Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Duplicating Accidents

There are a lot of indicators of skill when it comes to games, crafts, and art, but one of the most important you can acquire early on is intentional manipulation.  That's a big way of saying, "you do what you mean to do."  Even if your decision making isn't 100% (and it probably never will be), and even if your decisions don't impress everybody, doing what you mean to do is of utmost importance.  It's what lets good decision-making matter; what's the point in making the right call if you can't follow through?  (For that matter, what's the point of doing things exactly how you intend to, and always picking the wrong thing?  A topic for another day!)

Learning to do what you intend to do is the most important thing when you are learning your craft.  And that's why it's so important that you learn to duplicate accidents.

Why do game testers have to replicate bugs?  So they can identify the source.  Bugs and glitches happen for a specific reason; duplicating them is how you find out what causes them.  Most of the reality we've discovered obeys laws, and a lot of the time, we only learn those laws by observing anomalies and discrepancies.  When it comes to acquiring knowledge and skills, anomalies are as important as what's normal, possibly even more so.

When something goofy happens, a lot of people say, "whoa, that was weird!" and promptly forget about it.  But if you want to further your understanding of a game (or craft, or art) exploring those weird anomalies and replicating them is a big part of learning.  It helps you understand why things happen "normally," and what causes it to go wrong so that it won't happen to you at a crucial moment.

The other thing to remember is that if a happy accident succeeds and you didn't plan it to, it means you aren't intentionally manipulating your game well.  Like I mentioned on Friday, having a results-oriented mindset will cause you to think this is good.  And don't get me wrong, it's nice when stuff works out for the wrong reasons, but if you can't control your results, you can't call yourself skilled.  So feel free to celebrate, but keep your focus on the procedure, not the result.  You might bowl a strike by falling on your ass because the ball happened to go straight to the 1-3 pocket at the right angle, but it doesn't make you a good bowler.

It also doesn't mean that if you fall over every time you roll the ball you will get strikes, which gives us another lesson; sometimes you shouldn't be trying to duplicate your accidents, especially when it comes to complicated compound motions.  You might have done everything wrong in just the right way that, added together, they yield a good result.  But if it's the result of a loss of control (such as falling over), then emphasizing the result over the process is not only faulty and damaging to your learning, it might hurt your body too.

What we're talking about is (generally) less extreme and more useful than that.  And heck, even if by duplicating your accident, you learn to make things go wrong, it might help you later on when you're trying to do something weird.  Learning what causes a hooked golf-ball (and learning to hook it on purpose when you want) tells you how to avoid a hook, and gives you information on your form.  So when things are weird, explore why they are weird.  Weird stuff obeys rules just as much as normal stuff does, and sometimes weird stuff tells us even more about the rules.  Explore!

Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Not Everybody Gets To Win

I have no doubt that in your life, you have seen a sports film.  One about overcoming adversity and realizing dreams, where somebody's dream is to take it to the championship and make it to the finals!  That's great.  Because you have come to this website and you're presumably literate, you know that I am all about competition and making dreams happen.

But let's pretend we've got a movie about high-school baseball.  There are God knows how many high-school baseball teams in America.  I am sure there are plenty of people who just kind of show up to practice because they don't have anything better to do, but some of those players have dreams of playing in the pros.  And they work their butts off morning, noon, and night to make that happen.  So after several years of work, a personal tragedy and a montage later, they get ready for their own, personal, dramatic success story.

And then somebody on another team with their own dramatic story thrashes you and knocks you out of the playoffs.  Life is unfair.

It's a popular saying that we're all the main characters of our own stories.  There are a lot of stories being lived and written.  If it's important to pursue your dream, then how do you justify it when your dream excludes somebody else's?  You can't have two first places, you can't have two "bests."  There may be somebody crying on the second place podium, or out in the parking lot because they didn't make top ten, even though they worked so hard.

Do we start committees to determine who "deserves" first place more?  Do we all step out of the way when somebody with a bigger dream comes by?  Do we stop to make sure we aren't the asshole high-school baseball team with rich parents and fancy equipment, so we don't accidentally stomp on plucky underdogs by mistake?  No, and I don't think we should.

