill ceiling in a certain element, as a method of continuously measuring improvement and distinguishing players. But sometimes if something has an attainable skill ceiling (meaning two players may, at a given moment, perform evenly) but you need to consistently execute it, then you are simultaneously being tested on that particular skill along with your consistency under pressure. Which itself is an ability tested across almost all competitions that I know of. So an unreachable skill ceiling, or an extremely high one, is not inherently indicative of competitiveness. It certainly contributes though.

Sometimes the skill ceiling doesn’t come from individual skills being particularly difficult, but managing multiple skills at a given time. That creates a synergistic overall skill which itself is hard to achieve. I think when your game has this, it also allows more for the creation of styles, where you can achieve victory while emphasizing mastery over different parts of the game. That leads to the different players who can be aggressive, defensive, calculating, intuitive, wild, methodical, or whatever, yet still achieve comparable success. That definitely helps when it comes to expanding the depth of the game and whether people find it competitive.

The biggest thing I can think of is that games which are more competitive tend to have consistent winners, or at least consistently high-placers in competitions. If you have a game, or a ruleset of the game, that consistently demonstrates that certain players have more mastery and ability in the game, then the game can be considered competitive to some degree. If totally different people are winning and placing highly every time, it either means that the game itself is not competitive, or the people involved are all insanely close in skill.

I think that’s really the tell-tale sign. If it’s possible to consistently outperform other people at a game, it means it’s possible to excel in skill. At that point it’s a very simple question of do I enjoy the skills being tested here? If two players can both hit the skill ceiling, but under pressure one of them can always edge the other out, then it’s a sign that a non-specific skill like “handling pressure” is one of the most important abilities. That’s fine too, provided you (and enough people to create a meaningful field of competition) accept that going in.

Heck, even if you can get to a given level of “perfect play,” it’s not necessarily so terrible. The game doesn’t need to scale upward indefinitely if the journey to mastery is satisfactory. Then again, that does mean we probably won’t want to watch it on TV or anything. The only meaningful competitions would be lower-level ones since the best play would be a stalemate, and we’d know what top-tier play would look like. We would also know that it could never be exceeded. That would definitely make it less exciting and interesting for spectators (though on a personal level, you might find getting good at the game or skill to be gratifying).

But the long and short of it is if you prefer the pace, or style, or skills tested in a game, it has a way of distinctly measuring different levels of skill, and it’s possible to become a consistent winner through mastery, then your game probably has competitive merit. At that point it’s really just preference.

Those are my thoughts. Thanks for reading.