Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Games have rules.  It’s arguable that a game is most defined by what it doesn’t let you do than what it does; you are limited to your field of play, to a given amount of time, interacting with specific objects, with a specific number of people playing, you aren't allowed to kill other players, etc.  So games are, in many ways, all about restriction.  Then, as a participant, you try to achieve an objective in the face of those restrictions.

Poorly structured rules are what make for a poorly designed game.  When the rules permit abuse, or degenerate strategies, or just make the game extremely boring and frustrating, we change the rules--and thus, we change the game. Sometimes you can’t even salvage a game, because the structure that would make it unique is inherently busted.

Talking about rules and game design and stuff is very interesting.  But that’s not actually the point of the post.  I’m interested in talking about a different set of rules.  These are the rules you abide by in your own head while playing. They are the rules that you begin to unconsciously follow as you develop skill.

Certain moves or options become off-limits to your brain because you can instantly recognize they will be poor choices.  It’s not even a conscious decision to avoid them, after awhile.  When you see them, they feel and look wrong, even if you can’t consciously explain why.  Often you can explain why, but it’s not even a necessity.  If you can force your brain to consider it, it will just think “no.” The choice will just feel wrong.

If I gave you a silly math question like, “what are three factors of 2682 that multiply to equal 894?” you don’t even have to be good at math to think, “well it’s probably not going to be one times two times three.”  You know instinctively that those numbers are way too low.  You don’t even consider them as a possible combination.  The idea looks ridiculous, even to somebody who has a very limited background in math.  The actual answer will require some calculation for most people, but many obvious wrong answers get excluded.  As you get better and better at what you do, you will consider fewer options.  If we logically extend that idea, it means that to a perfectly skilled mind, every option but the best one will be automatically excluded.  The strength of our skill is as much about what options we don’t consider as the ones we do.  If you only consider the right answer from the start, you have no room for error.  You’re perfect, and congratulations to you.

When you listen to a very strong player observe a lesser player, they may say things like, “why would you do that?  Your decision was clearly weak.”  But to the lesser player, the option didn’t appear so weak that it became excluded from their selection process.  This means that room was left in that selection process for error.  They gave themselves a chance to make the sub-optimal choice, because their understanding was flawed.

One of the strengths we (currently) have over computers--particularly in complicated games--is that they tend to brute-force everything.  They consider all options.  They have the advantage in processing power, but when you’re running every conceivable option in a chess game, for instance, it takes awhile to get things right.  The programmer also must have a value system for the computer to judge the things it does calculate, so it can decide what is best.  We often don’t know why we value certain options, or we measure it in abstract ways that we can't don't quantify effectively just yet; it’s our intuitive pattern-matching ability that lets us achieve competency in extremely complicated tasks and beat computers at them. For now, anyhow.  

(If you’re interested, this experience-based, pattern-matching, option exclusion process is known as a heuristic).

This is also why innovation is something we don’t have a way to measure or teach.  Innovation comes from the use of options and choices that people either 1) consider off-limits due to an imperfect internal ruleset or 2) do not even recognize as options to begin with.  It’s one of the reasons that I’ve encouraged people to play stupid in the past; you don’t just learn more about the game that way, you also explore options you may not have otherwise considered.  You improve your internal ruleset, and you gather more data which may be used innovatively in the future.

What got me thinking about this was a writing exercise; I wrote a short story, but the catch was that I tried as hard as I could to write poorly.  This meant that I would butcher word choice, screw up grammar, have characters do contradictory things, leave plot holes, use cliches, do all that stuff.  What I noticed as I went on was that even as I tried to make it bad, I accidentally wrote things properly.  To me, it just read like a parody, like I was screwing around on purpose (which I was).  But the goal was to write a genuinely poor piece of fiction, not a well-written parody of bad fiction.  In this sense, I failed. Reading back over it, I can see too many things I did right on accident.

Similarly, if you watch really good players sandbag in a game, and you have enough skill to tell the difference, you can tell that they are intentionally playing badly, because they leave too many clues to their real skill.  They can’t avoid making good decisions without putting in a lot of effort to do so.

For the life of me, I can’t remember who said the quote, or what the quote is exactly, but it goes something like this: style comes from the mistakes you can’t help making.  Style happens when your decisions are not optimal but you automatically gravitate towards them, when your brain prioritizes decisions which may be weak or have negative consequences due to preference and habit.  This is why an aggressive player who can’t help but select aggressive options, even when they hurt him, may find his style countered by another player who automatically gravitates towards good counters.  It’s why we have trouble breaking out of habits and finding ways to improve; our internal rulesets automatically exclude options that would improve us.

