Monday, March 31, 2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014


I think most people have, at some point, experienced a slump; it’s a period of time where things aren’t going well, where you feel frustrated and stuck. You aren’t playing or performing like normal. You wonder if things are going anywhere. They're a bit like plateaus, except the slump corresponds with feeling like you're playing below your current level.

A slump primarily represents two things. The first is frustration, the second is stagnation. Frustration because you can’t perform at a level that you normally do, and stagnation because you can’t seem break out. It’s a big pain to be in a slump, because you can’t do what you normally do and you don’t know what else you can do to make things differently.

How do you break out a slump? Some people take breaks, and I’ve talked a bit about why I think they can help. Some people say “just give it time.” Some people say you've got to put your nose to the grindstone and destroy it. Those answers work for some people sometimes.

But in all honesty, the real answer is fun. Fun destroys slumps.

If slumps represent frustration and stagnation, then fun also represents two things. The first is enjoyment (obviously) and the second is novelty. When you have fun, very often it’s because you are seeing new sides to things, you are appreciating the unexpected, you are trying new stuff just to see what happens. A lot of fun is had from just screwing around. When I see people having the most fun, it’s not because they are trying to do things that are most optimal and most successful, it’s because they’re intentionally doing things where they don’t know what the outcome will be. They are just trying to see what happens.

The feeling of novelty and freshness is huge. Some things stay fun for a long time, and the way we describe it is “it never gets old.” Sometimes that happens because you can always maintain an appreciation for the things you liked about it. The exact opposite of that is another aspect of a slump; the feeling that everything is stale and nothing is new.

So how do you destroy a slump? Accessing your sense of fun and appreciation are probably the most effective ways. The people that I see get more and more frustrated are the ones that keep digging hard into the slump, working harder, expecting more, demanding more, and doing exactly what they currently do, but with a clenched jaw. Then they only get angrier and wonder why things aren’t changing.

I’m definitely not against the idea of working hard to overcome your problems and difficulties. It’s really hard to solve a problem by quitting. The issue we’re faced with is this: what state of mind contributes to stagnation, and which contributes to improvement? Because you can work hard when having fun, and you can feel jaded and dejected even when attempting to relax. When you combine your hard work and perseverance with the state of mind that actually works, you get better results.

The thing about being in a slump is that, typically, it’s really all about how it feels to you. Because sometimes people feel like they’re in a slump when they’re actually improving, but they’re not looking at reality properly. Sometimes I have to point out to people, “you did this and this and this right, why are you complaining?” and they reply with, “yeah but this went wrong.” Even if that thing has always been a trouble spot and they've improved in other areas. Shoot, plenty of people in the past have pointed it out to me and I always want to ignore them in favor of my own frustrated feelings.

Sometimes we use unrealistic and unreasonable demands to judge performance and ability, not noticing that things are getting better. The slump is almost entirely an emotional issue, one of frustration and stagnation, which (no surprise) easily transforms into lower performance and fulfills itself.

In short, they are tied heavily into expectations. Something that might have been good enough before stops being good enough now… and even though maybe you’re better than you were, you’re also angrier and more frustrated. Or maybe something good was supposed to be something great, and yeah sure it’s alright but I was hoping for more.

I remember one conversation where somebody told me they had just learned something useful about a matchup, and they were embarrassed that they hadn’t already known it. And I replied with “you just learned a super valuable lesson and turned it into a reason to be mad at yourself.” Which many of us do. We’ll do something good and be mad that it wasn’t great. We’ll do something ordinary but get mad it wasn’t good. We’ll do something below average and wonder why it couldn’t be normal.

Which is funny, because functioning at a below average level is normal. It happens to everybody. Everybody’s performance is variable. If you expect yourself never to perform below average and end up in a little bit of a slump sometimes, you’re getting mad at yourself for not being better than human.

This is one of the reasons that I think fun slaughters slumps. It gets you to try new things and evaluate everything a bit more honestly. When you’re having fun, you abandon some of your expectations and laugh even if things don’t go your way. It also makes you less likely to reject new information because that information wasn’t quite what you wanted, which is probably one of the most pivotal parts of learning and improvement. But when you’re hunting for one specific outcome and you get mad when it doesn’t happen, it’s very easy to ignore the data you just generated with your failure or misstep. And ignoring data and information coming from the game is a great way to keep doing things the exact same way and stay in your slump.