Competitions are for determining who wins.  Who wins is typically determined by who played best.  There is no point in deciding who should win without having the competition.  You abide by the results.  That's competing.  That's life.  How do you resolve the unfairness of it all?

Well, answer number one is this: you don't.  Go out to a savannah and tell a lion that the gazelle really wants to live today and it's not fair.  Then go tell the gazelle it's not fair he should live while a lion starves to death.  Lions don't normally eat gazelles, actually, but the point stands.  When you compete with mutually exclusive goals, someone loses.  End of story.

Answer two is the one I use for resolving apparent paradoxes: switch your focus.  Emphasizing the results of competitions and putting ALL value on outcomes is a quick track to sadness, low self-esteem, and poor results.  Even when you get good results, you still feel like crap most of the time.  I've mentioned it here before (I think) but studies show parents who raise children to value themselves as hard workers regardless of outcome are the ones who actually produce better outcomes.  And they have higher self-esteem and bounce back from failure more, which are also the characteristics of people who succeed more in the long term.

Winning feels amazing and losing feels crummy.  This is not really in dispute.  Nor is this an attempt to make people feel like "hey it doesn't matter if I win or lose."  Why would you have a competition to see who the best is?  I'm a fan of them and don't really want them to go away, and I don't think people should get a passing grade for showing up to take the test.  The question that matters more (especially when you're playing sports and games whose outcomes aren't life and death) is what kind of person do you become on your path to improvement?  Are you somebody who gives up if it looks like you can't be #1 every time?  Or are you somebody who rolls with the punches and hits the drawing board harder with every failure, who is devoted to perfecting your abilities as best they can be perfected?

Do results matter?  Yes.  The goofy thing is, obsessing over results (in the vast majority of cases) leads to poor results.  It also leads to neurotic behavior and unpleasant experiences in the meantime.  If you care about getting good results, don't obsess over your results.  Obsess over the procedures that lead to good results.  Congratulate yourself when you work hard and stick to a problem long after you want to quit.  Celebrate your honest efforts and analysis towards improvement.  Reward yourself for generating new ideas even when they don't work out.

Remember; when two amazing, unbelievable, seemingly inhuman competitors face each other, it means that an amazing, unbelievable, seemingly inhuman competitor will get second place.  Does it means he/she suddenly sucks, and is worthless?  Even if the struggle is close and both participants think it was the best competition of their lives?  Another thing to consider: even if there's no point to being anything but the best, why would you want to be the best at something without competition?  You need lots of valuable competitors to make it worth being at the top.  If you become an incredible player, and you get seventh place, you have still done your part in making it a game worth winning.  By pushing yourself, you have pushed others.  And you do it through training and pouring your heart and soul into the game, through pursuing skill and understanding through hardship.   When the game is over, the competitor vanishes, but the person you've become through your efforts will carry on.  Making that person the best they can be is what matters.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Randomness in Games

Today, we talk a little about randomness in games.

To start, let's get something straight: in a game with randomness intentionally built into it, you must understand that you're possibly giving your victory over to chance.  So there is to be no complaining when the elements of chance bite you in the butt.  People who take Mario Party ultra seriously and get mad when the game screws them over need to calm down.  Yes, even if you won all the mini-games.  There's an understanding when you start playing a game that you understand the rules, and the ramifications of the game design.  You can say "this game would be so much better if X weren't in it," but you really shouldn't be complaining once you've agreed to play the game.

When you participate in something that has rules (whether it's a game or a tournament or something), you're essentially locking yourself into a contract.  You must then abide by the terms of that contract if you're going to play the game.  Don't like it?  Don't play.

This applies a bit less to glitches and engine flaws, where sometimes random things happen even though they're not part of the intentional design.  In this case (by my arbitrary guideline) you have a bit more leeway to complain.  But once you're aware that the game is not well-constructed and allows for goofy random glitches and bugs, you still have a choice whether or not to play.  So my advice is this:

1) Don't play games if you don't like the design, and...
2) Don't play badly made games.

Glad we got that out of the way.