(I don't want to give style too much crap though. You may, due to developed skills or talents, be able to execute a sub-optimal decision better than anybody else, but can't seem to master the right decision. Hence, the worse decision works for you more often than it seems it should, and it makes you unique, which can be very cool and exciting.)

How do you consider the un-considered?  How do you focus on things your brain automatically ignores?  It’s a super good question and one I have puzzled over for a long time, because it’s a huge key to innovating and improving.  If I think of more ways to work on it, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Thanks for reading.  This is the last post of 2013, so I hope you enjoyed it.  I’ll see you all next year.

Friday, December 27, 2013


You start playing an old-school 2D video game.  Your character begins on the left side of the screen, with a lot of empty space to the right, and maybe an obstacle in the way.  This empty space encourages you to move right; after a moment, the screen scrolls with you, encouraging you to keep going.  You understand now that you’re meant to travel from left to right, and on a general level, from closed space to open space.  The game designer initiates a conversation with you, telling you what must be done to proceed.  As you proceed, the conversation continues and you learn more about what’s expected of you.

You are reading a story, and the author uses short, clipped sentences.  Instead of knocking at a door, somebody raps at it.  Instead of the character saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” they tersely say, “hi.”  Rather than using long, flowing sentences, the author sticks to short ones with basic descriptors.  For actions, she uses ones that imply speed and tension.  This helps you recognize that the situation is tense, that actions are being performed choppily or under stress, and gives you the feeling that the environment may be uncomfortable for the characters.  With a few different words, it might feel businesslike; scientific words might sound clinical and detached, whereas neutral, basic words might just feel emotionless and flat.

You are playing a fighting game against an opponent, and you want him to stop blocking so you can open him up for a combo.  So rather than using a perfect block string, you use a frame trap instead.  You suggest to your opponent that he has time to act, only to hit him in the start-up of his escape move.  Or you convince him that you will be blocking with the tiniest hint of a backward motion before you input a special move and hit him when he tries to turn the offense around.

Each of these cases involves using subtle (and maybe not-subtle) cues to put ideas into somebody’s head.  When done properly, they don’t even notice they’re being told anything, or guided, or instructed to behave and feel a certain way.  They just get an impression.  In visual fields it’s done with shape, form, color, and empty spaces.  In written forms, it’s done with timing, sentence length, different emotional associations with words, shifting punctuation, using sentence fragments or compound sentences to change how you feel.  A video game can use reward and success to condition you to behave one way or expect something, then change the required behavior or cue to trick you.  You can have an empty screen to the right with the character at the left, only to scroll the screen and have a secret to the left.  Such a secret might then tell you, “look in unexpected places,” and plant the idea that the game is filled with secrets for you to find.

In writing, people often say  “show, don’t tell.”  Don’t tell me a man is disgusting, give me disgusting details so that I feel disgusted by him.  Show me grimy fingernails and decaying teeth and lazy eyes and frayed hair discolored by dirt and time.  Or be even more subtle, and prime me for his disgusting tendencies by using words I associate with disgust before he shows up.  Keep going; don’t just give me details that he’s slovenly, alter the sentence structure associated with him so I get a feeling of disorder, that he doesn’t have it together.  Don’t tell me the idea, don’t show it to me, plant the idea in me and let it grow.  Even better, let me feel like it just magically happened, and it will be more powerful because I generated it internally. Or don't, if you're not a writer. Your call.

Any time you attempt to plant an idea, feeling, or cue for future behavior, you’re depending heavily on the mindset, expectations, and thought process of the other person.  Just like planting a seed, you hope the place you plant it will nourish it and give you the result you want.  You also hope you’re planting a seed and not a dead twig, and the mind will be able to do something with it at all. Hopefully the other person is receptive, and hopefully your cue makes sense to begin with.

Certain plants and cues will rely on the other person being savvy and aware.  Sometimes they rely on the person being ignorant.  Going back to a gaming example, if you start a veteran player at the left side of the screen with a bunch of empty space to the right, he will understand what you’re saying.  Then, based on previous knowledge, he may think “and that’s why a secret may be hidden to the left, because secrets are often placed in spots that seem to be dead ends,” and he will try to move left.  Then he will find your secret, and feel satisfied.