So have fun! Appreciate the game you’re playing, take yourself and your expectations out of the equation a bit. See what happens.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Question, March 24

Hello friends. New Monday, new question.

Do you (or did you, in the past) want to be the best at your game?

That simple. See you tomorrow.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Flagging Thoughts

We have a lot of habits. Apart from little things like the side of your mouth you start with when brushing your teeth, or where you tend to kick off your shoes and set your keys, we also have thought habits.

The habits trigger when we find ourselves in particular situations or we feel certain things. Sometimes the thoughts are useful and help us take actions that remedy our problems. Sometimes the thoughts are specifically trained to increase our efficiency, which is basically the point of learning things and practicing them. Sometimes, however, the habits aren’t so useful.

Sometimes they can be depressing or angering. They can be excuses that keep us from improving. They can be distractions that cause us not to focus, that divert us from what needs our effort and energy. They can be nearly anything. And if we get caught up in the thoughts without noticing, they can translate to actions that don’t benefit us, or ones that directly damage us and people around us.

The process happens naturally, one thing reminding you of another with no obvious effort. It can also happen quickly before you even notice. But if you listen to yourself think for a bit, you will pick up on patterns. There will be certain words and phrases that run through your mind. In fact, sometimes they run straight from your mind and out your mouth, which makes them even easier to track, but a bit harder to take back.

It can take a bit of time. But if you hear certain thoughts and phrases occurring frequently, you can flag them. You can begin to attach ideas to those thoughts.

My personal example came from dealing with depression for a long time. I knew that when I ended up in that kind of mood, my thoughts automatically skewed towards things that were unproductive. I started noticing certain phrases and word clusters. One of them was I would ask myself frustrated questions that started with the phrase, “Why can’t I”. I would do so in an extremely depressed tone, questioning my ability and my worth, then start following that train of thought all the way down the line until I wasn't in a fit mood to do anything. While I was thinking those things, I wouldn’t be solving problems, I wouldn’t be acting, I’d just be making myself unhappier.

Over time, I noticed just how often my thoughts would start with “I can’t” and “Why can’t I” when I was in a depressive mood. The thoughts would be similar, they would run to certain points. Soon they began to stick out more and more; if I heard myself thinking those thoughts, bells would go off. My head would snap up and I’d realize what was going on, I’d realize where I was. It was like a landmark in the desert, or a detail in a dream that let me know things weren’t real. Hearing those thoughts said, "you're off track, you're biased, you aren't at your best right now."

I notice a lot of people have thought habits centered around inability and failure. Listen to people making mistakes in games, and you’ll hear phrases like “I suck” and “I’m an idiot” thrown around automatically with surprising frequency. But if something like that is a habit, it can actually be incredibly valuable. It’s a tell, a marker, a sign that you’re going on tilt. It’s your wake-up call. If you flag these thoughts, they are the clearest indicators that you’ve gone off track. Once you know that, once you catch it, you can begin to right yourself.

In my case, once a flagged, depressive thought would pop up, I would notice. This told me that I was clearly in a depressed mood, and that my thoughts and decisions would be biased towards negativity, that they wouldn’t benefit me. So this meant that if I was in that kind of a mood, I would either 1) avoid making serious decisions if possible, or 2) search for something that tended to pick me up. Going for walks, listening to certain songs, whatever I could do to get myself in a better state of mind. Heck, sometimes just recognizing I was in a poor frame of mind would make it a bit better on its own.

It isn’t a perfect process, honestly. Ideally, you just wouldn’t think the unhelpful thoughts at all. But if we assume that you live in a world where certain thoughts crop up and get in your way, then you need some form of damage control. Flagging the thoughts is something that helps. It tells you what kind of mental territory you’re in.

Unless you have a perfectly optimal, 100% controlled brain, the odds of you having these kinds of thoughts are fairly high. Not necessarily depressive ones, but mental grooves and ruts that you frequently slip into which don’t actually benefit you. They might be excuses or self-deprecations or justifications. They might be ways to decrease how much you care so you can pretend you aren't losing or getting frustrated, when you’re still not achieving what you want. The end result is that these thoughts translate into decisions that you later wish you hadn’t made. They don't have to be big, giant mistakes; it might be not trying as hard as you could, it might be choosing not to do things that would help you. What matters is your state of mind stops being helpful.

But let’s say you do flag a thought, or a certain kind of thought. You think it, and your ear perks up like a dog's right before somebody knocks at the door. What then?