So the real question here is not whether randomness is "good" or "bad."  We're more interested in the questions: "what do random elements add to the game" and "what do random elements take away from the game."  And even those questions are a little complicated, because random elements can be implemented in different ways.  So really, you have to examine ANY given element, and ask "what does this one, specifically, add and/or take away from the game?"

Typically in a competitive setting, random elements put emphasis on the following skills and characteristics:

--Intelligent risk-taking and analysis: it gives you experience comparing risks and rewards.
--Long-term thinking: they teach you that good decision making in the long term is more important than short-term setbacks.
--Bouncing back from failure: you learn to evaluate your performance based on the decisions you make, rather than outcomes that may be altered randomly.  This actually de-emphasizes the outcome, and emphasizes clear thinking.  Of course, thinking and acting well are supposed to lead to good outcomes more often than not, so if they aren't, your understanding of the probabilities may be off.

Those are all pretty darn useful skills and attributes to have.  Cultivating an understanding of probability, and mental fortitude in the face of probability-based failure is critical.  Sometimes you make the right decision and it screws you.  It happens in real life.  Being able to calmly analyze your decision and remain confident you made the right one based on what you knew is important.

What are the cons of random elements?

--Randomness at critical moments can dictate a winner not based on the person playing better/making better decisions.  This is unfortunate when playing games with real resources at stake, where worse players at crucial moments can be given random victories.
--Alternatively, when the better player also has luck on his side, it can be even more unpleasant for the lesser skilled player.
--They can make it less obvious what you need to improve upon when chance and technical skill collide.  When you're playing a game for the enjoyment of improvement, this can be frustrating and disheartening.
--They can disguise how "good" you are at something.  A few good decisions that work out, followed by bad decisions that work out due to luck, can lead to a poor impression of how well you performed.

What do I mean by good decisions and good play when talking about randomness?  Decisions that intelligently take the odds into account, and make ones that are more likely to succeed overall.  Or ones that recognize a losing situation might require a poor-odds choice with a big payoff.  When you make decisions based on what will likely yield the best results, and you base it on accurate analysis, you

What types of random are bad?

None, really.  It largely depends on what you expect from the game.  Like I said before, if you go into a game of Mario Party expecting that the best player will win, period, you may be sorely disappointed.  If you are invested in winning consistently based only on skill, then you want to avoid games with any randomness at all.  If you are interested in witnessing chaotic events, and having a good time with silliness, the more random the better.  Sometimes the more brutally random it is, the more hilarious your game can be.  And there are well-designed elements of chance and probability that test your skills of analysis and long-term thinking.

The main random elements that I dislike are the ones you can't (or shouldn't) be trying to plan around.  If you have an attack with a .01% chance to do quadruple damage (or something), that's a one in ten thousand chance.  It would be really unreasonable to expect that any given one attack would be the one that does quadruple damage; basing a plan on the 1/10000 chance would also be ridiculous.  Payoffs would (at potentially irritating times) overreward bad planning and punish good planning.  When the randomness is that low, there's no point taking the possibility into account... except when there is.

The end result is not frustration or satisfaction on either player's part.  It tests no skill, it creates no emotional payoff.  It's just annoying when it happens to happen.  The other irritating aspect of low probability game-altering conditions is that they don't even feel like "part of the game."  So the reasonable mind ignores it, until it crops up in horribly annoying ways.  Such randomness also doesn't teach you many skills or lessons, other than "freak accidents sometimes happen and they suck."  And while that can be a useful lesson to learn, it really doesn't belong in most games.

Thanks for reading.  See you Friday!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Failure and Frustration

Why do we get mad when we fail?

The key to understanding your emotions is to ask what purpose they serve.  The key to using and existing with them in a way that's healthy is to let them do their job when they serve the purpose well, and to gently dismiss them when they don't.

To a brain that wants to keep itself alive and healthy, failure represents the possibility that we will lose everything.  The brain can't really tell the difference between failing at a combo in a fighting game and failing to escape from a burning building.  It has no inherent software to do this.  You teach it the difference through constant avoidance of one and constant exposure to the other, until it recognizes one kind as dangerous and scary, and the other as "something that happens sometimes, whatever, it's not a big deal."

