Six Psychological Tips to Help You Level Up Your Game Faster Part #1

By on November 29, 2011 at 11:20 am

The key to effective teaching and learning is in understanding how the human brain works. Before I became a professional geek I had a long college career in psychology and dabbled in teaching. I quickly figured out that if you don’t keep in mind the brain’s psychological limits you might as well be giving a lesson to a brick wall. Here’s the thing, these psychological limits apply whether you are learning long division or trying to nail down perfect execution on your new Vergil touch-of-death combo. Learning is learning, no matter what the subject matter, so I am here to give you six psychological tips to keep in mind when leveling up your game.

Tip #1 – Chunking

What Is Chunking?

Believe it or not, the human brain actually has a RAM limit. It can think about approximately seven things at once (give or take depending on the person.) However, what a “thing” is, is pretty amorphous, so the human brain saves mental RAM by clustering several objects together as one “thing.” This is called Chunking, and here is an example. Highlight and read the string of random numbers below. Then un-highlight and try to recall it.


How did you do? Was it difficult?

Now do the same with this phone number.


Easier? Here’s why. The random string of numbers gives your brain twelve things to remember, which is more than its RAM can hold. The phone number, on the other hand, only has four things to remember, in this case four groups of numbers, making it much easier to remember.

Chunking in Training

What does this all have to do with fighting games? Combos my friend. Combos. Even the most basic Marvel 3 air-combo (L, M, H, S, jump, M, M, H, S) breaks the brain’s RAM limit. However, to compensate we use chunking to group series of inputs together as individual items to remember. In psychology, Chunks in motor learning are defined as everything that takes place between pauses in successive action. The super jump cancel in this case is the pause, and so we think of LMHSjump and MMHS as two separate chunks. So how can we use this to our advantage?

Well first of all, never try to learn a combo that breaks the brain’s RAM limit all at once. This is failing proposition from the get go. Instead, identify where the pauses are in a combo string. Jump cancels, slow and easy links, wall and ground bounces, and supers or other cinematic actions like command hits/throws are all areas where you experience a pause in your inputs, and these are the areas the brain is most likely to develop chunks. Practice these areas individually, and your brain will develop muscle memory far quicker than if you were trying to learn them all at once.

Secondly, identify areas that aren’t chunks and treat them as such. When the brain attempts to recall an input that it doesn’t actually have in working memory, the result is panicked mashing because the brain doesn’t actually have a muscle memory queued up to recall. So no matter how perfect your DP execution is normally, you’ll still screw it up a few times when you integrate it into a combo.

You probably had an experience like this when you were first learning how to FADC. You would perform a move, input the FADC command, and then mash the next move out like crazy hoping that it hit, and this probably didn’t work too well. This is because an FADC isn’t a chunk, and you are treating it as if it were, i.e. you were treating the FADC itself and the move that came after it as two separate mental objects. There is no pause in inputs from the move that started the FADC, the FADC itself, and the move that follows the FADC, and so the whole command must be treated as one smooth movement in muscle memory. Similarly, canceling a special into a super is also one fluid movement, and should be treated as its own chunk. By trying to think of each move individually, you will simply reduce your chances of hitting both.

Third, practice transitioning between the last move in one chunk and the first move in the next. These are the areas you will most likely drop combos because the brain is recalling something new. I.E. you are more likely to whiff the OTG after an air combo in Marvel 3, than you are to drop it between an M, M, H series in the air. By practicing these problem areas, you can basically create a new chunk which contains the timing between two chunks, and by overlapping these chunks in your working memory, you will find yourself dropping combos far less often.

One last important note, be wary of chunks that are similar, and train yourself to recognize the difference. You know those missions in UMVC3 where you have to delay your S at the end of your air combo? Or perhaps you’ve done an air-loop that requires much stricter M,M,H timing than a standard air-combo would need. These are hard to learn because your brain thinks it knows what to do. You already have an M,M,H chunk stored in your memory and the brain will attempt to recall it to complete the combo, when in reality you need an entirely different chunk with different timing to succeed.

Chunking in Game Development

Game developers can take advantage of Chunking as well. By being aware of the chunking process, they can make in-game tutorials far more effective. Simply by displaying a combo differently in mission mode, you can vastly increase learning speed. Simply display each chunk in a different color, or on a different line will get gamers to practice them individually. Not only that, but if the player drops a combo in the middle of a certain chunk, you can rewind to the start of that particular chunk and have them practice it until they get it right before having them take it from the top again. The same thing goes for dropping a combo in the middle of a chunk, you can have the player practice the transition until they get it right.

By simply being aware of the chunking process, you can vastly increase memory retention and learning rate, and in the end this means getting down longer, harder, and more stylish BnBs in half the time.

Before we finish, let’s try one more chunking exercise. Highlight and remember all these letters below.


Are they easier to remember as…


If you got that down, that’s 29 letters you were able to memorize. 29 pieces of information, which means 29 separate moves in a combo when applied right. Happy comboing!

Tip #2 – Scaffolding

What Is Scaffolding?

Think about when you were a kid and you’d just learded how to ride your bike. You started out with training wheels, and it was nearly impossible to fall over. Then, when the training wheels were taken off, your dad would hold the bike steady for a bit while you got up to speed, and then would let go, and on each subsequent ride he would hold onto the bike less and less until you were able to ride without any assistance whatsoever.

