Friday, December 28, 2012

Dealing With Paradox

This post isn't EXACTLY about competition, today.  It kind of is.  More specifically though, it's about that weird sweetspot where contradictory ideas meet and reconcile.  Paradoxes, Catch-22s, apparent contradiction in terms... that's what we're talking about today.

We have a tendency to label ideas as yes or no, one or the other.  We gravitate to extremes, because extremes are easier to understand, and save us mental energy.  Taking the time to understand what appears to be paradoxical, or to have two opposing desires in your head at the same time without going bananas, is a mark of mental fluidity and flexibility.  But it's tough to do.

One that I've mentioned before is the paradox of effort in competition.  Wanting to win makes you invest effort.  But you can't fully concentrate on the game if you're spending energy worrying about its outcome.  In order to focus fully on winning, you must forget about winning... even though victory is why you tried so hard in the first place.

The thing about paradoxes is they only exist if you are focused in the wrong place.  If your goal is not to win, but to play beautifully, fully explore your competency, and push the limits of the game because you think the game is great... then you will play your heart out without worrying about winning.  At the same time, you will play your best because you can fully devote your attention to the game.

So again, here's the secret: change where your focus lies, and paradoxes tend to resolve themselves.  The puzzle is figuring out what you should focus on.

Here is an interesting one; sometimes people who focus on pleasing others, or doing things for other people, do so because they are self-absorbed.  They are constantly worrying about their behavior and how it makes them look, which is why they try and do what will look good.  So you can have somebody who invests 95% of their efforts in other people and have it come across as disingenuous.  And the kicker is, it can still originate from the desire to be a good person!  Yet nobody ends up happy.  Sad emoticons everywhere.

Hint: I'm speaking from personal experience.  I used to try and be really nice to everybody because of what kind of person I thought it made me.  So while I tried to be good and nice, at best I seemed passive and forgettable, and at worst I seemed self-absorbed and manipulative.  What I wanted to be was the opposite of that!  But the more I tried to fix it, the more attention I gave myself (rather than other people), and the more false it seemed.

Again, the trick here is to change our focus.  Somebody worries about doing things for other people, and they become self-absorbed as a result.  Why?  Because the person is focused on themselves, and they're coming from a position of insecurity.  Insecure actions tend to appear fake, so you get people doing lots of nice things while making poor impressions.  When you legitimately focus on how another person thinks, feels, and perceives the world (and not just how they perceive you), your actions begin to seem more genuine and empathetic.  It ties closely into self-confidence; when you are secure in your identity and don't worry about what other people think, they think more highly of you.

Let's bring this back to competition; if you constantly evaluate and analyze everything you do, it can take away effort from doing it properly.  The question, however, is why you're doing that in the first place.  If you're trying to get something right because you equate your identity to success, then you set yourself up for tremendous insecurity.  A big part of why I have had trouble focusing and staying calm when I make mistakes is because I did precisely that.  If I made an error, I considered it a blemish on who I was.  And since everybody makes mistakes (sometimes lots of tiny ones) my ego was under constant assault.  It's no wonder I used to feel so depressed and angry at myself.

But the harder I tried to be better, the more the mistakes stood out!  How can somebody improve if trying to focus on improvement makes them play worse?  Paradox paradox paradox.

The answer?  Switch focus.  By taking my ego out of the equation, I'm finding that I focus more on the situation.  I focus more on my opponent, on the game, on the execution, and less on how I feel.  By doing that, I feel better, and improve more!  One of my biggest personal triumphs recently started by losing a match by a really large margin to a player I'm better than; not because I wanted to lose, but because I responded by staying emotionally balanced and confident.  I kept having fun, didn't worry about how I looked or what the performance said about me, and ended up making a dominating comeback.  Paradox resolved.  It takes a lot of effort though, and if I'm not paying attention, I fall back into old mental traps.

One of my best tricks for doing that, by the way, was to stop and describe my situations without using "I" or "me."  If I made a mistake, I'd describe the mistake in very technical terms, keeping judgment out of it.  "The timing on this came a little too late because of X," or "paying too much attention to this prevented a good response to that."  Suddenly, I'm not involved, my ego isn't at stake, and I can treat it like a big puzzle waiting to be solved.  Now I can focus more on doing what needs to be done without unfortunate pressure and discomfort.  Still not perfect, but getting there.

Here is another apparent paradox with serious health implications for a lot of people: people with psychological addictions to substances will often use them to cope with stress.  They do this even after the physiological addiction is gone.  Thinking about the addiction and trying to resist it generates stress... which triggers the craving.  So the goal is to beat the addiction, but trying to conquer it makes the craving stronger.  Where do you put your focus then?  Not on fighting the addiction, but on eliminating your stress with something else.  That turns your mental energy to a new direction, which makes you focus less on the craving, which weakens it.  Of course, addictions are kind of hard to beat; the method is simple, but crazily difficult.

Another one: the more you're interested in dating somebody, the more you try to win them over and then keep them.  But that doesn't seem to work, because going to great lengths to generate attraction makes you seem needy and insecure.  Those aren't attractive character traits!  Taking care to hide the neediness and insecurity is even more needy and insecure, and eventually it reveals itself (painfully).  How do you resolve this paradox?  Well, it's kind of like the scenario described above; your efforts to please and attract somebody else are rooted in self-absorption.  Focusing your attention firmly on the other person and who they are, without obsessing over how everything reflects on you, makes you more attentive to the world.  That makes you look more secure and outwardly focused, which is a major plus.

Heck, it's kind of like the paradox of effort and victory; try to win too hard, and your obsession with victory detracts from playing well.  Try too hard to attract somebody, and your efforts detract from actually being an attractive individual.  Always try your hardest, but don't try too hard or you'll fail; it makes you want to chew aspirin like they're tic-tacs.

If there is a paradox, or apparent contradiction, or Catch-22 or whatever somewhere in your life and you can't resolve it, odds are your focus is lying in the wrong spot.  And here's the last puzzle for you to think on:  What if you have trouble concentrating on things?  So you try really hard to focus, and you think you're getting it!  But you want to make sure, so you stop and check to see just how much you're paying attention.  Oh no, you lost it.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Reader Participation Day 1, Part 2

So, last week on Friday I requested that readers send in answers to a question so they could discuss, and then I could post a couple and talk about them.

I've included two of those responses below (the only ones, actually ;P), and I'll share some thoughts on them as well.

The question, as you may recall, was "What is your number one technique for getting in 'The Zone'?"

First response came from Unknown, who says that quite simply, there is no better tool for getting in the zone then warming up:

"Warm up. Do some practice at the beginning of the tournament. In Melee, that's obvious, but in other games, it's not as clear. Even a little warm up just helps you get comfortable...

...It's just a shortcut to get yourself in the right mindset of playing, and that's one of the biggest parts of playing well."

So this is pretty clear.  If you want to be in the zone, get your body and mind ready for it.  Get yourself in the mode of thinking and acting with regards to your game.  You don't want to overexert and tire yourself out before the competition, so having a tested routine in advance that hits the sweetspot is invaluable.

This goes along with something that I tested out this weekend in tournament, which is the principle of small victories.  Use small, easily achievable goals throughout the day to build mental momentum.  In a sense, you warm up your brain and emotions and give yourself a "success habit."

If that sounds stupid, consider this: we all have days where every little thing seems to go wrong.  Nothing big, nothing that would ruin a day on its own.  But your hot water heater decides to fritz so you get repeatedly blasted with shocks of cold water as you shower.  The last apple in your fridge is gross and brown and you spit half of it out.  You spill coffee on yourself.  You have to get a parking space far away.  You leave important notes at home.  It's one hundred percent understandable to feel pretty crummy at this point, and it would take something big and super cool to really snap you into a happy mood.

The flip is true; you wake up and have a comfy shower, a delicious breakfast, and your coffee is perfect.  You get to school or your office, and you get a spot near the door.  It turns out you didn't remember you'd need a book or batch of papers, but you packed them anyhow and feel blessed with great fortune.  Everything seems to be going your way.  Something little comes up, something stupid, and you brush it off.  Your day is going too well to let something dumb ruin it.

Sound familiar?  It works with competition as well.  You can take your warm-up to a new level, and set up your day so you have tons of "little wins" as you go.  Get pointlessly excited and positive about basic stuff, treat them all as omens.  Give yourself doses of positive placebo at every turn, and you'll be in such a good mood that minor mistakes can't distract you.

