Scientists are learning tips and tricks for reaching excellence in what most people would call an unlikely source — gamers. A team at Brown University has analyzed countless hours of competitive play to see which practices work best when trying to improve a skill.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

It’s easy to dismiss gamers as slack-offs, but what most people who don’t partake in video gaming fail to understand is how competitive and skill-centric some game communities can be. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s designed purely as a time-and-money sink — a title about crushing candies comes to mind. But in the kind of games that attract competitive players, the ones you’ll see in eSport competitions, you live or die by your skill. Through their very nature, by pitting player against player, these games rear their community with a single overarching goal — to git gud.

Mastering a game isn’t much different from mastering anything else. Mostly, it comes down to practice. So when you think about it, studying gamers, a demographic in which individuals continually order themselves after levels of excellence/skill at a common task, can yield some valuable insight into which practice patterns work best.

Which is exactly what a team led by a Brown University computer scientist has done. They’ve analyzed data gathered from thousands of online matches of Halo: Reach and StarCraft 2.

“The great thing about game data is that it’s naturalistic, there’s a ton of it, and it’s really well measured,” said Jeff Huang, a computer science professor at Brown and lead author of the study.

“It gives us the opportunity to measure patterns for a long period of time over a lot of people in a way that you can’t really do in a lab.”

The results obtained from the first showed how different patterns of play affected skill improvement rates, while the latter showed how highly successful players’ unique and consistent “rituals” play a key part in their success.

There were several reasons for choosing these games: they’re both hugely popular. They have built-in ranking systems which sort players according to their success, providing the team with a solid estimation of individual skill levels. They’re also both highly competitive games, but play very differently from one another.

From zero to hero

Halo: Reach is a first-person shooter, a genre of games in which players take on the role of a single character and have to use a plethora of weapons to battle others. FPS games generally rely on motor skills (e.g. hand-eye coordination), reaction and decision speed, as well as individual tactical choices. One of the most popular game modes is Team Slayer, where players are placed on opposing teams which compete to get the most kills by the end of the 10-15 minute game time.

To make sure the game is fair for everyone, the game uses a metric system called TrueSkill — whose ratings are constantly updated with a player’s performance following each match — to put the together teams of roughly equal ability. TrueSkill gave Huang and his colleagues the means to see how playing habits influence gamers’ skill acquisition. They looked at data mined from all the online Halo matches played since the game’s release — totaling a staggering seven months of continuous game-play.

People who played the most matches every week (more than 64) had the largest overall increase in skill over time. But simply playing a lot isn’t the most efficient way to improve your skill, the team reports. Over the first 200 matches played, people who played 4-8 matches a week showed the most improvement on a per-match basis. They were followed by those who played 8-16 matches every week.

“What this suggests is that if you want to improve the most efficiently, it’s not about playing the most matches per week,” Huang said.

“You actually want to space out your activity a little bit and not play so intensively.”

The team also looked at the effect breaks had on a player’s skill. Players who took short breaks — i.e. one or two days — showed some decrease in skill in the first match following the downtime, but no decrease in their second one. Longer term breaks, however, had more pronounced effects on their efficiency. The effects of a 30-day break, for example, lasted for around 10 matches. So the lesson here is moderation — don’t overdo it on either the practice or the rest.

Tap it like it’s (a) hot (key)

The second study focused on the real-time strategy game Starcraft 2. Like other RTS games, it puts players in control of an entire army. They have to secure resources and manage an economy, build up bases and infrastructure, train their forces, and direct them in battle — often taking place on multiple fronts, with hundreds of units at a time. It’s an entirely different game from Halo, promoting management skills, large-scale tactical choices, sustained attention, and strategical thinking.

By comparing the in-game habits of elite players to those of average or lower skill, the team found one major difference: heavy use of hotkeys. These are customizable keyboard shortcuts which enable complex commands to be issued much more quickly. Less skilled players usually gave orders using the mouse. Elite players universally prefer hotkeys, the team found.

Image credits: Josef Glatz.

This gives them a huge advantage. For instance, the task of finding a free worker and selecting it with the mouse, clicking on the build icon, selecting the right building, and finally placing it in the desired location — which can take 4-5 seconds — can be done in under a second with hotkeys. Just press F1, B, B, click, and you have a barracks under construction. Skilled players can issue up to 200 different orders a minute in typical matches with hotkeys, dwarfing anything possible through the mouse alone.

But that’s pretty common knowledge in the StarCraft player-base. Hotkeying is the one skill all my friends say has improved their game the most — and we’re nowhere near an ‘elite’ level of play. What top players do differently is that they form unique hotkeying habits and stick with them. These habits are so distinctive and consistent, in fact, that the team was able to identify specific players with over 90% accuracy just by looking at how they hotkey. These habits are almost like a second nature, the researchers say, enabling players to issue commands efficiently when pressure is on.

They also seem to “warm up” this skill in every match. The study shows that even in the very early stages of a game when there’s almost nothing going on, these players will rapidly scroll through their hotkey habits issuing dummy commands to whatever units they have available.

“They’re getting their minds and bodies into the routines that they’ll need when they’re at peak performance later in the game,” Huang said.

“They’re getting themselves warmed up.”

Mastering mastery

Huang hopes their research will help people can improve their performance in other areas of life. Professions which require specialists to pay attention to lots of different elements at once could benefit from a “warming up” similar to that in StarCraft.

“Air traffic controllers come to mind,” he said.

“Maybe when someone first gets in the seat, they should take a few moments and re-enact what they do until they can get warmed up and in the zone.”

The results of the Halo study confirm previous cognitive research, he adds, which suggests that moderate activity coupled with short breaks can improve learning efficiency.

“People have seen this for other things, like studying.”

“Cramming is generally regarded as less efficient than doing smaller bits of studying throughout the semester. I think we’re seeing something similar here in our study.”

Taken together, the results show that the best way to become good at something is to “practice consistently, stay warm,” Huang concludes.

The full paper “Master Maker: Understanding Gaming Skill Through Practice and Habit From Gameplay Behavior” has been published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.

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