This is an example of Scaffolding, which is a blanket term for assistance and resources given to a student by a teacher to allow them to complete a task that is currently beyond their skill set. Effective teaching provides just enough scaffolding to allow a student to succeed at a task, while slowly pulling back in an attempt to get them to complete more and more of the process on their own.

Scaffolding in Training

Fighting game developers like to pretend they use scaffolding in their game design through the inclusion of “beginner” and “simple” modes, but they kind of miss the point. Since the control scheme in these modes totally differs from normal gameplay, it’s kind of like asking a kid to ride a bike with training wheels by blowing in a tube and clapping his hands, and then taking off the training wheels and telling him to ride the bike normally. He won’t be able to because he never learned the skills to do so. Instead, he spent all his time clapping and tube blowing when he should have been learning how to pedal and balance.

But we in the fighting game community actually do utilize scaffolding without even knowing it. For example, training mode is a great example of scaffolding at work. Setting up the situation, from meter level to opponent behavior, is all done for you. All you have to do is practice that combo or mix-up until you are confident you have it down.

Our biggest issue, however, is we usually don’t gradually progress from training wheels to riding on our own. We just rip the training wheels off and take our new tech to competitive matches, and while this is certainly doable, it’s not the quickest or most effective way to learn, especially if you are still new to the game. So here are some training tips that keep scaffolding in mind.

First of all, take advantage of two player lab time. Having another human at the wheel makes it easy to choose just how much resistance you experience when practicing a new combo, mix-up, reset, or strategy. Start by having your buddy take simple actions, like chicken blocking, attempting to interrupt you with jabs, or even mashing DP. Once your new piece of tech stands up to this simple behavior, have him start to mix it up. Tell him to try and block as hard as he can and see how many times the mix-up lands. Ask him to vary which way he techs in an attempt to hit that reset you are working on. Eventually you should start asking him to fight back in different ways in an attempt to see if you can utilize your new piece of tech against zoning, rush down, or even straight up responsive “turtling.” Slowly ramp up the challenge more and more until he is fighting back full force, and when you can handle that you are ready to take your new strategy on the road.

But it’s actually pretty hard to find a sparring partner out there who enjoys lab time as much as you do, so here is another training tip that might make me sound like a horrible person. When you are first learning a new strategy, combo, or technique, play people who are worse than you. When you are first implementing a new strategy, you become predictable, sloppy, and less effective than you usually are, which gives your “lower classmen”, so to speak, an advantage that he will certainly appreciate. Meanwhile, you get to try out your new piece of tech at a lower, but still human, difficulty level before taking it to the big leagues. It’s a symbiotic relationship that everyone profits from.

Scaffolding in Game Development

With knowledge of how effective scaffolding can be in helping along the learning process, game developers will have to seriously rethink a couple aspects of their game. First of all, as I said before, “beginner” modes are not really helping anybody. True “beginner” modes should play exactly like the final game, just easier. Adding a frame to every link in Street Fighter IV could be one sort of “beginner” mode, or auto-mashing hypers for max damage in Marvel 2 or 3 could be another. Any mode that tones down the input difficulty for specials and supers would be a perfect “beginner” mode to have. Sure these modes couldn’t be used in competitive play because they give an unfair advantage, but beginner modes already aren’t used in competitive play so it wouldn’t matter. I’d even go as far as to say their use should be restricted to training mode, or some other “casual” two player mode. It would be worth it just to give newbies several different levels of training wheels to choose from.

Secondly, game designers will have to re-think what “handicap” means as well. Simply tweaking damage only let’s a newbie watch himself die over a longer period of time. Instead, handicaps could make blocking more lenient on a newbie, allowing them more time to switch their guard from high to low, left to right, or even retroactively block certain attacks if it’s within a certain time-frame. Less drastically, handicap can affect meter gain, allowing newbies to gain meter more quickly and have more options available to them.

Finally, game designers should integrate scaffolding techniques into their tutorials as well. Here’s a simple example of how to integrate scaffolding into a combo tutorial. First, the player watches the combo in its entirety. Then, the player is asked to do the first move in the combo, and from there the rest of the combo completes itself. Then the player is asked to do the first two moves before the combo auto-completes. Then the first three, and so on and so forth until they have the whole combo down. It’s exactly the same as slowly letting go of the bike and letting you ride on your own.

Alright! That’s two down and four to go. Stay tuned for our next episode when we go over repetition and motivation!

Angelo M. D’Argenio A.K.A. MyLifeIsAnRPG got his start in the fighting game community as a young boy playing Street Fighter II in arcades down at the Jersey Shore. As president of Disorganization XIII, he travels the convention circuit presenting a variety of panels from discussions on gamer culture, to stick modding workshops, to fighting game comedy acts. He has a passion for looking at the fighting game community from an academic standpoint and has completed several studies on effective fighting game learning and the impact fighting games have on social circles. A six year veteran of the gaming industry, he also writes for Cheat Code Central and is a lead game designer for Ember Games. On Tuesdays, you can find him getting bodied by Chris G and getting mistaken for Seth Rogen at The Break.