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Practise and mastery in gaming Part 1: A personal experiment

"Start with something simple. Try touching your forehead with your hand. 

Ah, that's easy, automatic. Nothing to it. But there was a time when you were as far removed from the mastery of that simple skill as a nonpianist is from playing a Beethoven sonata.

First, you had to learn to control the movements of your hands (you were just a baby then) and somehow get them to move where you wanted them to. You had to develop some sort of kinesthetic "image" of your body so that you could know the relationship between your forehead and other parts of your body. You had to learn to match this image with the visual image of an adult's body. You had to learn how to mimic your mother's actions. Momentous stuff, make no mistake about it. And we haven't yet considered the matter of language—learning to decode sounds shaped as words and to match them to our own actions." - George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term fulfillment.

Practice makes perfect. It's a little saying we've all heard. Having read something fascinating recently, I had a bee in my bonnet. I had to write about this.

The plot thickens

So apparently, playing a game can thicken your gray matter by rewiring and adapting the brain to perform different functions. Scary stuff. So that means your brain is infinitely adaptable and you are capable of learning anything you put your mind to, literally.Added to this a post on Lifehacker  states that the more a positive behaviour is reinforced and practiced the more it becomes ingrained in you. The meaning behind this is also that something needs to be practiced willfully and with awareness in order to become habit.

See, the mind likes repetition and habit because it's efficient. That's right - not your action, but the habit itself within the brain. For anyone interested, here's a link on how this survival instinct backfires. Some further reading is also available here. There is also some research saying that there are two types of habits: physical and mental.

How does this apply to games?

So it works like this: you work your brain, feed it information and it forms itself later on based on what you do constantly.

Now - I had no examples on how this would be applied in a gaming situation because I never actually documented myself playing a game. This is despite me playing games for around 17 years now.

We all have good and bad habits. In a given game some habits help us overcome problems. Others prevent us from performing better. I play Forza Motorsport 4, and have been playing it for around 2 years now. You'd think that I've probably completed every section of the game and mastered everything about the racer.

The sad reality is that I have not.

That made this game the perfect candidate for my little experiment.

On being my own guinea pig...


Until around three months ago all assists but ABS were turned off, braking line (a line indicating the safest braking distance in the given racing car) and automatic clutch were used. Today I took the plunge and turned the automatic clutch off. It was hilarious.

Here's why:

  1. A single button press was needed to change gears and the sequence of pressing the clutch in combination with a gear change required more co-ordination than just steering, throttle, brakes and gear button presses. That's an extra step in the process!
  2. I had to think how this new move would affect me in a bend, as well on a straight road.
  3. The car was spinning all over the place around bends with the wrong gear selected.
  4. The car stalled on launch every time.
  5. The race car's gearbox, engine and clutch were getting broken on the first three laps.

All this with a single movement added? Craziness! I felt like a learner driver figuring out clutch control again. Then a pattern emerged...

Improvements in a short time

After around ten laps my gear shifts were faster. The engine still over revved but now because there was control over the clutch the car was touching more apexes. Turning in was better thanks to better gears shifts and more engine torque was produced due to downshifting into higher revolutions per minute. I realised I haven't mastered the art of complete control of a car with a Xbox 360 controller. However, in the time of me mucking about spinning tires, burning clutches and popping head gaskets I was improving consistently by roughly 300 milliseconds per lap.

Allow me to translate that for non-gear-heads out there. 300 milliseconds can win a close race.

The discomfort is simply increasing difficulty was improving my game in a matter of minutes. Now add the compound effect of consistently aware practise done every day or second day. The results could be staggering. 

The Down Side

The tougher the challenge, the less time initially needed for practice.  I'm sure that if I practiced Forza Motorsport 4 for around 3 hours, by the end I'd be famished and completely drained. The reason for this is because when you learn something that the brain is not efficient at, it consumes more sugar from your body to learn it. More sugar consumed means that more energy is used and as a result: fatigue. The brain gets tired. So one would have to practice for a finite amount of time and stop.

Naturally, as one progresses at something more time can be spent practicing. The idea is called Willpower depletion. The less rested you are, combined with the harder the push the more you're likely to give up. More can be read about it here and in this post.  Seeing as mental activity has a physical layer and there is movement attached movement to it, there is reasoning that rest is required for betterment in a game. This applies to intense physical activity as well. The body is designed for bursts of activity combined with intervals of active rest. Physical training programs have been actually designed (like TACFIT or Sprint 8) with this in mind to take advantage of muscle growth and strength with active recovery. There is therefore reason to presume the same about mastering a game for competitive or amateur purposes.

So how do we you readers get better at games? How do we improve yourselves?

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Conan Exiles is great survival game that eases the player into the fight before overwhelming them.

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