Well, if we accept that being in a certain mood can chain into certain thoughts, or certain experiences can increase the odds that you think a certain way, then there is no reason that the flagged thoughts can’t be triggers as well. I used the analogy earlier of seeing a landmark in a desert; the point of recognizing landmarks is that they give you opportunities to reorient. So if you have a more useful or inspiring thought, and you actively try to think it every time you encounter your flagged thoughts, over time the flagged thoughts will associate more and more strongly with the positive one. Or you might have a physical, behavioral habit that always picks you up and gets you going.

In short, you use the associative process to conquer itself. If a situation leads to a thought, and the thought leads to a mood that isn’t productive, then ask yourself “what puts me in a mood that is productive?” Create a series of links, X leads to Y leads to Z, where Z is something useful.

When was the last time you were angry, frustrated, depressed, whatever? When is the last time you caught yourself making excuses? What specifically were you saying to yourself? Have you ever had those same thoughts before? And can you watch for those specific thoughts? More importantly, do you have certain thoughts that tend to guide you to productivity? Inspiring ones, motivating ones, things that simply remind you of better habits and behaviors? Because if one thought guides you to another, then you can intentionally link from negative to positive.

It starts with listening to yourself. You need to find patterns in the things you think when you’re feeling low, or frustrated, or unproductive. Find something that stands out, a defining hallmark of the mood or mindset, a tell, something, and flag it for future reference. Then have a plan for dealing with it until the plan itself becomes a habit.

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Teaching

There is a reason that it’s hard to teach people things.

First off, learning is an associative and connecting process, which means the thing that makes you “get it” will be based on stuff you’ve learned and experienced in the past. Sometimes when I write ideas down, I find my explanations spiraling out of control. The reason for this is the ideas have come from all the random stuff I have learned, the philosophies and attitudes I developed by being me all my life. To explain exactly why I think about things the way I do, I want to go and explain all the ideas that came before it. That’s one of the reasons my posts can run long and rambly.

It’s also one of the reasons it’s tough to be a great teacher. Being a good teacher just means understanding the way you learn things, so you can explain that process to other people. But if you and I learn differently, that means I might not be able to teach you anything. I would have to teach you based on how you learn and retain things. So a good teacher can be good at what he or she does, but can only reach certain people.

If I imagined the hypothetical best teacher, the one who could communicate the most information the most effectively, it would be somebody who understands the many ways people can learn. It would be somebody who takes the time to learn how you learn, somebody who speaks your personal language when talking to you and explaining things. This would let that great teacher reach anybody. But it would mean that before they taught you anything, they would have to learn a lot about you.

I think this would be very difficult; though I try to be a good teacher whenever I explain things, I doubt that I am a great one. I console myself by telling myself that I doubt there are many out there.

Another reason it’s hard to teach is because a lot of learning is based on curiosity and drive, a desire to know, to acquire. The hunger to learn means the willingness to actively seek new information and associations. It means asking questions to yourself and to the world, constantly. Does this fit, what can I do here, how do these relate, do these apply to each other, things like that. It’s really hard to make things stick without those questions, without that drive; this is extra true if you aren’t the person doing the learning, but trying to transfer knowledge to somebody else.

You might think, “well if having curiosity and drive and passion is a prerequisite for learning, then that means if you want to teach somebody who doesn’t have those:

1) you must teach them the curiosity, drive, and passion, or
2) you can’t teach them, stop trying.”

I dislike impossible problems, so “can’t” is a very irritating word for me to think in this case. But it is very difficult to teach somebody who appears unmotivated.

I think a big part of being a good teacher is not telling people things, but asking them questions that trigger their curiosity and motivation. Again, it means understanding the person you are trying to teach. Why? Because if you just present knowledge and leave it lying around, it will collect dust. If you try and force knowledge, people tend to reject it.  his is another reason that it’s tough to teach people things, and why a good student-teacher relationship involves trust. A student has to trust that whatever process you put them through will actually lead them somewhere.

We have a fondness for getting information directly and wanting quick answers, but we’ve also got lots of little mechanisms in our head that value things more the harder we work for them. Some of that is we just don’t want to think that we wasted a lot of time and energy chasing something useless, so we naturally want to value things we spend more time and resources on. But it’s also because those difficulties and experiences create more associations, more understanding, more connections in our heads that anchor the lessons and information. Even though we think we want things straight up, it actually doesn’t benefit us that much unless we immediately start using and applying that information. Information is a social creature that needs the company of its own kind, and withers in isolation.