And of course, there's the warm-up where you work through the skills you've honed, acting as a confidence booster and a way to prime your mental pump.

Our second answer came from the famous Anonymous, who said:

"What I do when I face a new player is I try to imagine them as a cpu, now of course I'm well aware that this "cpu" is much smarter, and can react to anything that I do, but it helps alot in the thinking process (well for me) as to what to do, so I play the match as if I was traning, or simply put, it makes me confident that I can beat him, there's also no fear of the unknown when you have this kind of mindset."

That's a pretty cool attitude to have.  There are lots of players who create "auras" of fear and nervousness in their opponents; the other guy gets SO excited or nervous about beating the giant that they drop important opportunities and openings.  Those kind of gimmes happen more often than they should, because stress and expectations screw and enhance your performance, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.  Telling yourself that your opponent is just as exploitable as an AI, or is just as human as anybody else, can do the trick.  Just make sure you don't deviate from reality so much that you aren't paying attention to what's actually happening.

Thanks for reading.  Hope you enjoyed your holidays, and I'll see you on Friday!

Friday, December 21, 2012

User Participation Day, Number One!

Kind of a lazy post today, but it's also an experiment (a reason, not an excuse!).

I spend a lot of time talking about things that may work, or could work, depending on a million factors.  I speculate a lot.  I also talk about myself a bunch, but I'd like to hear from the nice people who do me the favor of reading my thoughts twice a week.  So today is where you share your thoughts with me and with your fellow readers.

Depending on how popular this is, I might do it again.  But I'll just pose a simple question, and hopefully we see some responses and dialogue.  I'll also post my favorite answers (assuming there are any) to the question on Tuesday and offer my attitudes, thoughts and takes on them, so this is your chance to tap directly into my brain across the internet.

Enough dallying!  Here is the question:

What is your number one technique or tool for getting into "The Zone" when competing?

Hope to see some answers and thoughts.  And as always, thanks for tuning into the blog.  It broke 3000 pageviews not too long ago, and I'm grateful to have an audience for my thoughts.  Take care, and see you Tuesday!

I've also changed the commenting options so you no longer need to be registered with google or anything if you want to post.  Go crazy! 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Two Questions

This post is partially about exploring and answering two questions:

1) Why play a game competitively?

More specifically, I'm asking: why devote inordinate amounts of time to practicing and training your skill at manipulating virtual polygons?  Why goof around with lights on a screen and abstract concepts that don't influence the physical world?

2) Why write a blog that's mostly about playing video games competitively?

More specifically, if you can make a case that competitively participating in gaming is superfluous, then writing about competitive gaming is probably even more superfluous.

This might trick you into thinking that I'm going to start with the first question.  But I'm not.  I'm going to be even more logical and answer a zeroth question:

0) Why do anything?

The reason we're going to ask that question is this: if you want to judge whether something is worth doing, you should judge it based on some kind of criteria.  Which is, how do you determine the worth of an endeavor?  If competitive games meet your criteria for whether something is worthwhile, then there's a point to it.  Easy!  Sort of.

I'm not a brilliant philosopher.  Trying to sort through the heart of whether anything is worth doing in the grand scheme of things, particularly without using religious framework, would be tough.  I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I'm going to offer you my criteria for whether something is worth doing (in a way that's a bit more surface level).  I've been doing a bunch of thinking on the subject lately, and I'm trying to rework my life and attitudes in accordance with the things I'm about to say.  So this is kind of personal.

The primary criteria for whether I want to decide on doing things is this: does it serve a purpose, and does that purpose meet my goals?

Okay, that's a heck of a loaded question.  To keep this essay from spiraling out of control, I'll just say my current goals (without then going, "well, why pick certain goals, smart guy?") are as follows:

I want to undo old bad habits that I've spent a lifetime developing, and do this to help me become a smarter and more effective worker, thinker, and writer.  Becoming those things serves a purpose of helping me communicate, think, and teach better.  The purpose of that is so I can help others become better communicators and thinkers.  The purpose of doing that is to promote intelligence, tolerance, respect, and healthy behaviors and attitudes.  The goal of doing that is to help people become happier and better at the stuff they choose to do.

So with an ultimate goal of promoting positive behaviors and thoughts, I have set smaller goals that I believe will serve that purpose.  They are, admittedly, biased by my preferences, personality, and past experiences.  In turn, things I choose to do are (I hope) going to further my ultimate goal by serving my sub-goals.  That includes this blog, and playing competitive games.

Very quickly, I want to clarify the criteria: "does it serve a purpose?"  For some, the concept of utility can exclude stuff that's fun and neat.  It can invalidate emotions for not having monetary value or concrete form.  That would be kind of silly for me to do, since my ultimate goal is to spread positive emotions and mentalities.

The thing is, some stuff that people might dismiss as frivolous or useless do have utility.  Important utility.  They're huge factors in what keep us healthy and functioning at a high level.

For instance, the unsung champion of working out is the time you spend outside of the gym, resting.  Your rest and recuperation is important.  Constant effort without decent rest is a great way to get nowhere, injure yourself, burn yourself out, and have nothing to show for the supreme willpower you display in fighting through tiredness.  You need to exercise intelligently, eat intelligently, and rest intelligently if you want to become strong.  Missing any of those components stagnates you, or worse, harms your health.

The same applies to mental activities.  Just because you are sitting at a desk doesn't mean you aren't depleting resources.  The brain takes a lot of energy, and its emotions and desires are mechanisms it uses to keep itself functioning.  We desire rest because there are times when we need rest.  Tending to your emotions and mental health are just as important as expending brainpower to get stuff done, because if you don't recover, you can't do more stuff.

Working at full exertion towards a goal 100% of the time runs you into the ground.  Resting and recovering your mind and emotions will refresh you.  It will keep you working longer and more effectively towards your goals over time, and it will be less torturous.  Leisure, socialization, jokes, games, fun, all these serve the purpose of balancing hard work with rest.  They can keep us happy and connected with each other.  We work to sustain ourselves, and then enjoy the fruits through restful and enjoyable activities that rejuvenate us.  It's a pretty nice formula when you keep all the parts in balance.

In short, the fun stuff, the rest, the seemingly frivolous actually have immense utility.  So, from my perspective, what purpose do games serve?

Well, I answered some of that question in this series of articles on gaming origins.  The short of it is that games teach us useful skills when we are young, provide leisure when we are older, and help teach us lessons about other stuff in parallel.  They provide opportunities to connect socially with people.  They can be fun, and fun is a great way to do all of the above without making you feel like you just did a bunch of work (even if, mentally speaking, you really did).  Those are the ones that immediately come to my mind.

So here's the thing: if a game does not do some of those things for us, then we probably shouldn't play them.  Because video games so rarely lead to concrete physical gains, their value is going to be mental and emotional.  Physical athletics provide a fun and engaging framework for training the body, as well as sharing experiences with others.  Given the lack of emphasis most games have on the physical, if they aren't providing mental, social, and emotional benefits, they shouldn't be played.

I've also stated here the kinds of skills and lessons you can learn from games, and the beauty of them is that you generally get to have fun while doing it.  You can also learn teamwork, focus, determination, making decisions under pressure, and apply those concepts elsewhere.  A lot of gamers learn how to focus their minds and react quickly even under stress; more than one person I know, for instance, has said that they picked up on subtle road cues and reacted instantly to dangerous driving situations to avoid accidents.  Learning to shift focus, then react quickly, can actually save your life.

In my particular case, my drive to improve and get better at SSBM led me to research a lot about mental performance and psychology, which has helped give me a paradigm for dealing with depression and frustration in other parts of my life.  And it gives me a place where I can measure what I learn; the stress of competing creates trial-by-fire scenarios to see whether a new technique or behavior actually helps me.

And again, if you aren't deriving mental, social, and emotional benefits from playing games, if you aren't developing cognitive skills and pushing yourself to improve, or you aren't rejuvenating yourself through playful rest, or you aren't maintaining and enjoying the social connections that link us with people who make life worth living, you shouldn't be playing.  This seems obvious, but like anything else, gaming can become a habit, an escape from useful thought and action that takes effort and might bring discomfort.  When that is why you play games, rather than to actually develop and enjoy yourself, to keep yourself mentally balanced to deal with the real world, that's when they become a detriment and a waste of time.  That's when they are useless at best, and harmful at worst.