Or he will find a note that says, “No secrets here! Go right, you fool,” and feel something else altogether.  He will know that the game designer knows he’s a veteran, and that he needs to be extra wary because the designer is savvy.  A hidden conversation, a meta-discourse begins.  The veteran knows he can trust his instincts and experience to tell him something, but whether it will be rewarded, punished, or mocked remains to be seen.  This might reintroduce a sense of novelty, or paranoia, or both.  It might be a nod of the head to make him feel like he’s in on a joke with the designer, or it might be a punishment to say “you’re not as clever as you think you are.”

And note that all this might be lost on a newer crowd.  They might never notice, or they might be confused by the details.  They might not understand why this conversation is even taking place at all.  It’s something that happens when art or music is made for critics and aficionados, rather than the more casual crowd.  This is why the advice given to every creator, whether an artist or a comedian or a chef or a software designer is “know your audience.”  This is also why something will stand out as amazing, life-changing art for one person, and another person will wonder what the deal is.  Whether it’s lack of experience, or just not being the target audience, or just not being in a certain frame of mind, they won’t pick up on the conversation.  Perhaps the conversation was poorly started by the artist.  It could be any number of things.  

It applies to the competitor as well.  There isn’t much point to using feints and distractions against somebody who is only interested in taking swings at you without paying any attention to what you’re doing.  It’s also hard to fake out somebody who is paying attention to cues you aren’t aware you’re giving.  In the first case, you get blindsided by what seems like random behavior.  In the second case, the other person views you with the air of somebody watching a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon, with obvious and shallow attempts at twists and jokes and emotion-raising.  They can see what’s really behind your behaviors, they think that you’re as predictable as you think you’re clever.  You must know your audience if you want to plant notions in their heads, and you must give them the cues they’re looking for.

When a new player is dropped into a game and they see empty space to the right, they might ignore it and just mash buttons.  They may ignore the cues and try moving left anyhow, because they don’t know the designer was telling them “see this open space?  That’s how you get to the rest of the game!”  So they get confused until trial and error teaches them better.  Depending on how curious the user is, they may connect the most flimsy clues, or ignore the most obvious hints.

So it’s up to you, if you’re competing head-to-head or creating an experience for somebody, to consider what cues you send.  As you become more skilled, develop more finesse, and want to achieve new effects, the plants may become subtler.  The same is true if you’re experiencing a piece of art or a game or the mind-games of an opponent.  Hone a sense of curiosity, expectation, and analysis, and you may see yourself influenced by surprising things.

Thanks for reading.  See you next week!

Friday, December 20, 2013


I think that one of the most interesting phenomena in skill acquisition and training is the phenomenon of the plateau.  Most people will experience one at some point in their life, whether in a game or work or personal development.

A plateau is an extended period where one experiences no growth or very limited growth.  The reason plateaus are such interesting phenomena to me is because when somebody breaks their plateau, their skill tends to skyrocket (relatively speaking).  The plateau itself is highly frustrating, because the player will practice and train something, often relentlessly.  They will see no gains, limited gains, or might even feel like they’re getting worse.  If you’re competing against other people (and have no objective measurement of performance), that will definitely feel like losing ground, because your competitors are striving to improve.  If you were ahead, they catch up. If you were even, they pull ahead.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the plateau is gone and the player is playing like a fiend and just magically doing better. Why does it happen?

I do not have a magical answer for solving the plateau problem that plagues you.  This post is more about examining ways people seem to get over it, and the circumstances that seem to surround plateaus.

Take A Break

One of the most interesting ways I’ve seen people break plateaus is… well, by breaking.  They stop playing or practicing for awhile, and for whatever reason they come back stronger.  I’ve hypothesized that it’s because your habits dissolve a little, and if you have bad ones holding you back then you’ve got better odds of changing them after a break. I think this is a fair way to look at it; repetition builds habits.  Ceasing repetition takes you away from those habits, from unconsciously doing the same actions over and over.  This might put you in a more consciously observant state of mind, letting you see things that you glossed over before.

Another hypothesis for the “take-a-break” method is that you simply lose some of your expectations.  You feel more justified in making errors--”I haven’t played in two months!”--so you have less stress about winning or losing.  Without the stress, you don’t tense up and judge yourself, you have more focus, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that less-tense, more-focused states lead to better performance.  Then as you receive positive reinforcement from that better performance, you repeat the actions that lead to it, and you get better.