Information doesn’t just mean facts, but it also means emotions. It means “pieces of the world you live in,” including your perceptions and feelings. Relating and fitting the different parts of your world together is how you learn things and how things stay learned. It’s part of the reason that random events remind us of random facts and trigger chance memories. The more connected a new piece of information becomes, the more it cements in your mind.

This is why teaching is so often done with stories, analogies, and examples. You create images, you imagine sounds, you generate emotional responses to ideas so that the ideas have more to connect with. We use rhymes to remember things; the rhyme creates a pattern, anchoring an idea to words that are already anchored to each other. It strengthens the connected associative net.

If you want to teach somebody something, you need to find something that they will anchor your idea to, and communicate the new fact or idea in a way that communicates this anchor. The flipside is that if you have a teacher who fails to do this, but you want to learn and apply the ideas they are teaching, then you should make it your mission to search for anchors and applications on your own. Having a poor teacher is no excuse for being a poor student. If you understand what a good teacher needs to do, then it’s very possible for you to apply those principles independently. It’s hard but worthwhile, because not everybody with the knowledge you want is interested in sharing it well.

I guess it also should be said that being good at teaching and being a good teacher are separate things. I imagine that there are people with incredible skills when it comes to analogy, phrasing, and anchoring, but they teach things which are false, incomplete, or damaging. I would say that people who excellently convey false information are not good teachers, but good persuaders. They can make things stick, they can make things sound good, they can make things relatable, and they can make you want to remember them. Yet their teachings don’t have to be true or accurate for this to happen. This is scary, because information does not stick based on how true it is, but how well it connects to the other information in our head. True-seeming is not the same as true, though it would be nice if we came with built-in lie detectors.

I guess there’s a warning here, which is that there’s a danger in being too skilled at teaching, persuading, communicating, and storytelling. Having people tell you that something is “so true” doesn’t mean you actually told them something true, it just means you successfully connected to whatever is in their head. If you’re very good at doing so, then--if you are interested in using your powers for good, anyhow--then you must always be scrutinizing yourself. Being a good communicator can trigger feedback loops where people reinforce your faulty ideas by affirming them, cementing them with in your head, and encouraging you to stick to them. If you can’t scrutinize yourself enough, you need people around that will do it for you.

Done rambling for the day. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

MWG 4: What Do We Do

In the first post in this series, I just listed a bunch of factors that I think contribute to the current landscape of male-female relations in gaming communities. Some are basic psychological biases and rational fallacies that all people face. Some are selection effects that shape this particular environment. My biggest point was that by giving uncomfortable sexual attention and generating hostility, the male portion of gaming communities can actively deter many of the females it claims it would respect. You would have to want to be part of that environment in order to stay, which will generally screen for people who don’t mind getting lots of attention, or who get upset and angry by the state of relations and don’t mind engaging in argument.

In the second post, I tried to use a bit of imagination (and stories from various women I’ve met) to piece together a picture of what it’s like to be a female coming into gaming communities. I also tried to describe why the current scenes would only discourage women from playing the more visible they became, by adding countless pressures and problems on top of the ordinary ones of competition.

In the third part, I went back and talked about being male. About being focused on outputs, on actions, and how we evaluate and respect males in our culture (or, at least, American culture). The frustrations we can deal with, the things we try to live up to, and why many dialogues on improvement will backfire, given how most men feel and assess things.

So we’re at part four, which is meant to be about advice and solutions. It’s taken awhile to write (and rewrite), because I’m not really sure what to focus on.

With the influx of articles and discussions lately, there feel like too many points to address. One thing I think it bears saying is that, for better and for worse, issues of sexism in gaming communities are not systematic. They aren’t regulatory. If you’re a lady and you trash some dude in bracket, then go up to report your win, the TO never (well, hopefully never) says, “oh no, women can’t possibly advance past quarterfinals. I’ll just write that as a loss.”

The bracket programs we use don’t ask you your gender. The game itself doesn’t ask your gender when deciding if your attacks hit or miss, if an overhead connects, if you scout correctly, or if you land headshots. In a lot of ways, this makes gaming the perfect place to try and establish an egalitarian, merit-based community. That’s really where we should (and could) be. So that’s a positive.

