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.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bonus update: Emotional Habits

I lied when I said the update would be this weekend.  My internet turned off and, not being a net doctor, I was unable to cure it in time.  But here's your bonus update anyhow.

Let's talk briefly about emotions.

Emotions start with perception, because it's hard to have emotional responses to things your brain doesn't process on some level.  Then, you act based on how you feel about things.  Panic or anxiety or terror can jump into your brain from your subconscious without you noticing or even thinking about it.  Phobias work this way; the brain decides to shortcut any rational thought and go straight to emotion to force you into action.

So right now, the chain of events looks like: reality -> perception -> emotion -> action.  You act based on how you feel about things; feelings are based on what you perceive, which you feel based on .

At least, all this is true if you're an animal that's not capable of conscious thought.  If you're sentient and can think clearly, you can modify emotions with a NEW form of perception--your analysis.  The way you think about things can determine how you feel.  So you may receive information from your brain, consciously interpret it a certain way, then register emotions, then act accordingly.

On the other hand, you might choose to insert conscious thought in between actions and emotions in the chain of events.  You perceive, you feel, you think, you act.  You can even think first, THEN feel, then think again, develop a new emotional response, then act.  Thanks to conscious awareness and analysis of reality, you can break free of instinctual emotion-action chains.

Emotions can be great because they stir us to action.  If your mind didn't experience a desire to eat when it was hungry, you wouldn't eat, and then you'd die.  On the other hand, emotions can kick you in the butt, such as feeling desire for something that's bad for you, or feeling anger towards a friend and saying something to hurt them because you're feeling aggressive, then damaging your relationship and later regretting it.

Good news though.  If you accept the idea that thoughts can be habits, and that actions can be habits, then it makes sense that emotions can be habits as well.  You can develop habits to avoid emotions in cases where they don't serve you, or habitually guide yourself to emotions that motivate and inspire you.

As mentioned before, the first step to developing (or breaking) habits is to notice the cue.  What is triggering the emotional habit?  In the case of a phobia, it would be noticing the source of the phobia (for example, seeing a spider).  Then the routine is to feel overwhelming fear, anxiety, and panic.  This might act as a trigger for a habit of running away, creating a double layered habit whose ultimate reward is to get you away from the spider.  The physical action's reward is a cessation of anxiety, and the anxiety's (ultimate) reward is an absence of arachnids.

How about something like anger, or depression?  Assuming you don't have a chemical imbalance that needs treating with medication, it's distinctly possible that habits of thought and emotion are guiding you, and you don't realize it.

For instance, let's say you like playing a certain game, but when you screw up, you become very self-critical and depressed.  Your cue is your error.  Making the mistake causes you to immediately launch into internal monologues like, "I should be better than this," "I'm an idiot," etc.  Because you don't want to be inferior or an idiot, this might have initially spurred you to try to fix the problem.  Your reward would be fixing your errors and becoming better.

So what's the problem?  Well, a few things.  One, negative speech like that can make you sad and upset.  Sadness actually inhibits your ability to think clearly and quickly, which makes it more likely that you will make errors.  And errors are the cue for your self-critical monologue that made you depressed in the first place.  After a long enough period of time, the routine can be so ingrained that making errors will trigger the emotion and skip the conscious thoughts.  You'll never get the reward, but your brain doesn't even notice.

How would you defeat this?  For changing bad habits, the main methods are 1) develop the willpower to resist the habit, 2) avoid the cue, or 3) substitute a routine that gives you a similar reward.  When it comes to something subconscious like becoming sad without noticing, it's very difficult to exercise willpower to overcome it.  And unless you know a way to become perfect and never make errors, then this particular cue can't be avoided.  So, for practical purposes, it's really down to option three.

So the goal is to craft a routine that will destroy the depressive cycle, and the best place to start is at the cue.  If you have a crummy game, that's going to be a major influence on your mood for awhile.  So stop, right then and there, when you reach the cue.  Reconfigure your thoughts, and consciously focus on things that make you feel good and actually HELP you play better.  Only after a period of reflection and collecting your thoughts should you go back into the game.

The power of emotional habits is that, when thoroughly instilled, they do not take any conscious effort at all and they guide our actions.  Channeling emotions well is simply instilling habits that will guide you to action that benefits you.  So whether it's a conscious thought or action to trigger positive emotions that energize you, or it's a mantra or reminder that keeps negative emotions in check, find a way to insert them into your routines.  The only way to do that is to be aware of those emotions, and the best and fastest way to gain that awareness is to understand the cues that trigger them.