This brings us to Question 2, whether one should spend their time writing about gaming and playing competitively.  In light of everything I just wrote, my answer should be obvious.  I feel that if something is worth doing, it's worth writing and thinking about.   Under the right circumstances, games give us tremendous benefits; studying and understanding them is important to getting the most from them, particularly for people who focus on analysis as I do.

I'll relate this to myself again.  This blog means several things to me.  One, it's a challenge to myself to constantly think new thoughts about an old hobby.  Two, it's a challenge to write and consistently make deadlines using nothing but self-imposition.  Three, it's a way to hone my writing through practice.  So as far as pushing me towards my goals for the future, I believe it's helping by establishing good habits, training my skills, and breaking down mental barriers that can keep me from pushing forward.

It's with that kind of criteria that I am trying to evaluate the things I do with my time now.  I think gaming, and writing about the process, can be absolutely worthwhile and helpful to our growth and health, provided we keep perspective and don't forget why we do it in the first place.  Sometimes we want to practice skills, and sometimes we need to kick back, have a good time, and earn much needed rest.  And sometimes you need to talk about it, and think fresh thoughts that will keep you on the right track.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 14, 2012

"I Want To Be The Best" -- More Complicated Than It Sounds

WARNING: this one's a long one.

One of the lessons I've learned in writing is this: telling people you are about to make things complicated is a bad idea.  People come to authorities (however self-declared they may be) to find answers and information.  Not a lot of people like reading a batch of statements that make an issue MORE difficult to sort through.

So, being fully aware of this, I'm going to take something that most competitors find beautiful and romantic--the desire to Be The Best--and complicate it for you.  Sound fun?  I certainly hope so.

Simply put, I don't think having "becoming the best" as your ambition is necessarily healthy or good.  In the game that I've obsessively grinded away at for over eight years, Super Smash Brothers Melee, that has been my overarching goal since as long as I've played competitively.

Having that belief as my guiding light has had its ups and downs.  However, with this blog post, I'm officially renouncing it in favor of a new goal, and I'm also going to explain why.

First off, I don't think it's been a TERRIBLE goal.  Like I said, it has its ups and downs.  So, using my experience as a case study, I'm going to lay out those pros and cons for you.

You may notice that most points beneath is prefaced with "can" or "may."  That's because (complications ahoy!) every person is different.  The problems aren't innate to the endeavor, and probably reflect my personal issues more than anything else.

Oh well!  These are--I feel--the pros and cons of wanting to become the best.

CON: It can turn practicing and play into a very judgmental process

When you have an obsessive goal like "being the best" as your target, if you really believe in it with a belly-burning fire like I did, then it flares up in your mind every time you sit down to play.  You can end up measuring every little thing you do against your definition of "the best."  If there is a best player that you want to surpass, you may ask yourself, "would he have done that there?"

And you're imperfect.  I'm imperfect.  I am pretty sure most people are.  But because you will want to be the best and succeed, your failures will pester you like hangnails.  And that can turn practice and play into very mentally strenuous exercises, especially when you're having a bad day.

This can turn into frustration, anger, and depression.  Frustration, anger, or depression can lead to impaired judgment and brain function, which does absolutely nothing for your improvement, causing the goal to shoot itself in the foot.  However....

PRO: It keeps your practice and play as judgmental processes.

Dear reader, you are very clever.  You noticed that this pro is basically the same as the con.  That's because, as long as you have "you have to be the best" singing like department store Christmas carols in your head, then you don't stop trying to get better.  You question your decisions and refine your thought processes around the only criteria that matters: is this making me the best?  This keeps you focused and constantly improving.

And that has benefits elsewhere.  I'm a huge fan of learning in parallel, which means "taking lessons from one place and using them somewhere else."  So when you develop a hardnosed attitude towards ensuring you're always improving in ONE area, it can transfer to others.  There is a saying that excellence is a habit, and I'm pretty sure it's true.

If you're an ambitious and competitive person, and you hone and reinforce that in one place, you may see it cropping up elsewhere.  Then again, as cool as that sounds, you only have to look at the negatives of this to realize it's a mixed blessing.  That is because...

CON: It can keep you doing things that make you unhappy.

Why do people want to be the best at certain games or practices?  It's usually because they love the thing they're trying to be the best at.  They perceive value and beauty in the endeavor.

So when your neurotic pursuit of that thing starts making you miserable, what do you do?  You may burn out--and risk viewing those years of your life as a failure and wasted investment, which does absolute wonders for your self-esteem--or you may opt to stick it out.  But, as we just said, the game is making you miserable.  So you've got a goal that's keeping you embroiled in a game you aren't enjoying anymore.

In short, the goal runs the risk of making itself pointless.  You want to be the best because you love the game, but trying to become the best can frustrate you and make you jaded with playing.  And when you're constantly measuring your performance against your idealized standard of what it means to be "the best," that's not as unlikely as you may think.

But again, this con has a flipside.

PRO: You may develop a habit of powering through unhappiness and discomfort to reach your goals.

Barring a fortunate surplus of serotonin in your brain, you aren't going to enjoy everything you do.  There are times when, no matter how much you love your job or your game or [thing], you're going to wake up wanting to do ANYTHING BUT THAT.  And if we have a habit of only doing things we enjoy... well, that's about as bad as only doing things that make us miserable.  It encourages you to give up the moment things aren't great.  It leads to shallow pursuits and a lack of fulfillment, and the inability to keep going when things are tough.

Having that overarching goal in your head gives you a mental destination.  It says, "I know what I REALLY WANT."  And knowing what you really want, remembering your overarching goal, is everything when it comes to powering through the unpleasant.  It's an invaluable skill and an invaluable component of willpower.

You will, no matter how wonderful your life is, have days that suck.  Sometimes those days will stretch into weeks or months.  But if you've got a shining beacon in your brain--and sometimes it's the desire to be number one--it can sustain you when everything else makes you want to give up.

Unfortunately, there's a problem with this.

CON: Being the best is something you have limited control over.

You can decide how much you are going to practice.  You can throw yourself heart and soul into your game.  You can come up with all the strategies, find people much smarter than you to coach you, and give 110% with compounded daily interest.

And it still might not be enough, because you don't really control how good your opponents are.  You don't decide how genetically talented your opponent is.  You don't decide how much hard work they put in.  You don't decide how smart and effective their coaches are.  You don't control the magic-science brain chemicals their country's government secretly put in their Wheaties.

It's a heartwarming notion that if you just put in more work than the other guy, you can overcome talent.  And, to be quite honest, it's not even that inaccurate.  Heavily drilled basics, dedication and persistence (over a long period of time) tend to trump obvious talent.  It's that Tortoise and the Hare fable at work.

Unfortunately, like I said, you don't control how much and how well the other guy trains.  You and he might have the exact same idea: if I just work harder than the other guy, I'll be better.  Except one of you is bound to be more talented than the other.  And when you have lots of hard work, but you're against lots of hard work plus talent, math isn't on your side.

And when you have a large field of dedicated competitors who all want to be the best, all pouring their hearts and souls into the game with the desire to be number one, you end up with a lot of people getting broken hearts.  Only one person gets to be number one, and you don't control the factors that apply to everybody else.

On the other hand...

PRO: All that dedication can create high standards, beautiful play, and a passionate community.

If you consider that there are lots of people out there wanting to be the best, and all these people are pushing one another to improve and get better and better--and your game is robust enough to handle it--then the skill level of players can end up ridiculously high.

Lots of skilled players, if you love and appreciate the game as both spectator and competitor, is a wonderful problem to have.  Tons of people pushing you and your understanding of the game can be rewarding and fulfilling.  When many people are filled with the relentless drive to improve, there is a lot of impetus to get better, a lot of sources to draw inspiration from, and a lot of kindred spirits to form bonds with.

That's assuming they all have healthy attitudes to the game, however.  When you're too focused on the outcome of the game in your desire to win, a new problem gets created.

CON: It can over-emphasize the result rather than the process.

Here is a question for you: would you rather enter a big event, have a great time, play great matches in a game you love, and lose out in quarterfinals?  Or would you rather slug your way through stressful matches, get to the finals, play two games, and then have your opponent disqualified on a technicality?

One yields great memories, but no victory.  One yields a victory, but deprives you of experiences that bring you joy.

I am fully aware these are extremes, but I'm using them to emphasize a principle: people who really love their game would always rather play fun and intense matches with more "pure" outcomes.  These are the kinds of people who will let certain technicalities slide when they don't have anything to do with the heart of the game.  Those kinds of people may fully want to be the best, but they want to do it through actually PLAYING THE GAME.

