Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Skill Rules and Self-Imposed Limitations

Oh boy with a title like that you know it's gonna be a good one.

Recently I stabbed my thumb while cleaning out a blender, and the cut was actually surprisingly deep.  It was also at an annoying spot on the thumb, which made it bleed almost any time I used my right hand.

But, obviously, this shouldn't stop somebody who really wants to play video games.  The only downside is that (in SSBM) I had about 8 years of muscle memory playing one particular way, which was using my right thumb to hit all the buttons on the controller, and my index finger for the trigger.  Playing without that thumb put a massive dent in my muscle memory, which meant I could either do extremely simple stuff, or try for complicated things and just screw up a bunch.  So I decided to play a very dumbed down, simplified version of my own playstyle, and it almost completely changed how I looked at the game.

Haha!  Now you're hooked, and I'm going to change topic.

I started off with the term "implicit rules," then looked it up, and found I was using the phrase wrong.  The definition I had in my head was, "rules you start to obey in order to play better, even though they aren't technically rules of the game."  But these are rules you start to treat like absolute rules, and when somebody breaks them (and still succeeds) you might ask yourself, "wait, what, who even does that?!"  I guess I will call them "skill rules," because they are the rules you obey in order to win more; i.e., demonstrate more skill. They are rules you are totally free to disobey without being called a cheater, but you're much more likely to lose.

Playing without access to most of my tricks and tools made me ask, "what can I do that will still let me win?"  And I got an interesting answer, which in retrospect should have been stupidly obvious.  I ended up focusing on timing, observation and occasionally doing something really dumb-looking that was actually safe, to make the other person impulsive.  I didn't just start winning, I started winning by margins that made my old playstyle look dumb and obsolete.  And I did it with alternate characters, low-tier characters, in matchups I had no experience in.  I think it made the people I practiced annoyed, to think I could beat them in such a weird and hindered way, but really I was as dumbfounded as they were.

Have you ever watched a low-level player get a few hits on a "high level" player?  Have you ever stopped to ask why?  It's because at the end of the day, most games are about putting the right tool in the right place.  Somebody who looks high-level, who knows his combos and can play quickly, will still crash into moves that are done with good timing.  Even if that move is done well on accident.  Everything else you learn and practice is designed to facilitate the appropriate placement of attacks.  Everything you do is meant to serve that purpose.  So the next time you play, ask yourself, "am I obeying these 'rules of skill' because they help me play better?  Or am I obeying them because other people told me to, and I never really stopped to think about them for more than two seconds?"

It's the difference between a chess player who thinks, "I won't make this capture because you're not supposed to double up your pawns," versus somebody who says "doubling up my pawns is weak here because I sacrifice control of this square that's important to my defense."  Or an SSBM player who thinks, "I can't get out of this pressure because rolling is weak," compared to one that thinks, "he's using the pressure to force impulsive movements, so rolling into him will only get me grabbed."  Your view on "rules of skill" should be "how and why are they serving me," not mindless obedience.

That is when they stop being guidelines and start being limiters.  Playing with a physical limitation made me consider older, weaker, simpler options that turned out to be perfectly fine in a lot of situations, as long as I timed them well.  I reconsidered how much waste I was using with habitual "skilled" movement that sometimes put me in weak positions, when most of the time, I could be slow and patient.  I started thinking way more about where I went, because I was so rarely able to take back my movement with a quick adjustment.  And of course, with fewer inputs, I made fewer mistakes.  Even if the ratio of errors to correct actions is the same, a flat smaller number of mistakes is always better since it means fewer free openings.

This is the basic rule for thinking outside the box, when it comes to games.  Every choice you make in a game is meant to serve you.  If it isn't serving you well, consider what you lose by not making that choice, and making a different one.  Of course, this requires that you actually pay attention to the results of your actions, and I'd say most people aren't in the habit of doing it.

And I think that's because most people are in the habit of going into games trying to win, and not trying to learn.  To win, you don't try new stuff thinking, "hey I wonder if this will fail or not."  You do what you believe will lead to victory.  Sometimes our beliefs are based on what we've been told is "supposed" to work, rather than what actually does.

I had the fortune of injuring my thumb, which made me go into games thinking, "well I definitely can't win like this.  So I'll just try some stuff out that I don't normally do."  And it was the most eye-opening experience of my career.  And while I must explicitly forbid people from intentionally stabbing themselves in the thumb with a food processor, I also have to say this; if you want to expand yourself, start limiting yourself in creative ways.  Force yourself to obey different rules, and see which of the rules in your head are worth obeying, and which are hindering you.

Good luck, have fun, and learn well.


I'll also say this; my goofy, slower style would not have worked if I didn't already have a ton of game experience.  Even though I didn't choose to hurt my hand, I did choose to slow myself down and focus on other parts of what made me strong.  So it's not really a quick fix, and I don't think anybody should treat it as such.  I had a massive investment going into my experiment, and it meshed well with how I think about the game.


  1. Do you remember when you played me at my Sportsfriends release party at my apartment? We played some Smash melee and you played my kirby with dr. mario. You told me my instincts were off (because I was bad and out of the meta since 2008). I remember that. Looks like our time lines are lining up after all .