Thanks for reading.  Normal update tomorrow as well!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Mental Habits

The first thing people think of when I discuss skill in terms of habits is muscle memory.  This is pretty reasonable, I think.  In fighting games you make certain combos a habit, you turn the timing into a habit.  You try to perform them the same way every time--when circumstances are appropriate.  So when you connect with a move and you hit-confirm it, you don't have to consciously connect the rest of the string in your head.

But as I said on Tuesday, the heart of most mental skills is "where are you putting your attention?"  And that in itself is habitual too.  That's mostly what I want to talk about, since it's not a well-discussed topic.  It's actually one of the cases where "talent" can more accurately be described as "luck," because people who just happen to have the right habits will be using them from the start.  And they say things like "I just know," or "I just get it," and you end up feeling like they are just more suited to the game.  To a certain extent, maybe they are.

But habits can be trained and developed.  You can develop the unconscious skills, the caveat being you must figure out what they are first.  Which is tricky because, as mentioned, they're unconscious.

Example time.  When I decided to learn some things about Street Fighter IV, the character I picked--because he's classy, fancy, and a boxer--was Dudley.  He has a very simple basic combo ending in a special, his machine gun blow.  If you want to be safe on block, you use the light version.  If you want to get maximum combo damage, you use the EX version.

When I was practicing, I only had the EX version in my muscle memory.  Not good!  Even if I hit somebody's guard, my fingers would execute the EX even though consciously I knew better.  So once I was doing okay online and wasn't only playing complete scrubs (still scrubs, just not completely), I got blown up every time I hit their guard with a crouching light punch, because I went through an entire combo string and ended it with a punishable EX special.  Habit habit habit.

So what to do?  I've always had pretty "meh" reflexes when compared to many other gamers, I've felt.  Maybe I was just genetically not cut out for fighters.  No shame in that, right?

That was when I realized that I wasn't even THINKING about my light option while I was punching.  I didn't have the mental habit to ask myself, in that split second, if the punch connected and what combo I should do if it did.  Halfway through the combo string is when it finally occurred to me to even notice, and by that point, my muscle memory was pretty much locked in.  So I would either do the EX, or fumble around trying to do something else, and it rarely came out as planned.

So I decided "no more of this," and went into training mode, and set the computer's guard to "random," and focused on getting the right string every time.  If it blocked the first punch, I forced myself to notice, to care, to pay attention to THAT instead of just hitting buttons.  After awhile, things improved; my success rate of confirming whether I'd legitimately connected (and should do a combo string) became much, much better.  I started recognizing the different situations immediately, and that freed me up to think about other kinds of guard pressure options, like using basic frame traps, then move from there into throw mixups.  My game expanded considerably, all because I focused on a mental habit I didn't know I lacked.  Still a scrub though!

There's another point hidden here.  Your capacity for new habits and memories is pretty dang substantial.  You can have the muscle memory to do a certain combo; it's a routine triggered by a certain cue.  If the cues become refined and distinct, they can lead into different routines.  So when I use crouching light-punch, that can become my cue for the mental habit of confirming whether it connected.  The habit gives me a reward--new information--which in itself acts as a new cue!  One cue--hitting the guard--leads into "safe block-string," but a different cue of "connecting" leads into "combo into EX."  So the whole scenario turns into a rapid, unconscious flow-chart, with better decision making as a result.

Wait, isn't this kind of flow-chart mentality bad?  Doesn't it make you an exploitable opponent?

Well, kind of.  What you want to do is refine and create habits that only confer advantages, and avoid risk habits.  Risk habits occur in situations where there are counters to your options if the opponent knows in advance what you're going to do.  They aren't inherently bad, compared to something like ending your block-strings in something unsafe.  But it would be something that is punishable provided you know it's coming.  And then, because you can't stop doing them even though you're being wrecked for it, they become bad habits because the opponent has caught on.

These come up in rock-paper-scissors, or coin-toss situations.  If after a knockdown, I always go for the overhead first (because people watch for a sweep), then the second time I walk up and block to bait reversals, that might (for whatever reason) be a great pattern that catches lots of people off guard.  But if I do it automatically and think it's a good idea every time, smart players will catch on and start defeating my pressure.  If I gain success with it for too long, it might become a habit that's very difficult to break in the heat of a match.

In summary: you can change and add habits by refining your attention.  By picking better and more specific mental cues--and ingraining them so they become automatic--you can develop more advantageous habits.  It requires a conscious re-working of unconscious processes, which is always difficult.  It will probably slow you down, and actually impede your ability to play while you're developing them.  But if the new mental habits you develop are superior to your old ones, you will quickly see improvements, and the game will start looking different to you.

Thanks for reading.  I will add a micro-update on the subject of emotional habits sometime this weekend, and then have the normal update on Tuesday.  See you then.