On the other hand, it means we can’t really fix things easily with a new rule or a pen-stroke. Because rules invite interpretations, discriminations, loopholes, exploitations, and don’t cover the myriad of situations and people that might interact. I think we can all agree “hey, you shouldn’t sexually harass somebody,” but then you invite countless definitions of what harrassment means, people defending and taking sides and nothing getting resolved. Fundamentally it’s hard to disagree with the initial point, but it can so quickly spiral beyond the initial intent and became a dividing line, rather than a unifying beacon.

This is a social thing, which makes it personal, which makes it human, which makes it messy. Like I said, there are too many points to address. Too many viewpoints, too many unique experiences, too many possible arguments and counterarguments. I could always write a book that nobody would read, but that doesn’t seem like it will accomplish anything.

So rather than try and cover every conceivable base, my ultimate advice is actually really simple and hackneyed and boring. But I think it’s true, and I think at the end of the day it's the only thing you can really do if you want to effect this change.

Work on yourself.

In what way? In whatever way that you believe will create a community you want to see. The community is made of its people. It becomes whatever its people are. Meaning if you want a positive, respectful community, one that loves its game and celebrates its members and constantly moves in a positive direction? Be that person.

Do you want women to be part of your community, to play your game? Do you want the emphasis to be on people’s abilities and skills, rather than appearances or gender? Then always drive discussion in that direction. Do you want discussions to remain positive? Do you want people to generate and participate in hostile discussions in which nothing is achieved? Whichever you support through your actions is the one you will inevitably see more of.

Specifically for women… I don’t think it’s wrong to generate discussion on this subject. If I did, I wouldn’t have written four blog posts about it. But one of the biggest things you can do, right now, is discuss the games you play. Practice, improve, and demonstrate your passion for the games, the scenes, the content they generate. If we want to live in a landscape where gender is not the talking point, where it’s about the things we do and the people we become? Be active in talking about those other things as well.

I can appreciate that there’s often a fear or trepidation to discussing the games if you're one of the few women in your community. Because there will probably be condescending responses, sycophantic attention, weird messages on Facebook, people interrogating you on who you’re dating to decide if you’re a morally righteous female worth playing video games with.

But again, if we want to see strong ladies who can handle that? Who can rise above it? We need more women actively becoming those kinds of people, proving it can be done, and being role models for the ones who want to join the communities. Be the woman that draws those other women in.

For men, the advice is kind of the same. Ask yourself what kind of person you value becoming, what kind of person you want to see in your communities. If you want to be somebody that stays focused on the game, then do your best to ensure this is the way you behave. If you hate the idea of double standards, of women getting special treatment at the expense of men, then also be sure to adhere to that ideal in the other direction. Do you make assumptions of female behavior without proof? Do you hate it when women don’t talk about the game, but then discuss those women in non-game-related contexts? Again, if you have an ideal of behavior, then be hard on yourself in trying to live up to it. If anything, when you end up making arguments, it gives you a lot more credibility.

Don’t be that person that makes assumptions or excuses. Don’t be the person who says, “things would just be better if other people would do the work.” Work on yourself, at all times. If you want to see a certain kind of community, embody that community in your behavior. Don’t give attention where you don’t want attention given. Don’t promote behaviors you don’t want to see. It’s that simple, but it is also that difficult.

Does this mean we shouldn’t start conversations and raise awareness when people feel disrespected? No. I think the conversations are important. I think one of the cornerstones of a strong community is one where its members feel they can speak up if they see a problem, without being shouted down, ignored, and disparaged for having a dissenting viewpoint. Because if there is an issue in your community that needs dealing with, you want people talking about it until it’s solved. You can’t fix a problem you don’t acknowledge, you can’t get the community to acknowledge it without telling them it exists.

Then again, there’s also a point where more talk doesn’t do anything, where more talking and belaboring the point can add to the problem. It can seem as though the only thing you want to dwell on are problems. At that point, regardless of your gender, you have to ask: am I acting like the kind of person I want more of in my community? Do you want women playing this game, becoming skilled, handling sexists and pressures with positive confidence? Then show them it’s possible by being that woman. Do you want men not giving extra attention to those demanding it? Do you want to support the people with genuine interest and passion, rather than deter them? Do you want to make sure people only receive respect based on their actions and character? Create that environment by being that man.

Improve yourself. Be the kind of person you want to see more of. It won’t magically fix every problem in your community, but it has the benefit of being within your control. And if worse comes to worst and nothing changes, you’ll still be better off in the end.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Monday Question: March 3, 2014

Today's question is simple:

What was the first video game you ever entered a tournament for?

Feel free to elaborate with a story, I'd enjoy reading them. See you tomorrow.