Failure needs to hit a sweetspot for it to be useful to us.  Perfectionists treat every failure, no matter how trivial, as an attack on their very identity, so they avoid doing things they aren't perfect at (which is bad for learning), and they get horribly upset when they make errors.  Some people don't respond to failure at all, meaning they don't bother improving at anything (which is also pretty bad for learning).  Ideally, we want our response somewhere in the middle.

Emotions don't exist in a vacuum.  They exist to serve us.  So when you screw up and fail, then you become angry or depressed or frustrated, are the emotions serving you?  Are they energizing you and pushing you to perfect your craft and make yourself better?   Or are they debilitating you, and making you quit?

There are lots of reasons we quit when we fail.  We quit to abandon the sinking ship.  To not waste our time on fruitless endeavors.  To go do something we look competent at, so people will believe we're valuable.  As we get older, many of us expect ourselves to stick to things we are good at.  I've joked that it's terrible to learn musical instruments at an older age because you don't expect grown men to sit at the piano then fail to play Hot Cross Buns.  Kids do that.  Kids are supposed to suck at everything, because they undeveloped brains and bodies and skills.

And that's why kids learn so much.  Not because they're good at it; kids suck at learning.  It's impressive how much of it they do unconsciously, but really, when you compare a dedicated adult with a competent teacher and well-designed curriculum to a six year old kid just doing his own thing, the adult comes out on top every time.  With full immersion and concentration, adults can achieve conversational fluency in a language in absurdly small amounts of time, but children take years, and they make lots of goofy mistakes in the meantime.  But we expect kids to say stuff like, "I taked my monieses to the growry stow!"  Because they're kids, and kids are kind of dumb.  It's not their fault, they don't have all the hardware installed yet.  And we still love them.

So here's the thing.  Lots of people who have "talents" have been learning them from a young age, as children.  It's not a mystical thing.  There's lots of failure involved, they just don't notice the several years of failure because they are kids.  They're also having fun, and since they aren't developing skills for any intentional purpose, the failures don't sting as badly.

A kid who draws for eight years before starting to see some semblance of that "talent" that we think is necessary?  They spend most of it doodling, learning passively and accidentally.  Young kids very rarely have a drive to focus their learning.  Many times, what it takes to push somebody to higher echelons is an adult figure that is ruthless about drilling excellence into them.  There's a surprising number of people who say, "I really hated doing X because my Dad/Mom/Coach just made me, and it wasn't fun... until I was 15 and suddenly realized, 'hey, I'm actually kind of good at this!'"  Suddenly there's understanding, competency, fluency, comfort, things many of us take joy in.  Where did this skill magically come from?

And there's really no reason to believe they are talented, unless you count a brain primed since youth to perform that specific task as talent.  Apart from prodigies (the ones with impossibly perfect brain architecture to perform a skill) talent as a determining factor is kind of overrated.  Talent is probably better described as "learning luck," where you happen to start training the right skills early in your "career."  There's no doubt that people's brains contribute to picking up different skills better, but brains also change in structure and composition based on how you train them.

Nobody likes failing.  Not really.  Some people say, "I love to fail because I learn from my mistakes," but failure sucks for them too.  They just don't dwell on the suckiness.  Failure gives information about what you did wrong, but only if you analyze and learn.  You must expect to fail.  The thing is, every little thing you do will be full of lots of tiny failures.

There's a double edged sword in this.  You want to learn things properly from the beginning, and develop great fundamentals.  But, especially without an authority figure pushing you when you want to give up, it can be ridiculously mentally draining to grind perfect form in the basics... and if you only compare yourself to the highest level masters (because mastery is your goal), it can be disheartening as well.

How to fix this?  Well, our goal is to use the best of both worlds.  There's the attitude of children, who are too busy having fun with the whole thing to care about failure.  They don't have many expectations on themselves, so they just keep hammering away at skill over the years they grow up.  But you also have the mentalities, experiences, attitudes, resources, and critical thinking skills of an adult, the ones that seriously narrow the learning field.  Ideally, you also have the willpower to remember what you really want, and let that want sustain you when failure is getting you down.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Not Thinking and More About Patterns

This past weekend held an incredible gaming event, APEX 2013, with quite a large number of people coming from all over the world to participate in a variety of games.  Amazing matches were played by awesome people; for my part, I played at least half my games against people from out of the country.  It was a heck of a weekend.  I also spent a lot of time talking about gaming and psychology, which are two of my favorite topics, so between the video games, East Coast pizza, and getting to talk a lot, I had a great time.