One interesting explanation I thought of is that, when you leave the environment and then return to it, it (maybe) gains a new veneer of novelty.  Whatever part of our brain feels compelled to learn more in the presence of novelty seems to come back to life.  The game doesn’t feel as stale, as cut-and-dry as it did before, and the brain becomes excited to learn more.  So your original knowledge base gives you a place to start, and then the desire to learn and process novel information continues working from there.  This seems possible to me because, after a break, many people say their game feels “fresher” or new again.  And along with that, sometimes there’s a rediscovery of the love of the game that propels so much interest and improvement in the first place.

The Click

We don’t only conquer plateaus by taking breaks though.  Sometimes people seem stuck, they grind away at a bunch of different skills and techniques, practicing and getting nothing out of it.  It seems like fifty hours of practice yields a minute’s worth of improvement.  Then suddenly, they wake up one day and start playing much better and don’t know why.  The most common description of this is that “things just clicked,” or they just “see” things differently.

The way I’ve come to understand “the click” is that most games, especially very fluid ones, goes like this: you train skills individually, but mid-game the parts must interact.  If you practice in basketball for instance, you will probably practice dribbling.  You will practice shooting.  You will practice passing.  You will train your body.  And until you’re actually playing games, you will train all of these things mostly separately.

But many games demand that you integrate those things seamlessly.  You don’t just use footwork and you don’t just use a swing or a shot, you use multiple things in conjunction with one another.  And you’re also typically practicing some kind of situational awareness too.

This is why practicing and improving can be such a pain; when you’re trying to improve one skill it affects how you think about others.  When you try to integrate and switch tracks, you want to fall back on your habits in the heat of the moment. Your body and mind tend to automatically perform the less optimal versions of skills.  You know, the ones you’re trying to improve.

Then when the “click” happens, all these skills suddenly fit together in an intelligent way.  You understand the way the different parts of your game flow into one another, and it causes a massive improvement, because all these things you were practicing suddenly make sense relative to one another.  Now most of them are working and it all happens at the same time.  The plateau gets left far, far behind.

One frustrating thing about the “click” factor is that it sometimes encourages people to believe that actually practicing isn’t what makes you better, and that improvement is all about sudden epiphanies.  But you lay the groundwork for the “click” with a lot of drilling and effort.  In this regard, it’s similar to solving a jigsaw puzzle.  You put a few puzzle pieces together here, a few there, then with all of those little chunks arranged, you see how they all connect to a central piece and suddenly you’ve solved a massive piece of the jigsaw, seemingly all at once.  But you would never have seen that giant piece of the puzzle to begin with without the groundwork you did before.


In “The Art of Learning,” Josh Waitzkin describes his journey from being a young chess prodigy to an older, unhappy chess master.  He was good but had difficulty dealing with pressure and travel.  He left chess behind for some time, and became interested in, among other things, Tai-Chi, as well as Tai-Chi Push-Hands competitions.  In one interview you can read here, he describes a process where he transfers Tai-Chi ideas to Chess and vice-versa:
“I am learning new ideas and refining my methods every day. Early in my martial arts life, I had this exciting experience of transferring my chess ideas over into a physical discipline. The two arts became one in my mind and it felt like I was taking my level of Quality from one discipline and just transferring it over to another.
There was one moment in particular when I was giving a 40 board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis, and I realized about half way in that I wasn’t thinking in chess language. I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding the energetic wave of the game like I had been doing in Tai Chi Push Hands practice for the past two years. I was winning chess games without playing chess. It was this experience that first inspired me to write my book.”

When you learn a different way to perceive things, maybe because you are working about it in a different discipline, you start to see underlying principles.  When you view the game with a different attitude, you pay attention to different information; as a result, you make different decisions, you respond differently on an emotional level.  This leads to different results, and sometimes a broken plateau.

Why Plateau At All?

I don’t really know exactly why people plateau.  What I do know is that the ones who don’t seem to improve at all are people who exhibit at least some of these traits.

--Rarely practice
--Get easily frustrated
--Get defensive when criticized
--Want very desperately to improve
--Heavily dislike errors

Rarely practicing is a great way to not improve.  When you train a skill, even if it’s a very complicated one, you decrease the focus and energy you need to perform it.  You improve its consistency.  It demands less attention while you play and compete.  Practice and train a skill properly, and you’ll improve!  Your brain practically guarantees it.  Yet there are folks out there who expect to improve every time they sit down, or who believe they will find a way to “just do it” even though they don’t do much of anything.