But there are others for whom "being the best" is equivalent to "getting first place," regardless of the means.  So disqualifying your opponent in the world championships is A-OK, and getting your friends to trash-talk somebody into going on tilt is dandy as well (this is a whole other issue I may talk about some other time).

What comes to mind most readily for me, in this case, are soccer players who fake and over-act for foul calls.  The core of skillful soccer (ball-control, finesse, teamwork, physical fitness, determination, all that good stuff) is what gets people into the game.  The desire to gain advantages that might make a difference can end up detracting from that.  It turns soccer into soap opera and detracts from what makes the game important.

Once again, what we're looking at here is a case of the goal defeating itself.  Loving the game makes you want to become the best; being the best is measured through winning; trying too hard to get a victory can encourage people to AVOID PLAYING THE ACTUAL GAME when doing so benefits them.


There are some things to address.  First is that "wanting to be the best" isn't really a problem if you can keep a healthy perspective on things at all times.  You can risk of developing unhealthy mental habits, but you may also develop very powerful and helpful ones as well.  It's a giant nebulous clusterbomb of maybes and speculative possibilities.

Part of it depends on your definition of "the best."  I don't think it's inherently bad to want to have great skill and insight into the heart of the game, to develop yourself and improve yourself to get as close to perfection as you can.  But over-emphasizing the result has lots of negative possibilities, which is why I've decided to abandon that goal.

My new goal when it comes to SSBM (and, for that matter, everything else I do) is as follows: to always pursue improvement while focusing on my love of the game.  To turn "becoming the best" into a process that exhilarates me, rather than a goal that frustrates and eludes me.  Instead of THE best, it becomes "MY best, over time."

Why make this distinction?  Because goals tend to make people less happy than processes.  Keeping your eye on the prize and remembering what you ultimately want can sustain you when things start to suck.  But it can also blind you when you get what you think you want, but it defeats its own purpose.

On the other hand, if you find a way to love and enjoy the process of reaching that goal, then keeping perspective is infinitely easier.  You find yourself eager to get out and mix things up, to try new stuff.  You find yourself more resilient to failure.  You can even find failure fun, and when things are fun, it's much easier to learn.

I'm hardly perfect when it comes to this.  I have a lifetime of mental habits telling me that I need to always be improving, that I need to constantly push forward, that I must be the best and I must strive for excellence in everything I do.  People who know me are fully aware of how sulky I can get if I'm not being perfectly great all the time.  I'm working on it though.  Which is obviously because when I'm sulking, I'm wasting time not being perfectly great, and that's not okay.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Things That Make You Play Better

People seem to think there is a strange disconnect between body and mind, which is weird because they are basically the same thing.  Your brain is a physical object that obeys biological laws.  When we talk about how to improve its performance and influence its behavior, we don't want to rely on fuzzy advice; we need concrete cause-and-effect lessons that will let us optimize ourselves.

If you acknowledge that things like alcohol, drugs, and medications can affect how you think, feel, and act, then it's pretty darn likely other things can do the same.  The following are some things I've thought about and want to draw attention to.  I also don't want to portray myself as the final authority.  Just keep them in mind and try to intelligently apply your own experiences.

1 -- Deep Breathing

Efficient respiration yields better blood flow and clearer thinking.  A more calm state of mind also signals to the body not to produce chemicals that make you more impulsive and think less clearly.  When you're panicked and your mind is racing, it can be very easy to forget ideas and lessons that would help you; taking a time-out to breathe and collect yourself is invaluable.

I've been trying to make deep breathing a part of my regular routine before doing anything involving mental activity and decision making.  So far, by developing a habit of noticing when I'm stressed and want to follow unhelpful impulses and canceling it out with deep breaths, I've improved my energy levels, clarity of thought, and motivation to succeed in a variety of things.  It really can't hurt.

2 -- Nutrition

I don't want to pretend to be a nutritionist, so I'll just be anecdotal here.  I find that anytime I eat enough food that I feel extremely full, I immediately play games poorly and think very sluggishly.  When I eat moderate amounts and I stay away from sugary foods, my thinking is more clear.

As for fasting and avoiding food altogether, my experience has been mixed.  There are times where my motor control and jitters aren't negatively affected by hunger, and times when they are.  I generally think with more alertness when hungry (so if I'm concentrating, it's pretty sharp), but at the same I get distracted by the fact that I want to eat.

I bring up nutrition not to prescribe anything specific; you can't even trust the advice of most "experts" since so much is contradictory, and if you don't believe me, just google your most common nutrition questions.  The best thing I can advise is just recognize that your food intake is a factor in how you think and perform, try and identify what makes you play your best, and use that as a baseline.  I'll write more about this if I ever read or experience anything definitive.

3 -- Sleep

This is another place I've had mixed experiences.  Conventional wisdom is going to tell you "get a good night's sleep," and there are a lot of reasons to believe this will help you.  But then, I've had dominating performances on exactly zero minutes of sleep where I also had bronchitis and ate nothing but Subway cookies.  I've had times where I got myself a nice high-protein, low sugar breakfast after a full night's rest and then played awfully.  There ought to be a reason for this (beyond the ordinary bell curve), but since I've never tried conducting a fully controlled scientific study on my sleep compared to my play with full data mapping, I don't know what the reason is.

When it comes to stuff outside competition, I have noticed I wake up alert and stay awake after about 6.5 hours of sleep.  If I try and go back to sleep, I wake up groggy and and feel sluggish later.  Knowing this tells me when to set my alarm and when to go to sleep.

I'm going to assume that everybody is a bit different, but that each person also has some optimal range.  If you want to increase the likelihood of good performance, having solid habits that you don't break the night before an event will be more conducive.

4 -- Caffeine

No don't slam 3 Red Bulls right before an event.  You should be drinking Monster instead.

Kidding!  Caffeine is actually shown to improve decision making and reflex time in SMALL DOSES.  People get excited about the energy jolt that a large quantity of caffeine gives you, but after a certain amount the benefits to your mental performance decline.  One study on reflexes showed that people ingesting 300mg of caffeine (with forty five minutes for absorption) showed a "significant effect" favoring the participants, but there is no difference between a control group and a group that ingested 600 mg of caffeine.  The real lesson is that if you're feeling wired and jittery, you're probably not experiencing mental performance benefits, apart from being less likely to fall asleep.  You're also more likely to crash later, so you probably shouldn't do that.

5 -- Zone Procedures

The next time you're playing in the zone, try and really identify how you feel.  Some people are a bit different.  Do you get you pumped up, or are you calm?  I've played some of my best matches while sleep-deprived because I've always had issues with overthinking and getting distracted when I have more energy.  Relaxing and putting things on auto-pilot can help me do a lot better, and when I'm a bit sleepy sometimes it makes me less likely to care.  My ultimate best play has always come when I've been very emotionally tranquil and I don't let either success or failure affect me.  Find yours!  The next time you notice, "wow I'm playing really flipping well," stop and capture the feeling in your mind.

Step two is to try and develop a trigger for that state of mind.  If there is, for instance, a song that puts you in that mood, try setting up a ritual that will condition you to naturally flow into that feeling.  I take a few seconds to just zone out and relax my brain, then I start tensing and relaxing my hands in conjunction with deep breathing.  After a bit of this, I take a few minutes to listen to a song that helps put me in a suitable frame of mind.

Your brain's pattern recognition skills are ridiculously advanced; a lot of studies with regards to behavior loops suggests that, with sufficient conditioning, you can trigger emotional reactions to things before you experience them, provided your brain learns to anticipate their arrival.  So a sequence that looks like:

Routine -> Song -> Emotion

can, over time, turn into

Start of routine -> Emotion

As the sequence becomes more solidified, the trigger for that emotional state can become less lengthy.  What might start as a lengthy deep breathing routine to improve circulation and blood flow, followed by a song that gets you pumped up, can eventually turn into just two deep breaths and a little head shake where you get yourself into the game.

The hard part is remembering, in the heat of the moment, to use your triggers.  The real key--in my experience--lies not in thinking about your performance, or worrying about or winning or losing, but focusing on your mental state.  Your goal should not be victory or perfection, but achieving the state of mind that makes those things more likely.


