Culture 6 min read

How Science Can Help You Get Better at Video Games

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In the brave new digital world of Industry 4.0, even sports competition has changed. Many athletes still break their backs to win the world’s most difficult physical challenges, but now many a gamer is also breaking their brow to win in the world of professional video gaming, otherwise known at eSports.

eSports aren’t new, but you could say that their rise to prominence is, and the reason for that could be entirely generational. When I was a kid, video games were seen as a child’s endeavor, but as I grew older, they grew with me. Now we have video games specifically geared towards adults, and that means that the audience for games is at least twice what it was before.

Where there is an audience, there is money to be made.

The world of eSports has origins that go back as far as 1972, but today it is bigger than ever.

With it, we see a big push for competitive games in the market, whether they are first-person shooters like Overwatch or real-time strategy games like Starcraft II.

If you want to hone your competitive edge then pay attention to Jeff Huang, a computer scientist that recently led a research team to determine how top eSport competitors stay on top of their game.

What Every Champion Gamer Needs

Like any sport, there are true amateurs and true competitors, and the difference lies in how important winning is. For the competitors, winning is everything, but how do they cultivate their skills?

In a word: practice. But let’s break that down into a few attributes.

According to Jeff Huang, to be a pro gamer, you need to:

1. Stay fresh

Spend at least a few hours each week competing in online matches.

2. Periodic Breaks

Let your brain relax after playing a few games, but don’t let it rest for too long.

3. Practice Makes Perfect

Develop the particular complex movements that will streamline your actions in the game, and use those movements to warm up before you need to use them in-game.

Yeah, but how Should I Practice?

We all know that you will never make it to the Olympics if you don’t practice, and in every case, there is a correct and incorrect way to practice.

Huang and his team studied the habits of high-level players by gathering data generated from thousands of online matches from two games: Starcraft II and Halo: Reach. From Halo, the team researched how different patterns of playing time affected gamer skill development.

Halo: Reach | Bungie | Microsoft

Technically, any time we play our favorite competitive games we are practicing, but if that is so then why aren’t we all at the top of our games?

According to Huang, good practice includes moderation. His research into data gathered from the game Halo: Reach showed that a high number of matches per week does lead to improvement, but the people who played four to eight matches a week gained more skill than those who played eight to sixteen games a week.

“The lesson from the study seems to be that moderation is a good thing in terms of learning efficiency, as long as breaks in play aren’t too long,”

So, if you take a break from your favorite game for a day or so, you tend to regain lost skill during a single match, but if you put it down for a week, you may face some serious loss of ability.

Interestingly enough, the study also showed the importance of warming up. When playing Starcraft II, the more skilled players made liberal use of “hotkeys” (keyboard shortcuts for manipulating the game), and because the process of a real-time strategy game can be quite complicated, many of those players used those hotkeys for up to 200 actions every minute (apm).

Furthermore, the more skilled Starcraft gamer tends to form rituals for hotkey use, and they perform these rituals as a warm up before play. By gathering data about these unique hotkey rituals, the team was able to observe how they improved focus and reaction time. Because the players tended to warm up with ‘dummy’ commands, the hotkeys were so ingrained into their skills that they could use them reflexively, and researchers were even able to identify players just by tracking their specific hotkey patterns.

Overwatch Competitors | Blizzard Entertainment

Bridging the Gap Into the Real World

The research done by Huang’s team is useful for more than just gathering information on how to “git gud.” Getting better at video games mirrors improvement in any skill, and Huang hopes that the work will help people improve their performance in other domains.

We may likely see an overlap between this research and the various fields of Virtual Reality research, as the data from studies like these would be valuable for designers of VR training modules.

If we can better understand the development of sophisticated skills and reaction time, then we can design a virtual environment for all kinds of simulations, which would give people a little more familiarity with all manner of dangerous situations such as flying or piloting a ship in severe weather conditions.

The study echoes research into cognitive science when it offers the idea that taking breaks in moderation can lead to more skill improvement, or that warming up will make complex movements easier to do when under stress. If you want to get better at video games, or any other skill, it seems like the best advice the researchers can give is “practice consistently, stay warm.”

Many who practice physical skills see that information as nothing new, but for the rest of us, it is a valuable insight.

It makes one wonder: if this gives us a greater understanding of how we learn, then how will this affect machine learning?

After all, understanding how we think is one of the driving factors for improvement in machine learning technology.

Read More: ENDGAME: How Google Stadia Will Transform 5 Industries 

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