Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Power of Playing Stupid

Let’s kick this post off with a few principles.

1) Fewer things to focus on means you can give more attention to those things.

2) Increasing focus and attention leads to greater learning and understanding.

3) Frustration often decreases focus and performance.

4) Unmatched expectations often lead to frustration; matched expectations diminishes it.

5) An irritating noise is always less annoying when you are the one making it.

Sit and think for awhile on those five principles, and you will understand the power of playing stupid. Or just keep reading, and I’ll give you the walkthrough regardless.

When I say playing stupid, I don’t mean playing badly.  I mean playing in a dumbed-down and oversimplified manner.  I mean a method of play that decreases the decisions you have to make in a match.  In fact, many times “playing stupid” is better described as “appearing to play stupidly." And that's also why I don't say "playing stupidly," for the grammar nerds. Because I'm describing something else.

Let’s say you are playing SSBM, and you decide you are only going to practice using Marth’s d-tilt.  So you sit in place crouching, spamming d-tilt, then wavedash back into d-tilt.  Then you bring up your shield, sit for a moment, then wavedash out into another d-tilt.  You spend the whole game spamming your d-tilt.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  You lose.

But your goal is not to win.  Your goal is to fool around with d-tilt and learn about it.  Rather than waste time asking useless questions like “what move is good here,” you decrease the decisions you make by forcing yourself to use nothing but d-tilt.  This lets you focus on timing your d-tilts better, and it also gives you tons of data on when d-tilt works and when it doesn’t.  You learn that it doesn’t intercept Falcon’s short-hop at maximum range, but it will catch an Ice Climber’s short-hop b-air out of shield.  You learn that at a certain spacing, the whiffed d-tilt looks punishable but actually serves as a marvelous bait for a dash-dance grab.  Which you don’t do, because you’re still busy d-tilting.

It also annoys your opponent.  We’ll get to that in a minute though.

After awhile, you come to realize that using nothing but d-tilt doesn’t let you win against good players.  You start to see situations where d-tilt can’t possibly work.  And you think to yourself, “why would I d-tilt here?  I could just jab him out of the air, or dash-dance into a free grab.  Brute forcing the d-tilt is a dumb idea.” Not d-tilting seems obvious, like there's no decision to be made. You feel like you're just doing the obvious thing.

And then you realize that you have just started to understand more about your character.  Before, you might have guessed ‘d-tilt will work” when it wouldn’t, or “f-smash will work” when it wouldn’t.  And you would screw up, and then move on and forget as you tried other stuff.  But now you can see, as a direct result of your experience from playing stupid, just how useful d-tilt is.  Moreover, you’re much better at timing it and abusing its properties than you were before, because you’ve gathered so much data.  Playing stupid on purpose makes you smarter.  Particularly if you’re willing to learn from it.  Hence, points one and two from the beginning of the post are applicable.

Spam the move or the strategy and learn about it. Focus on it entirely. Ignore being smart, and play stupid.

Does this apply in tournament play?  Absolutely.  Playing stupid--or at least appearing to do so--makes people mad.  It looks like you are messing with them and not taking them seriously, which--to a competitor--is often quite insulting. They wonder if you seriously think you can beat them with a single move.  They wonder if you honestly think that they are so bad or so stupid to keep falling for it.  When they do get hit--because, for instance, you know way more about d-tilt’s properties than they do--they go into confusion mode.  Why aren’t they winning when they know what you’re going to do?  Why aren’t they beating a player who is clearly not that great?

Points three and four; they expect to beat a player who plays stupidly, and failing to match that expectation creates frustration, which leads to decreased performance and focus.  Frustrated players will often try to bulldoze through things that irritate them.  They will also think, “I could be winning if I wasn’t making these dumb mistakes.  He’s not good!”

I may be generalizing from my own experience.  I get frustrated when I make mistakes or lose to somebody using one move or one strategy over and over.  I feel insulted and annoyed.  I then will screw up the counter by mistiming it, which makes me angrier--”I would be winning if…”--and that just tilts me farther.  Obviously we know better outside of the game, but in the heat of the moment, it’s really difficult to control.  This is what got me thinking on this path to begin with. There is a sixth rule which I didn’t mention at the start; any emotional reaction taking place inside of you could happen to other players and can be manipulated.

And finally, you won’t get annoyed by your own stupid play, especially not if you’re doing it on purpose. Back to the fifth rule: irritating noises are less annoying to the person making them.  Irritation isn’t just about a grating high pitched sound or an uncomfortable sensation; it’s about wanting it to end and its constant re-occurrence.  So it’s hard to get mad if you intentionally play stupid, because it's your choice and you can stop when you want.  It’s also better to play stupid on purpose than play stupidly on accident.

Let’s talk a bit more about the strategic value of playing stupid.  Let’s assume your opponent maintains focus, comes up with a solution, and is able to counter your dumb strats.  There is still an expectation that you only know how to use one strategy or move, or that you will pick it in eighty percent of instances.  This is where the enemy becomes conditioned, where they continually set themselves up to counter your stupid strategy. They do so automatically. They watch for it constantly, because that's what they know to be looking for.  And you start to see, “obviously I can’t use X here, he’s obviously expecting it, so I should…” and bam, you are playing the game.  You are reading the position and picking strong options, rather than mixing up for the sake of doing so.

This is where, I think, the real hidden point of this post reveals itself.  Which is you should never try to “play like a good player.”  Don’t copy without understanding.  Don’t think, “good players wavedash and good players dash dance before going in.”  Good players pick winning options.  And sometimes the winning option is to play like an idiot because you know more about your idiotic strategy than the other person.  Sometimes the basic, simple play is best.  Sometimes you just walk up and hit the other guy.  Sometimes you do the same thing over and over again because he can’t handle it.  Rather than go out of your way to prove you’ve got an amazing repertoire of tricks, save them for when they’re needed.  If stupid play will win, be smart and play stupid.

Thank you for reading.


  1. I'm getting reminders of the smash brothers documentary, where M2K was obsessed with predictable and proper decisions, and mango hard-countered by doing the absolute dumbest things possible, because he knew at no point was M2K paying any attention to those combos. it's a good mindset to have; even the dumbest option you have can be incredibly important if you know when to use it.

    1. *paying attention to those OPTIONS (similarly, like how I don't pay attention to my statements)

  2. I remember one of the basic rules of Counterstrike: The least you give a fuck about the game, the better you will play.

  3. I had a situation like that 1 month ago ;) I figured I can actually use smashattacks to end my pillaring combos with falco. Im a scrub and was always told not to use them because "too much lag". But only aerials dont kill efficiently enough, so I just tried to spam smash attacks when I thought it was a good moment, it actually worked a lot!! I was surprised, so was my opponent (best friend who normally always beats me). But just as you described it didnt work the whole time and after a few games it didnt work at all, because I was spamming it way too much and my opponent figured me out a bit. But well, thats already from one month ago, Ive gone from not knowing when to use them to being able to use them at the right moment to finish a combo way better than before! So yea... Ive got to experiment a whole lot more with falco....