A lot of soul-searching and a little bit of not-too-scientific experimentation has helped me understand better the things that affect my own personal performance.  Amid the excitement of tournaments and competitions I can have trouble remembering to actually follow some of them, but just knowing they exist and influence me helps me keep more perspective when my performance shifts.  People who know me know that I'm intensely perfectionst and expect to be playing great all the time, and it's something I've been working hard to move away from, because as often as it drives me to improve, it impedes the way I play.  Treating it as something based on cause and effect helps me distance myself a bit from the whole thing and keep a sense of perspective, and I hope it helps you do the same.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Playing On a Bell Curve

Today I was drawing a bit of a blank on what to talk about, which is interesting, because even saying that made me think of a new topic.  The topic is based on a concept called "regression to the mean," which is another way of saying, "things tend to return to normal after awhile."

Your performance in anything can typically be represented by a bell-curve.  You have a general level of performance, your most common middle ground, and you will play to that level most of the time.  Sometimes you will have your off days, sometimes you will have your on days.  Probability states that, your performance will fall somewhere in the middle.  That means you typically can't rely on playing your "best."

There's another bias people are susceptible to, which is the "optimism bias."  When you ask people to plan things out, they tend to assume everything will go right.  In fact, when you ask them to plan things out normally, then ask them to plan things as if everything will work perfectly, the plans tend to look the same.

Let's combine these concepts.  You probably have an idea in your head about your "real" skill level.  And this skill level, I'm willing to bet, looks a lot like you playing at your absolute best because of the optimism bias.  The thing is, that "best play" is something of an anomaly.  Your "real" skill level, what you can bank on happening a majority of the time, is going to be worse than that.

So the result?  You're normally going to be disappointed with how you play!  You may optimistically assume everything will fall into place, and anything less than that is "bad."  So it's no surprise that you're almost always "off" when it counts, because you're defining your skill in a way that guarantees it to be the case.  Considering how stress and disappointment negatively affect the way you play, it's important to be honestly pessimistic.  You are probably going to play at your average, and then if you don't, you've got a coinflip's chance of being above or below it.

But how can you use this kind of knowledge to your advantage?  First, it'll help you feel less bad when you aren't playing your absolute best, and that should help keep you from slipping down to your worst.  Second, it should give you hope that when you are performing badly, odds are you can ride it out and things will get better on their own.  Third, it tells you what your real goal is; it's not to always bring your A-game (generally impossible) but to bring your B-game up as high as you can get it.  Practice your basics, the stuff that's as un-screwup-able as can be.

Something else to keep in mind: I don't think that your performance is some mystical thing you don't control (there wouldn't be much point to this blog, if it were).  It's not entirely up to chance whether you have a bad day or not; there are steps you can take to make it more likely you will play on the upper end of whatever skill curve you possess.  I'll be going into that stuff on Friday.  Though they differ from person to person, I'll try and stick to ones that have definitely worked for me, or ones that just have a basic grounding biology.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why We Get Better After Breaks

Almost everybody I know has had this experience at some point:

They will spend a lot of time training and practicing a skill, trying to improve and understand it more and more.  After awhile, however, they reach a plateau and additional practice doesn’t seem to be making them better at all.  On the contrary, they feel like they’re doing worse and worse as time goes on.  Then some life emergency, some schedule conflict—or nothing more than frustration—forces them to take a break.  They don’t practice for months and finally come back.  After a few minutes of shaking off the rust, they’re suddenly playing just as good as they ever did.  In many cases, they end up being better.

How does this make any sense?  We’re supposed to improve by doing things; not doing things and getting better doesn’t jive with that.  I have several ideas on why this might be the case.  They’re speculative and definitely shouldn’t be taken as gospel—perhaps they are all tiny pieces of a bigger picture, and perhaps some are just erroneous—but I believe at least one or two of these should hold some water.

Our brains tend to kick into overdrive when confronted with new and exciting situations.  They want to collect data about new situations, to learn how to handle the unusual and the unknown.  It’s a survival mechanism that says, “I’m not familiar with this situation and it might be dangerous, so I really need to concentrate.”  I think it’s very possible that prolonged exposure to your game can increase your comfort level, and decrease the energy your brain is willing to allocate on something that it thinks it’s already familiar with.  When you take a break and come back, however, the situation feels new again, and your mind is willing to allocate more resources, giving you better concentration and processing power.  The improvement might even stick, as you learn new things and see the game in a different way thanks to your increased attention.

Our brains have a tougher time making good decisions the more options we have.  When you take a test for reflexes, a test with only two options—act or not act, yes or no—that focuses on a small amount of information will get you a score of X.  As more options are added, and the information you focus on increases, not only does your speed diminish, but so does your accuracy.

It’s very possible that when you return to a complicated task after a break period, you will try and ease into it.  You’ll only use a couple tools, familiarize yourself with the whole process, and streamline your decision making (making it faster and more accurate).  The game will seem a lot more clear and simple because you are actively avoiding cluttering your brain with more choices.

It's worth noting that you can consciously try to take a reductionist policy to your game.  Try to spend your energy on fewer choices and easier choices as time goes on.  Likewise, if your game allows it, try and force your opponent into scenarios where he has lots of options to pick from.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not get stronger in the gym; you get weaker.  You expend energy, you break down muscles, you tire yourself out.  After a certain point, continuing to exercise damages your growth rather than encourages it.  Your muscles only regain that strength—and then gain even more on top of that—when you rest.  If you don’t rest, and you don’t focus on taking in and storing nutrients, your body has nothing to get stronger with.

The brain is somewhat similar in that it is biologically limited.  It relies on energy sources to learn and create the pathways that it uses to retrieve information and make choices.  If you don’t give it time and fuel to do its job, it just won’t do its job!  If we use the muscular model, the answer is simple; use your brain, exercise those skills, trigger the mechanisms for growth, and then focus on resting.  Calculated rest is as important as dedicated training for improvement.

Closely related to the point above, the time you spend not working on your problems consciously is a time when the mind does so on its own beneath the surface.  My evidence here is (disclaimer!) anecdotal; my father has told me on numerous occasions that he frequently goes to sleep thinking about a complicated problem--typically business related--and wakes up with his answers.  When trying to speedrun a game, I had a dream about one of the rooms in it, and I woke up with an idea for improving my path that happened to work.  Sometimes your brain goes vigilante and works outside your consent to solve problems for you while you aren’t looking, so sometimes it pays to look away on purpose.

Everything you do teaches you lessons.  Similar principles apply even across radically different looking disciplines.  The time that you spend away from your game or your profession may be time spent learning new principles in other areas.  When you come back, sometimes you are in a different “mode” of thought, where you’re using the principles of a different discipline to your advantage in ways you didn’t imagine.  If you concentrate on it, you can use that to expand your repertoire of mental tools to succeed.

Expectations can increase stress.  You may come to believe that you must perform at a certain level because of all the time you’ve spent practicing and training; when you combine that with the stress of competitions, or the stress resulting from a game that’s just genuinely intense, it can push you over the edge and decrease your performance.  People who don’t expect a lot of themselves can be more free to play loose and confident, to take risks that pay off, and they also don’t get upset if they mess up.  Since everybody messes up at some point anyhow, having a slightly more relaxed mentality will keep them from letting it screw them up even more.  Of course, after awhile people start to develop expectations of themselves again, and this benefit can go away.

It shouldn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyhow.  You don’t get good at things without practicing them at some point.  You have to invest time learning in order to acquire knowledge.  But the time you spend triggering your growth, and the time you spend allowing yourself to grow, should be separate.  Give yourself the opportunity to rest and recuperate, to let information settle and solidify, and come back to your discipline with fresh eyes.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

NaNoWriMo and Having Fun

Words are a little hard to come by right now, since I spent the last 27 days participating in National Novel Writing Month, the objective of which is to write fifty thousand words in a single month.

Let's break that down really quickly.  According to Wikipedia (as of this writing), the average words per minute for copying things via keyboard is thirty three words per minute, and the average for composition is nineteen.  For simplicity's sake, we'll call it twenty, and divide fifty thousand by twenty, which makes for two thousand five hundred minutes of continuous writing.  In turn, that's an average of eighty three minutes and twenty seconds of writing per day.  Close to an hour and a half of work every day for a full month, which doesn't take into account the time you spend trying to figure out what the hell you're going to write about.

So it's a lot of effort to maintain over the course of a month, particularly when you're trying to work around a schedule of living that may involve jobs, errands, family, and so on.  If you're a hermit--and I kind of am one, right now--it's a lot easier.