Today's subject is about patterns, and the thoughts I have on them come from two main ideas.  First has to do with the way athletes and performers describe their optimal "zone" when competing or performing; many of them say that their mind is totally clear, that they just see and do things without thinking about them.  Armada, Swedish SSBM world current champion and winner of the SSBM 1v1 tournament at APEX 2013, says his head is totally empty while he plays.  Considering all the emphasis that is placed on the mental aspect of gaming and competition, this would seem counter-intuitive, but it's very common.

The second idea is based on the description of brain functioning in "How To Creat A Mind," by Ray Kurzweil.  According to Kurzweil, thought and decision making primarily function through pattern recognition.  Our brain stores an absolutely massive number of patterns, which themselves are composed of smaller and smaller patterns.  It's how we can recognize the letter A, even when it's in a completely different font from normal; our brain has stored tremendous different pieces of information about what might lead to something being the letter A.  The more of them that we perceive, the more likely we recognize something as being a written "A."  Some elements are more important than others, and trigger the pattern recognition more strongly; eventually our brain hits a threshold of recognition where it says, "this is an A."  It builds upward by comparing different patterns and components, using the strength of experience and interconnectedness between ideas.

And, of course, pattern recognition works backwards.  If you get a very funky looking A to the point you don't recognize it, but it's followed by "pple," then you are likely to decide it is an A after all, because A fits into the higher-level pattern.  And when you see "appl" followed by something weird, you kind of know in advance it's going to be an "e", because your brain's pattern recognition software looks up to "apple" and then back down to "e."  And it happens super fast, so fast that you just see it without realizing it.  To give you an idea of the magnitude of your pattern recognition capabilities, also consider that a tilted "e" starts to bear some similarity to a "y," and that your brain would recognize the context of an entire sentence to know that the word wasn't "apple," it was "apply").  As patterns are reinforced through more experience and action, the threshold for recognizing a pattern becomes lower and lower, corresponding with the strength of the connections.  Thus, we can see what we expect to see, based on our past experiences.  The more deeply held an experience, the faster and more unconsciously related thoughts and actions will happen.  The true beauty is how aware the brain is of its own pattern recognition, so it can actually understand its own process, and understand how it could possibly be confused, and even store that information for future use.

That's all pretty neat.  How does it apply to gaming?

Well, when it comes to abilities and skills--which describes almost everything we do--it's a matter of doing something long enough until it becomes automatic.  Once it has become automatic, the thing that interferes with it the most is conscious thought!  Concentrating and asking, "hey, should I do this here? or should I do something else" will inhibit the brain from acting out its patterns the way it needs to.  This is what happens when you "choke" under pressure; instead of the action flowing naturally, you overthink it just a bit, or get just a little distracted at the crucial moment, and the second nature you've developed through training becomes inhibited and clunky.  The best option, once you have trained sufficiently (and you've trained well enough) is to avoid conscious thought!  You want the well-honed patterns in your brain to fire instantly and efficiently, without interference from other patterns and ideas.

It's why, even though good sleep and a clear head are so important to optimal performance, that people report playing better than average when sleep-deprived or high or drunk.  They lose the mental fortitude to inhibit themselves, and sometimes those will come out as perfectly executed patterns of skill.  Of course,  because your reflexes, balance, and motor control (and possible long term health damage) diminish from things like that, those aren't great situations to be in.

We're just here to check and make sure you
can handle us not checking on you.
It's also why high expectations can murder performance.  When you stop to check on your performance every two seconds to make sure it's living up to the expectations you have of it, you are interfering with the process.  Like having a boss that walks over to your desk every three minutes to ask how the report is coming; the boss is just acting concerned, but what you really want is for them to ignore you so you can get on with it.  The ultimate solution to this is to check to make sure the skills and abilities that you've trained are satisfactory; understand your performance will always vary a bit, but the skills are satisfactory on average, trust them to do their job.  If they prove themselves not to be, replace them.

