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.

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