But the thing is, people DO have the time to write.  We have the time to do a lot of things.  You can wake up just twenty minutes earlier and write before breakfast.  You can pop open the laptop and write during lunch.  Instead of watching TV, you can jot a few more words and continue your epic while you're waiting for water to boil so you can make pasta.

Why is it so hard then?  I'll speak from experience--and judging by personal testimonials, the experience isn't an uncommon one--that it can take a lot of time to persuade yourself to write.  To convince yourself that it will be worth it to put in the time, to get the running start, to NOT stop halfway through and say "it's terrible!" and hit ctrl+a, then delete.  So you need to spend time brewing your coffee and taking your running start, jump into the word processor and make as much headway as you can before your brain lapses into a self-protective coma.

This is kind of how people approach a lot of things, and the reason is simple: as we get older, most people start adopting a results-oriented mindset, rather than a process-oriented mindset.

Which makes a lot of sense, for adults.  Your time is limited, and you need to spend it doing things that will make continued living possible.  You have children to look after or you have a job to do, so your primary thought process is going to be "am I spending my energy on things that further this?"  The only time you're willing to do things that DON'T further it is if it doesn't really cost you energy.  So yeah, checking your e-mail and Facebook and finding hilarious images and watching TV are okay.  They're low energy investment, and you can pretty much stop them any time.  Which is part of the reason why, ironically enough, you continue to spend more and more time on them, when you could have spent a fifth of that time practicing a musical instrument you've been longing to learn for years.

Compare that to kids.  Kids usually just jump right into doing something and don't really care about how it's going to turn out.  They just get invested in doing things.  Because they aren't as interested in the value of their results as it relates to their whole life, they just wanna do stuff.  The primary question they ask is, "am I having fun doing this?"  If the answer is "No," they try and stop doing the thing.  If the answer is "Yes," they either say "awesome" or ask, "how can I have more?"

There is some value in both approaches.  The biggest indicator of likely success in adults is the ability to delay gratification, to work tirelessly in the face of delayed pleasure and success.  To be focused less on the process and keep the eye on the ultimate prize.  They don't spend much time worrying if they are having fun, because they have a goal.

But the results oriented mindset has a specific place, and that is for getting the unpleasant completed.  It is for helping you demonstrate willpower, for remembering what you ULTIMATELY want rather than what you temporarily want.  It's really not that helpful for things that are... well, supposed to be fun.

Back to children.  A child who grows up drawing is not really going to mind that their drawings pretty much suck (because they probably do).  There is no storm to weather, because drawing is what they do to have fun.  Until they get a bit older they won't ask whether this practice is getting somewhere, they won't make a crummy drawing and say "ugh this is not worth it" and give up forever.  The tolerance for failure is high, because getting to do the thing at all is what matters, not the result.

A few paths are available here: a child might get good at what they do over time and develop sufficient skill and confidence in their abilities.  Failure will come from trying to overextend their skills, not from an inability to perform basics; whether as a hobby or as a professional, they'll continue drawing.  On the other hand, they might eventually abandon it as a hobby, deciding it's not worth it (as they pursue a process oriented attitude) because they aren't good enough, or they just have too many other responsibilities.  The desire to draw doesn't outweigh the desire or need to pursue other things.

The other thing that might happen is they still want to draw, they would really like to, but something inside them is constantly measuring the endeavor to the result.  They don't focus on whether they enjoy drawing, whether it gives them meaning; they always treat it as an indicator of how good they are, they question each drawing for its value, and end up scrapping their ideas and not pursuing them.  But they still want to do something with it.  A brutal combination of perfectionism and the need to get desired results leads to impossible targets which are quickly abandoned.

This happens to writers, I think.  It happens to me.  I hit a slump in the middle of the month and realized that I was being perfectionist about something I may never publish, finish, or show to anybody.  I wasn't enjoying or finding fulfilling something I started entirely for my own self-fulfillment and enjoyment.  The whole POINT of NaNoWriMo is, in fact, to abandon the results oriented mindset and embrace the process.  By obsessing over the result, I was missing the point.  How goofy.

Now came the question: why did I want to participate to begin with?  Why do I like writing at all?

Simple: writing, to me, is thinking.  Thinking is the process of asking questions and then answering them.  When I write, I force myself to make these questions and these answers concrete.  I get ideas and I explore them and make them more real to myself.  I love to learn and I learn through writing.  I also love clever dialogue, epic cinematic scenes, unusual similes, metaphors, and descriptions.  Putting them into words is a way to make them more real as well.  Sometimes there isn't even a point beyond just having fun.

I'm actually pretty bad at having fun.  Getting into things without caring about the outcome is tough for somebody who is competitive; even that old adage "I'm competing with myself" isn't one hundred percent healthy, because it means you measure EVERYTHING you do against your old self, and if you aren't constantly improving, you're being frustrated.

I tried to break through that this month and actually have some fun.  While I was trying to convince myself to write, I stopped thinking about how I NEEDED to get it done, and I started spending time thinking about all the cool ideas I had and how much I liked thinking about them.  I made sure to be sitting at my computer when I did it, to create as little a barrier between the idea and the fun as possible.  And because I finally did start having fun, I found more willpower present to stick it out when I was tired and wanted to quit.  There's a happy medium where your joy and enthusiasm gets you started, and discipline sustains you.  Sometimes the discipline lies in reminding yourself how much fun you should be having.

So this month I didn't just write a crap ton of words that may, on possible re-reads and edits, turn out to be very terribly written.  I kind of relearned how to have fun.

Thanks for reading.  Go have some fun.

(In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I am not editing this post at all.  Also I'm tired :P )

Friday, November 23, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hey everybody.  No post today since I've spent a lot of this week in the throes of turkey related celebrations.  Instead, I'll just recommend that you go out and buy The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin.  Get it on Amazon, go to a bookstore, look into it and find excerpts, whatever.  It's a wonderful read about somebody who achieves world-class skill in both Chess and Tai Chi Chuan.  Intense with lots of lessons, and I highly recommend it.  Also just youtube Josh Waitzkin and listen to things he has to say.  He's a smart and well-spoken individual.

We'll be back to the schedule on Tuesday!  Enjoy your weekend.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Money and Games

There is a simple fact about people that most of us are very bad at remembering: we are typically poor judges of what actually motivates us.  People spend energy going after things they think they want, only to end up unsatisfied.  I'm not attempting to preach or act holier-than-thou.  I'm just being descriptive.  This is definitely a problem with me, and it's very likely one with you and many people you know.  The person who actually knows what they really want and knows what really satisfies them is either 1) lucky or 2) reached that point after a lot of disappointment and self-searching.

So it's interesting (and sad) that people attach money and external rewards to games.  We usually become good at games because we just like them a whole lot; material stakes don't have much to do with it.  Few kids grew up watching Michael Jordan play and thought, 'I want a contract like his when I grow up.'  They wanted to be basketball gods, for the sake of being basketball gods.  Because it was awesome to learn and get better.  It was cool.

But at some point, people want to add things to the game to "make things interesting" or "spice it up."  And it works.  It actually does work to put something on the line and threaten yourself with genuine loss should you fail at a game.  Put a thousand dollars on a hand of poker, and you are gonna seriously care about that hand of poker (assuming you aren't a multi-millionaire and a thousand dollars isn't just chump change to you).  Your adrenaline is going to spike, your palms will sweat, your heart will go nuts.

This is where it gets tricky.  Let's say you love darts and your friend loves darts, so one day you decide to put a hundred bucks down on a game.  And you get close to the end and it's neck and neck, and your buddy suddenly says, "hey listen man, if I lose this I actually can't pay rent this month.  How about we just nix the bet?"  You may or may not say yes, depending on how homeless you want your friend to be.  What happens after is the interesting part:

If you decide to cancel the bet, you typically become significantly less invested in the outcome of the game.  You may stop trying altogether, saying, "well, now there's no money on the line, so what's it matter?"  This will even be the case if you're normally competitive.  Why?  Because ordinarily, the dual purpose of the game is to have fun and try to win.  If you replace that with a new one, where you play the game to try and win money, then remove that, you have nothing left.