But, of course, that's tricky.  As we've established, the more and more you use and train and trust the patterns and skills in your head, the more unconscious they become.  The more unconscious they become, the harder they are to intercept and fix.  It's part of why you so rarely see truly long-term dominant players, apart from physical ability diminishing with age; somebody shows up with newer, better skills, and it can be massive work to undo old habits than develop new, good ones.  It takes a lot of humility and hard work to retrain yourself if you've pushed yourself to a high level after a long period of time.  It's doable, but quite an undertaking in itself.

Thanks for reading.  See you on Friday.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Best Part Of The Day

Today's blog is about naps.

Because this is a blog about competing, and that in itself is very much about learning and thinking, it kind of makes sense that I like talking about the brain a bunch.  And neuroscience is developing at a crazy pace--thanks to the principles behind Moore's Law, which is specifically about integrated circuits, but at heart it's about science and development.  The more you learn and develop, the more knowledge and tools you have at your disposal to learn and develop further, so the rate of gain increases.

Anyhow, it's a testament to how crazily complex our brain is that we've still got such a long way to go in really puzzling it out.  The best thing about studying the brain is that it tells us cool stuff about ourselves (and we are our favorite topic).  So today we're talking about sleep, and specifically, naps.

First, as you continually train at a skill over the course of a day, your improvement rate tends to go down, and towards the end you often perform worse (even if it's not, strictly speaking, a physical skill).  Empirical studies show that you can mitigate deterioration of ability within the same day, or even turn it into upward trending improvement, by taking naps.  This particular study is talking about perceptual learning but there's some science backing up simple fact-based learning as well.

At this rate, this little guy will conquer the world.
So what appears to be better for persistent, sustained learning is splitting training up into two smaller chunks per day with some sleep in between.  Wake, train, nap, train, and bedtime (I guess with some eating or something in between.  Maybe time with loved ones?  I dunno).

That second sciencey article also has a key point to remember; the phase of sleep that appears important to this is Stage 2, which sits in between deep sleep and REM (dreaming) sleep.  So you need to nap long enough.  In that study, the participants took 90 minute naps and experienced increases in learning.

As I've mentioned before, resting and recovering is a key component of improving yourself.  You need to rest fully in between sessions at your gym, and the same appears to be true for mental skills.  Your brain runs on finite resources, and without replenishing them you are spinning wheels and wasting time.

There's a fine line here, though.  There are people who want to keep pushing and learning, and feel like time they spend not training is time wasted.  They are driven by the admirable desire for self-improvement.  Sitting down and resting, for these people, actually takes more self-discipline than continuing to train.  When you present them with science on why they should do this, they can be skeptical.  Sometimes less is more, but there are people who deep down don't believe it.

The opposite of these people are the ones who want to be good rather than get good.  They don't want to spend effort, so they constantly look for shortcuts.  If you tell them there's a faster and smarter way to get results, the start clapping giddily to themselves, and then bail if the results aren't as fantastic as they imagined.

It is probably better to be in the first group than the second, because when the time comes for hard work you're more likely to buckle down and do it.  And, even if your rate of improvement is lower, at the end you may still get to your destination.  Not developing drive and discipline to work through tough situations because you want quick fixes is much worse.  That's not to say working at full steam all the time is okay, because that's how you injure yourself, develop unhealthy obsessive behaviors, and burn out on something you love.

There is a balance.  If your goal is to learn and improve no matter what, then you should ask "what gives me high quality improvement?" and go with that.  That's your guiding star: what actually works.  If that means nonstop training eight hours a day and you're insanely determined, then you will train eight hours a day.  But if it means that naps will do the trick instead, take naps.

Thanks for reading.

