Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What is skill?

When you spectate a game, how do you know which player is better?  Which one has more skill?  What does it mean to have more skill in the first place?  And when you train, how do you develop skills of your own?

In the past, I've talked about games being simulations to develop survival skills.  They exist as artificial environments to test your fitness.  But the first thing to remember is that fitness is context-sensitive.  We can imagine a massive, beautiful, neurologically complicated and well-muscled beast that runs 100 km/hour and kill a hippo by kicking it in the face, and call it fit.  But then you could just stick it in an environment where it freezes to death in five minutes, and that would no longer be the case.  Meanwhile, its competitors are small furry creatures who don't freeze to death, that can't kill anything at all, unless you count waiting for things to die because of wind-chill factor, and they win.  They are more fit for that environment.  Unappealing as they might be compared to the hypothetical Adonis-esque beast before it, the only question is this: which one is better at surviving in its niche?

In the context of a game, fitness and skill are one and the same.  Fitness is the measure of your ability to survive in an environment, and skill is the measure of your ability to win a game.  Then, depending on the environment/game, there will also be a higher or lower degree of luck involved as well.

So right there is one definition of skill: skill is no more and no less than your ability to win.  This includes mental and physical components; a developed body counts--in my definition, anyhow--as skill, because it's something you consciously develop in order to help achieve victory.  You intentionally develop your body to be more "fit" for a given environment; the body type you need for Greco-Roman wrestling is not the optimal body you would need for, let's say, Trampolining.  Intelligently developing your musculature is as key a component of winning as spending time on the court or field or ring or ice or couch or ergonomic office chair.

So, to repeat: skill is the ability to win, and being a consistent winner is typically the way you demonstrate having the most skill.


Let's look at a different side of skill though, the aspect you're probably more used to thinking about.  When you say "developing a skill," you might mean "having an excellent screen pass" or "excellent micromanagement" or "

First, remember that you can't consciously think about more than one thing at a time.  You can rapidly change what you are thinking about--which usually occurs at the expense of mental efficiency and accuracy--but there's no moment where your conscious brain focuses on more than one thing at a time.  But then, what do you do if a game requires you to notice a lot of things?  Simple: you develop habits.

Skill, when discussing task performance, is the accumulation of necessary habits.  The skill of a golf-swing, for instance, involves a lot of tiny adjustments and nuances to a motion that is not initially natural.  So you work on each part of it individually, develop each as a habit, until the golf swing is whole.  If you try and consciously focus on making each element of that swing correct every time, different parts of your body will have a tendency to rebel when you aren't looking.  You will end up swinging the club into the ground, or twisting your wrist into a position you are more accustomed to causing you to slice the ball.  You'll swing with your arms instead of using rotary power, causing your body to jerk and then you slap the top of the ball and clip it into the ground.  Or you'll do any of the million things that can go wrong with a golf swing.  It will seem impossible to execute, when you're trying to hold a bundle of distinct elements in your head at the same time.

When you see the advice in movies where some stereotypical wise mentor says you must "clear your mind" and "don't think, just act," they are correct.  Eventually, all the proper elements of skill become cemented in your mind, and trying to consciously think just gets in their way.  The only problem is that, in those movies, they give the advice to novices or beginners so they can win by the time the movie is over.  That is, to be blunt, very stupid.  You have to develop skills and habits through repetition and training for them to develop permanent residence in your unconscious mind.  Then you can do things without thinking about them.

What conclusions can we draw about skill development?

1) It will take time.  Sorry.  Habits take awhile to form.  The catch is that if you pick the most important habits first, and you develop them well from the start, you will become good (relatively) quickly, and you'll become very good in the long-run.  When people say "develop a good foundation," that is what they mean.

2) Spreading out your learning is bad.  Picking one thing to habitualize at a time is the most important part of developing new skills.  Trying to get good at everything all at once is difficult (if not impossible) and it just hurts your development.  It's also extremely discouraging.

3) Getting out of a rut means finding destructive or inefficient habits and replacing them with better ones.  Little things you don't even notice happening can work together to undermine all your efforts.  If you want to break free from a slump, or past a plateau, this is probably the #1 reason why.

If you want to translate this to the rest of your life, feel free.  Living life well is a skill in itself, and it's nothing more than picking good habits you consciously choose to develop.  Mental habits, physical habits, behavioral habits--they all contribute to the "skill" of living life well.

Thanks for reading!


Life update: there may or may not be a blog post on Friday, because I'm going to be in Egypt until the end of the year, and I'm flying away today!  But then again, I'll have plenty of time to think and write on the plane, so even though I'm losing like 11 hours I should still be able to have something for everybody.  Thanks again.

1 comment:

  1. A neat practical way of thinking about some parts of skill. I've broken it down differently so I can use the same terms to talk about playing games, playing piano, and playing college (<--- see what I did there)

    How was Egypt? I know... I'm super late to the party. But hey, it's still a party right?