Some people DO continue to care and try their hardest because they are innately competitive and always want to win.  However, most people most of the time will stop caring.  This is the result of something called the Overjustification Effect.  From Wikipedia:

"The overjustification effect occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person's intrinsic motivation to perform a task. According to self-perception theory, people pay more attention to the external reward for an activity than to the inherent enjoyment and satisfaction received from the activity itself. The overall effect of offering a reward for a previously unrewarded activity is a shift to extrinsic motivation and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation. Once rewards are no longer offered, interest in the activity is lost; prior intrinsic motivation does not return, and extrinsic rewards must be continuously offered as motivation to sustain the activity."

tl;dr: If you attach extrinsic reward to something to get people to care more, then remove the reward, people stop caring.

Seems obvious, doesn't it?  Yet people insist on taking things they already enjoy, then adding money to them.  Once they stop playing for money, they stop having fun.  In fact, they have even LESS fun than they did before.  This means that you might have cared about the game, just for the sake of the game, or your own learning, or the thrill of competing, and that was great.  As you went on, you tried to increase it by putting more on the line, which seemed great, but then you realized you undermined the whole thing.  That's not so great.  Now playing is a job, a chore.  You ask yourself constantly, "will this be worth it money-wise," and if you can't make enough money at it, you don't bother to show up.  If you bother to show up, you goof off.  Getting too used to money ruins the activity.

I'm not crazy enough to say there's something wrong with having resources available to you, or wanting to have sufficient resources to enjoy your life.  Life has the chance to be a lot more fun when you don't spend all your time wondering if you get to eat this week.  Which is exactly why you shouldn't make money a central (or even auxiliary) component of your games; you can't enjoy them if you are obsessing over the monetary aspect.

The thing is, it's really nice and attractive to think that you can make a living doing what you love, but the problem is if your living legitimately depends on it, odds are you're not going to enjoy it nearly as much.  You will be constantly evaluating what you do in terms of "is this going to get me by," or "is this enough money for my investment," and that's going to kill your enjoyment.

There is a caveat here.  If you KNOW that you don't need or even particularly want the money, or you genuinely don't expect to get it to begin with, you are drastically more likely to keep your interest for something.  If you make $50,000 a year and you agree to do a commissioned painting for $20, that's such a small external reward that it basically doesn't matter to you.  You might as well be doing it for free.

That's the key: if you might as well be doing it for free, you're more likely to enjoy it regardless of the existence of an extrinsic reward.

So this is my advice.  If you aren't going to enjoy what you're doing, you might as well pick something lucrative.  Then you'll have the financial safety net to enjoy your hobbies without worrying about the cost.  That will let you leave the whole thing as intrinsic as possible.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What Can You Learn From Games?

There are a lot of resources available to you in this world, but there's one that every human has access to, one that is limited, and one most people aren't very good at using well, and that resource is time.  We never seem to have enough of it.  We waste our time until we don't have anymore, then wonder where it went.  We actively look for ways to kill time while waiting for other things to happen, then get upset with how busy we always are.

Most people think they should be trying to do valuable things with their time.  And there are probably plenty of people out there who don't think that you should be spending them playing video games.  Why not?  Because you could be making art or friends, reading books or helping the homeless or saving lives or smoking crack.  Why play games?

Well, like I spent about two weeks discussing before, games are simulations designed to develop skills.  Games are also ways to enjoy yourself, and potentially act as ways to cultivate relationships.  Spending time doing things you like with people you like and learning things that help you do stuff better; all in all, it sounds like a sweet deal, and pretty much answers the above question.  Playing games can let you have a good time and become a better human being.

What kind of skills can you develop?

--Games can teach people how to read maps and establish direction sense; play an RPG or an FPS without being able to learn a new environment, and prepare yourself for a world of pain as you run around in blind circles.  This will also help you navigate using landmarks as guides, reorient yourself with regards to absolute direction, and basically not get lost every time you blink.

--They can teach you how to prioritize objectives and create efficient action paths.  If you play an adventure game or RPG or something, where you need to talk to one NPC, turn in a fetch quest, buy some items with the money you just earned, and make it back to your airship/horse/dune-buggy/travel thing, you can use those scenarios to become more efficient with your time.  You can plot out paths that will get the most done with the least travel, or learn to perform actions that accomplish multiple goals at once.  Speedrunners who try to create their own paths through a game will probably push this kind of skill even further.

--Team-based games can help you practice teamwork and communication skills.  You share objectives with others, learn how to manage around others' failures or capitalize on their successes, and can also find ways to deal with different personality types effectively.

--Games can help you cultivate rapid pattern-recognition skills.  From platformers and action games with boss AIs to understand, to puzzle games where you must find problem-solving patterns that you can chunk and combine, to competitive multiplayer games where you must exploit an opponent's tendencies to win, games help hone the pattern-recognition software in your brain.

--Games can teach you how to better mentally focus on important moments; I've had numerous friends react quickly and instantly to dangerous situations and I've even impressed people with my average reflexes.  By learning how to focus on a cue (like a boss' startup animation) and having a plan in place to deal with it, I can sometimes react instantly to new situations while other people don't even know they need to be doing something.

--Here is an interesting one that's never talked about: games can teach you "fake" depth perception.  In 3D games, sometimes you have to judge distance "away" from you/your character.  The problem is, you're judging it on a two-dimensional plane.  Your brain uses both of your eyes to create depth perception, but a 3D game only lets you use one "eye," the camera.  Playing these games can help you learn to judge depth perception by using a combination of environmental cues without relying on having two eyes.  Interesting!

--Games can get you in the habit of doing quick mental arithmetic.  I don't even know where to start on this, since games are all about numbers, but quickly doing math in your head is unbelievably useful and games give you a chance to practice constantly.

--I bet there's more I haven't even mentioned.  So if your games are giving you a chance to have fun AND develop these auxiliary skills that you can apply elsewhere, they can be pretty efficient ways to spend your time!

There's a catch to all of this though.  Games are just like books and movies and classrooms which is that you can only develop skills that you actually practice; just showing up doesn't cut it.  Just as there are a lot of ignorant people with high-school diplomas, there's not inherent reason to try and play games well.  Lots of people use them the same way they use every other form of media; to kill time.  To passively trigger and satisfy the dopamine circuitry in the brain so they feel like they did something without learning or achieving anything.

Games can also teach you bad habits.  Games can teach you to find excuses for failure (lag or a bad controller or a crappy teammate or a stupid design element) so you never have to question your performance.  Games can teach you that mindlessly grinding away your time will help you achieve goals.  Games might teach you any number of lessons.  You might learn to lose gracefully and respect an opponent's prowess or you might learn to complain that he's a cheater if he dares ruin your killstreak.

There's a hidden moral and life lesson here, which is that what you learn and develop in the time you have available is almost completely separate from the thing you're doing.  The only things you learn and the only skills you develop are the things you choose to practice.  Play mindlessly, and you will live mindlessly.  Play thoughtfully with the intent to develop new skills, and you will have new skills no matter what you do.

And possibly the final and most important point is, it does not matter what the hell you learn from games, if all you do with that knowledge is keep playing the games.  If the simulation does nothing but make you better at the simulation, you might as well not learn anything.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Making the Opponent Play Worse

I've talked a lot recently about habits, and how powerful they are in getting us to become better competitors (and human beings).  As I mentioned, their strength lies in the fact that they cost almost nothing; the brain automates some things so it doesn't have to use energy making decisions.

The thing is, habits rely on experience and conditioning.  If--as I believe--becoming skilled is the process of accumulating useful habits, then you can make somebody play worse by questioning those habits.

This is the value of using weird strategies, or ones that aren't entirely optimal.  You don't want to use things that just don't work, obviously; however, when you use weird and confusing strategies, it forces the opponent to question what they already know.  They ask themselves, "do I know how to deal with this?"  Once you take them out of their unconscious comfort zones and force them to consciously analyze things, it slows them down and increases room for error.

This is why you occasionally get people who don't seem "as good" as their opponent getting wins off unforced errors.  They aren't playing terribly, per se, but the things they do just don't quite make sense all the time.  And so sometimes they get wins against people who are "supposed" to beat them.  This is because experts often work off pattern recognition, and when you start breaking the pattern of how the game is "supposed" to be played, expertise falters.  This leads to unforced errors and, more often than not, frustration.

A related study involves chess players and memory; there are strong chess players who can reconstruct positions from different games, or quickly memorize all the piece placements when briefly exposed to a moment from an actual game.  However, they don't just have perfect memory.  From the article:

"Chase and Simon had chess players recall chessboards with randomly placed pieces.   With briefly presented random chessboards, players at all levels of skill had the same poor recall performance and were able to recall the correct location of only about four pieces—a performance comparable with that of chess beginners for actual positions from chess games."