But plateaus do not only happen to those people.  Many people do practice a lot, and are extremely unhappy that no matter how much they seem to train, they find themselves never improving.  When the time comes to perform, the same mistakes (or worse, new ones they’ve never made before) start cropping up.  For these people, they are easily frustrated when they fail in competition, or they just really, really want to get better.  What stinks is that those aspects also contribute to plateaus and failures to improve.

It’s kind of unfair that somebody can want it too much, and practice too much to break a plateau.  But the more important something is to you, the more stress it generates when that thing gets challenged.  High-stress is not what you want when training and improving.  Too much stress when competing damages performance.  If your competitions are public, having a poor-self image, being defensive about your reputation and image, these things contribute to extra high-stress and lower levels of learning and improvement.  It can also make it tough to accept criticisms and advice from others, because of how much you want to appear good.

Don’t get me wrong, you can learn and improve in a very high-stress environment; if you look at countries like China and Russia, you will find children turning into amazing olympic athletes as a result of extreme pressure from all sides.  However, it’s very hard to stay happy when your focus primarily derives from external sources of pain and stress, and there are a lot of people who don’t make it very far in those environments anyhow.  The risk of burnout is high.  When you’re pressuring yourself, it’s a great way to drive yourself crazy, especially if you stay plateaued for too long.

When I look at the kinds of people that don’t plateau, or the ones that break their plateaus, they are people who practice, have fun when they play, try new ideas, and stay confident that they’re going to overcome the plateau eventually.  


I don’t really have much of a prescription for breaking your own plateau (even though the previous sentence probably sounds like one).  You can try taking a break.  You can try to practice something that’s new and different enough that you might come back with a fresh attitude.  You can simply practice more and trust that things are going to work themselves out.  Whatever you do, don’t lose the belief that the plateau can be conquered.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

See If You Can

I think a lot of achievement comes mostly from a mixture of curiosity and stubbornness, taken in high doses.  One of the ways that I see people cultivate innovation, probably more than anything else, is they keeping asking themselves, “oh, do you think I can…” and then they follow the question past the point when most others would give up.  In a close second place is the question, “what happens if I…” followed by something silly.

What generally happens when people start learning a new game or system is they start practicing the things that they think are “right.”  You look up a list of combos and you drill them, you ask “does this move win here,” "should I win this matchup," whatever. You seek out known information.  That’s a great starting point, because if somebody has done a ton of work for you, it can be grueling and annoying to retread examined ground.  Why spend a year developing combos that you could have just Googled?  You could be spending your time on something else.

There is a value in developing your own stuff, because it encourages you to push your limits.  Where many people falter is, having learned the “right way” to do things, they stop thinking.  They automate, they wait for somebody to show them a new “right way.”  As a result, they’re heavily limited by the community around them.  The people that keep getting better regardless, the ones that learn and innovate and do crazy new stuff, are the ones that keep testing limits.  They keep seeing what stuff they can get away with.  From “can I get this special move to link into this one?” to “will this move beat another one in this scenario” to “can I whiff this move and mash out my super to bait them?”  You just ask.  You often get no, but then the no tells you something new as well.  Other people’s information is like having numbers filled in on a Sudoku board for free, and it leads you to success if you keep pushing. Otherwise, you just have a mostly filled-in board and a confused look on your face.

You don’t have to settle for this attitude with regards to just game-mechanics.  You can treat yourself as a continually expandable frontier.  See if you’re able to predict what the other person does 100% of the time.  See if you are able to stall or run away forever, see if you can dodge attacks by a tiny hair with consistency.  See what kind of goofy stuff you can do.  Ask yourself lots of silly questions and try to learn ridiculously difficult skills to see if you can.  The end result is rarely “I got nothing out of it.”  You almost always find something as a result.

It’s not just an issue of being of innately, magically creative.  I know a lot of people who think that I am creative, when most of what I do is generate stupid ideas, and eventually I get ones that work.  If you want to be innovative, just keeping asking dumb questions until one of them gives you a smart answer.

Because even if the answer to “can I?” or “will this work?” is “no,” sometimes it has a “but you can do this…” attached to it.  Finding those is just as exciting, and it’s as much a point of the exercise as being right from the start.

Thanks for reading.