PS: This weekend is APEX, a giant gaming tournament at Rutger's University in New Jersey.  It's featuring the whole Super Smash Brothers franchise, along with Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Soul Calibur V, King of Fighter XIII, Pokemon Black/White, Persona 4, and Tekken Tag Tournament 2.  It's gonna be a heck of an event, and I'm going to be entering in both the Melee events.  There may or may not be an update on Friday, depending if I can find myself some internet.  If not, I'll see you guys next week!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Brains, Automation, and Undoing Bad Habits

The brain is a pretty interesting piece of machinery.  One of its most amazing characteristics is how quickly it can adapt itself to new situations on a biological, flesh and blood level.

The book "A User's Guide to the Brain" relates a study regarding monkeys and skill development.  Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, put food pellets inside large cups, and put those cups in cages just barely in reach of the monkeys.  They practiced dozen times of a day reaching in and maneuvering the cups so they could get to the pellets.  After they'd mastered large cups, they started working with sequentially smaller cups, to a fourth, smallest cup.  The entire time, their brains were being mapped for activity and growth.

The result: after just a day of training, the area of the brain related to this activity had grown in size, and it continued to get bigger and bigger.  Once they'd mastered the fourth and smallest cup, the area started getting smaller as the process became more and more automatic.

The gist of this is that all skills start out untrained and conscious.  Over time with training, we get better, understanding them more and more, and the brain uses more of its energy to perform it.  The thing is, the brain is always looking for ways to save energy and automate things.  If it had to consciously use energy on every new skill you learned, it wouldn't have energy to maintain itself, or concentrate on other new things.  So wherever it can, it cuts corners.  It makes things automatic, and frees its energy for other stuff.

The ultimate goal of developing a skill is to train it properly and relegate it to automation.  This is why when you ask how a professional does something, they typically say "I just do it."  The catch?  If you train a skill badly, and do so long enough, you will automatically perform the skill poorly.  This is where our bad habits come into play.  Our brains will want to do things wrong, and then they won't want us to get in the way.

Here's the thing though; doing something wrong (but doing it efficiently) can look better than doing the right thing inefficiently.  The whole system, even if flawed, can be perfected within itself.  Undoing it takes a lot of conscious effort and reworking.  You have to take that bad habit, concentrate on every part of it, and rework it.  The whole process is grueling and the worst part is you rarely see immediate reward.  Your brain is performing right things inefficiently, slowly, awkwardly; the old bad habit feels more natural, and it gets better short term results.  You have to trust that your new way of doing things will eventually become automatic, eventually settle into place, and yield serious results.

My father loves golf, but he's not very good at it.  He's okay, by the standards of the average golfer (i.e., he isn't super terrible), but he has a lot of bad habits.  As he phrased it himself, "I didn't have a coach, so I just found a bunch of bad habits that fit together and practiced them."  So sometimes he does pretty great, but his habits don't form a foundation of consistency.  Sometimes he just plays terribly, and his golf swing isn't very natural, so its uncomfortable for him to play for long, especially now that he's older.

The thing is, at this point if he tried to undo any of those habits, his whole game would fall apart!  He would need to take each part of his swing, from his stance to his grip to the angle of his arm on the backswing to the way he turns going through the ball, and hammer each part out individually.  And because the swing is a giant compound movement, changing anything is going to play against all the habits he has now (because they're designed to kind of work together), and he would swing terribly.  The ultimate result, if he stuck with it long enough, would be a better, smoother, more consistent swing and a lower score.  Unfortunately, it means a lot of failure, botched swings, and discomfort in the mean time.  And if he isn't concentrating 100%, some of his old habits will resurface and kick his progress in the butt.  Because he plays for fun and just likes to get outside after working in an office all week, this isn't really appealing to him.

If you want to rework bad habits that have become automatic, you have to grind them out.  Sometimes you have to revamp your entire form, or your entire mindset, and the process can take a long time, dosed with quite a a lot of failure to boot.

The fastest (and most effective) way to do this is to devote your practice to one thing at a time and don't concern yourself with overall success.  Drills are helpful for this, rather than just sitting down and playing a full game of [whatever], because most games are divided into lots of parts with lots of interaction; if you don't drill a certain ability, you won't get enough practice on it through your game session.  Our brains are pretty flexible, and they will change with effort, even when we're older.  The trick is picking a singular element of your game and focusing on it ruthlessly until it's perfect, then moving on until it all falls into place.