When the positions of the pieces were completely random, expertise no longer helped them, and the chess players' memories more or less dwindled to normal levels.  It's not about chess players having godlike recall, but being able to build a memory from pieces of relevant information.

Likewise, when you do things that don't make 100% sense to the other player, it kills their pattern recognition.  Provided you aren't causing yourself to lose, when you play outside the box it can give you a temporary edge against superior players.  They will make errors they normally wouldn't make, and sometimes get very irritated, not quite sure why they are making amateur errors.  That leads to more mistakes, and sometimes big upsets can occur if you can capitalize enough.

There is a saying though, which is that "the best athletes have the shortest memories."  Good players know how to forget information that does not directly assist their victories, and whether that's quickly moving on from stupid mistakes, or learning to ignore anomalies and just play based on their superior game-sense.  So when you do encounter players with wonky playstyles that throw you off, search for pertinent information and discard the rest.  If you are the better player, take a moment to "forget" the anomaly, since searching and trying to plan around the strange can sabotage the normal.  Rely on playing the game the way you know how, and let your superior fundamentals and basics take care of the rest.

Thanks for reading, and see you on Friday.

Friday, November 9, 2012


When is the last time you played?  I don't mean "indulged in recreation."  I don't mean "did something that wasn't work or sleep."  But when did you last play?

When did you last indulge in curiosity without worrying about goals?  When did you explore the space around you, or challenge yourself to create outcomes without having a strict definition of success and failure?  When did you last let your train of thought rampantly switch tracks as it pursued whatever was most interesting to it at the time?

As adults, we have our brains switched to a goal-oriented mindset.  We need to produce or succeed.  If we don't know how to produce or succeed, we need to learn the skills.  We need to train and execute.  We use manuals and guides and how-tos and walkthroughs and tutorials.

But there is value in learning how to ignore overarching objectives.  Some of the best ideas you will ever have come from strange, offshoot thoughts that don't seem to have relevance to anything you're "supposed" to be thinking about.

When most people think of play, they think of switching their brains off.  We use phrases like "mindless fun" and "I don't want to think about anything serious."

The type of play I am describing is not quite like that.  I want you to think of a dog that bring to a park.  Does the dog, in its efforts to finally cut loose and have fun, just lay there in the grass and do nothing?  Well, unless it's old, injured, sick, or all three, it doesn't.  Healthy and excited dogs get up and start running.  They sniff random things, go leaping and barking at every stimulus.  Then they find something interesting, some smell that grabs their attention, and they pursue it.  They hit an obstacle and look for a way around it.  The play becomes less haphazard and more focused, more exploratory.  They chase self-discovered goals in a goalless environment.  And then they find something interesting (or, if it's a dog in real life, disgusting) and bring it back to you.

As adults, that dog--it was a metaphor all along!--seems to become stationary.  Burdened with responsibility in the real world, when it gets a chance to finally cut loose, it craves nothing more than sweet inertia.  Habits, safe places.  And when it has energy, it will go back to its goals and duties.  This isn't 100% unexpected, because as you get older you find more and more responsibilities awaiting you.  And play isn't rest.  Play can be tiring.  Play is your mind getting a chance to run and jump and be childish again.  Children seem to play without limiters, which is why when they're done they also just crash and fall asleep while you're carrying them to the car.

But play is also more than that.  Play is where your mind gets the opportunity to innovate and contemplate the crazy, to step outside its box.  Many of people's best ideas happen when they say, "you know what, it's a weird idea but..." and they just go for it.  They experiment.  They goof around.  They play.

And the more you play, the better you get at it.  That's the beauty.  You start seeing patterns in the chaos of play, and you can find ways to play and experiment and learn about almost anything.  Suddenly everything is fun, and you have the heuristics to discover new possibilities in the old and stale.  You develop intelligent play.

Like a lot of the most useful and powerful emotional states, intelligent play is almost a paradox.  You can't fully play and let go without eliminating goals, but then you can't innovate without exploring possibilities and eliminating impossibilities.  But by taking the childish spirit of curiosity and adding adult experience and processing, you have a machine cultivated for innovation and discovery.  And best of all, it's fun.

So go play.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Author note: You might have noticed I'm late again.  This is largely thanks to a combination of power shortages and a faulty router that hasn't been letting me have consistent access to the net.  We're going to be getting a replacement soon though!

On to today's post.


People love tournaments.  They generate a lot of excitement, they bring us together for big events, and they (hopefully) showcase high level play for everyone to enjoy watching.  But what are they for?

Well, it honestly sounds like I just answered my own question.  Tournaments can also push people to learn and improve and then improve the community's overall skill by developing the way the game is played.  The tournament is also designed, somewhat, to figure out who the best players are.

But there are many factors involved in that.  You can have an amazingly deep understanding of your game, creative strategies, a phenomenally high skill ceiling, and be absolutely garbage at performing under pressure.  You may arguably be the best at the game, but you aren't the best at tournaments, which is a whole different kettle of fish.  So even if you can absolutely demolish competition when nothing is on the line, you can't do it when the pressure is on.  Likewise, you may be just slightly above average, but not even have a concept of choking.  You get extremely far on your not-so-bad basics while other people give away things for free in the tournament environment, and you place well beyond what your game-sense might merit.

Some people, however, equate tournament ability with game ability.  I do not.  What you know about a game, what your body is capable of performing at its peak, these things aren't strictly related to performing under pressure.  If we want to use a game-purity argument, tournaments aren't an inherent part of the game.  They're externally imposed by us.  Including them as a measure of your skill at the game is silly.

But, and this is its own extremely important point:  Performing well in high-pressure situations is an unbelievably important life skill that translates to everything you do.  Measuring and improving it is arguably more useful to everybody involved than figuring out who the best player is.  So even if it's not tantamount to describing your skill as a player, it's so useful--and impressive to spectators--that dismissing it would be pretty ridiculous too.

So really, the purpose of a tournament is nothing more and nothing less than figuring out who the best *tournament* player is.  And there are still issues with that.

1) Performance varies from game to game.  Depending on how demanding the game is, and how much individual mistakes can cost you, this might make reaching the number one spot as much a matter of luck as anything else.  Obviously you need to be skilled.  This is why games tend to be played in sets, or only end after a pretty large number of points has been accumulated; having singular mistakes decide entire games and tournament outcomes isn't attractive for purposes of hype.

Sometimes a game does come down to a wire, and one mistake or brilliant play decides it all.  But those situations don't exist without the mistakes and brilliant plays that happened before them.  They're also often very entertaining (or heart-breaking, depending on who you cheer for).

2) Some games have very heavy systems of counters involved.  There are, for instance, fighting games with extremely difficult--if not impossible--matchups for certain characters, so you might only have a shot at winning if you don't play against your counter.  Magic: The Gathering is pretty susceptible to using decks where you completely shut down or avoid the point of the other person's whole strategy.  Barring a tragically awful draw, you are basically guaranteed to win in some deck matchups.  So after a certain point, it's possible your entire bracket success will depend on luck.

3) Even if the counters aren't built into the game itself, sometimes players counter each other.  Certain styles and skills will get you more mileage against one player than another.  Somebody may have deeply-rooted traumas because you schooled them at the first event they showed up to, so they've got a mental roadblock when it comes to playing you.  So again, bracketing can come down to luck, and that can (and often does) determine who makes it to the finals.

4) Upsets happen.  See #1.  No matter how carefully you seed your bracket, there are just times when a player decides he's going to be the best in the world for a few hours and goes on an absolute rampage.  And sometimes amazing players decide that brains are overrated, leaving theirs at the door for awhile so they can go zero and two, taking last and propelling lower level players ahead for free.

But you know what?  That stuff is mostly fine.  If we knew who was going to win every match of the event beforehand, we wouldn't bother holding events.  Apart from eliminating games with extreme systems of counters, and trying to play games where you have some margin for error and comeback potential, the above stuff is just part of reality.

The thing is, tournaments don't really settle anything.  There could always be more matches, more extensions, more chances for one guy to prove himself.  One person getting food poisoning the day before his event could give him an early trip out, and a rerun of the whole thing might lead to drastically different results.  It's pointless to speculate, and it's pointless to take any given event too seriously.  What matters more are trends across numerous events that tell you how people are progressing, who they are weak against, and use that information to understand the game and its community better.

Thanks for reading.