Thanks for reading.  See you next time!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


First off, happy new year everybody!  The blog continues on into 2013, and joy abounds.

And our first topic for the year is going to be the concept of "pace."  First, there's the way it applies to games.  Then, I'm going to take it and apply it a bit more broadly in a social context.  Then bring it back to video games!

In games, pace is about keeping the game oriented in places where you are strong.  If you are patient and defensive, you force your opponent into slower paced situations where you layer positional traps and gain small advantages over time.  You see this in Chess when a player opts for very complicated positions that are based on controlling space and locking down options.  You might see it in fighting games where a player chooses to stay at maximum range, zoning with little annoying poke moves while baiting for counter-hits.  If you're aggressive and fast paced, you keep the pressure on, forcing the opponent to make rapid decisions, confident that your snap-judgments are better under fire.

Controlling pace is based heavily on understanding your strengths.  Being able to keep the game fixated where you are strong is what makes some players feel so unstoppable.  They have weaknesses, they just don't play the game around them.  Doing this lets them avoid turn-arounds, and it also keeps execution solid and confidence high.

What are you good at?  How can you make sure the game stays focused on those areas?  It helps to be proficient all over, but if you really want to dominate, focusing on your specialties is the way to do it.  Sometimes it can frustrate your opponent, and make them bash their head against the wall trying to beat you where you're best.  This only works out well for you.  Likewise, if you seem to be playing poorly, consider this possibility: you're playing normally, but the game is focused on things you aren't great at.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to improve your weakest area, but you really do want to save that for practice.  I can get really stubborn in tournaments and try to play the opponent's game to prove that I can beat them at it, when the smart (and less stressful) thing to do is prove they can't be me at mine.


I think it's interesting to examine a social parallel here.  We influence each other's behaviors through a large number of cues, some big and some almost invisible to conscious detection.  When somebody is stressed, they communicate it with body language, and sometimes they transmit the mood by putting you on your guard.  There can be unspoken tension between you, tiny things that make both people feel uncomfortable.  You walk away more stressed than you began, even though nothing actually happened to you.

So you can set paces and moods in conversation by the way you act.  And in turn, you can focus on not getting drawn into somebody else's mood (or pace, or presence).  They act stressed, they hunch and tense their bodies, set their jaw, and by acting on edge, they start putting you on edge.  To avoid letting this transmit, you might choose to maintain a laid-back posture; you relax your face, open up your stance, and become a living embodiment of composure.

Does it work?  It's obvious that mood effects your body language, but studies show body language effects mood as well.  The associative link is very strong going both ways.  In fact, having made the decision to be in a good mood when somebody near you seems determined to be miserable, you may find yourself thinking how ridiculous they look.  You may find yourself thinking how ridiculous YOU look if you're obsessing over a problem, then consciously choose to adopt the posture and expressions of somebody with everything under control.  As long as you don't start telling yourself, "God I feel so stupid and fake," you'll be surprised how easily you slip into a different emotional persona.  It sounds goofy, but there's a ridiculous amount of research backing it up.  You can also practice it, and make it easier to influence your own emotions over time.

Let's move back to games.  Instead of just talking about the pace of the actual game--where you keep the game focused in places you're comfortable--let's talk about your emotions while playing.

When you play a game with somebody who is in a really negative mental zone, they tend to transmit it.  They may be taking everything seriously, getting angry over every little error, and it ends up creating a negative atmosphere.  That can effect the way you feel, which changes how you think, which alters how you play.  It can be as obvious and surface-level as "jeez, I might just have to lose on purpose so he doesn't flip out," to the intangible; you normally play a loose, aggressive game based on intuition, but their mood makes you tense and you begin to second guess yourself, hindering your reflexes and causing you to make bad plays.

Be aware of your feelings!  You can be drawn not just into somebody else's pace in the game but also into their mindset.  If you play your best when comfortable and relaxed, but you go up against a very intense and jumpy individual, pay attention to how you feel.  Do they pull you in, or do you do a good job of staying in your own zone?  Maybe it's the opposite; you thrive on pressure and intensity, but your opponent is too laid back and you have a tough time getting pumped up.

Thanks for reading.  See you on Friday!