Six Psychological Tips to Help You Level Up Your Game Faster Part #3

By on January 16, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Four tips in and two to go. We’ve already covered chunking, scaffolding, repetition, and motivation in the previous two articles in this series. We have gone over tips to improve our memory and information uptake, as well as tricks to improve our desire to learn and reinforce what we have already learned. Today, we look at our final two psychological tips that will help you level-up your game: comprehension and frustration management. We will learn the importance of understanding the core concepts behind every action we take in fighting games, and how we can prevent ourselves from getting into a distracted state that will inhibit the learning process.

Tip #5 – Comprehension

Do We Really Comprehend Our Actions?

Think back to any math class from your early school days. How many of you remember being told to “show your work” on every test and homework problem. Your teacher wasn’t doing this just to give you busy work. They were trying to see if you actually knew why you got the answer you did.

Let’s say you are a student with a good memory. Your teacher teaches you that 150/6=25. So you memorize this, and without actually learning how to divide you manage to get that answer right on every test you take. Then your teacher asks you “What is 174/6?” Unfortunately, you don’t know the answer. You were only ever taught that 150/6=25. You were never taught to actually start by dividing 15 by 6 to get the tens digit of 2, multiplying 2×6 to get 12, subtracting 12 from 15 to get 3, carrying down the 0 to get 30, and then dividing 30 by 6 to get the ones digit of five. Because of this, you aren’t able to use the same process with a 174/6 to get a result of 29.

So what does all of this have to do with fighting games? Well comprehension basically means understanding. In the scenario above, there is a difference between knowing the answer and understanding why we got that answer. Believe it or not, the same phenomenon exists in fighting games and is actually relatively common. It’s one thing to know how to execute a particular technique. It’s another thing to know how to actually apply it.

Lack of Comprehension in Fighting Games

Here’s a more concrete example. How many of you have friends that dial out the same combos whether or not the first hit connects? Don’t they generally end up on some extremely unsafe move that they are easily punished for? Do they rapidly mash out light attacks whether you are coming in from the ground, jumping, or throwing fireballs? Do they complain about their controllers not working when they fail to realize you can’t cancel a move unless it makes contact? These are the types of people who have been taught the answer to the question (the combo) but not how to get there (how to land a hit-confirm that transitions into the combo). They are using a calculator rather than showing their work. They don’t understand that the actual meat and potatoes of gameplay is poking and positioning in order to land the hit-confirm safely before going into their combo of choice.

There are other examples of being able to perform but not comprehend your actions in fighting games that aren’t nearly as fundamental as the hit-confirm/dial-a-combo split. In fact, very few fighting game players actually comprehend the intricacies of their own bread and butter combos. Think of any combo from any game you have ever played. Now ask yourself, “Why do I do this combo?” Is it the most damage you can reliably do without dropping it? Does it build you the most meter? Is it easier to hit-confirm into than other combos? Now ask yourself what you know about how the combo works? If you drop an attack in the middle, do you do more damage or less damage due to scaling? How late can you cancel or link your moves? Are you making it too complicated? Can you actually produce the same damage and meter results with a far easier to execute combo?

I asked 50 different UMVC3 players on The PlayStation Network these questions after getting hit by combos that I thought were impressive. A grand total of four were able to provide any actual answers. Everyone else who answered generally just said “I saw it on Youtube.”

The Internet: A Magnificent Resource. An Unfortunate Crutch

The internet is one of the best things to ever happen to the fighting game community. It allows people from all around the world to share their strategies and broadcast their matches to an audience that is genuinely interested in watching them. However, there is a slight downside to this wealth of information, and that is that most of the time it is given without context. There are thousands of combo videos on the internet, but I’d wager only half show off pragmatic combos that can be used in a match. Not only that, but I’d wager that maybe a fifth of these videos actually discuss the right situations to use each combo showcased. Yet we have an entire new generation of fighting game players watching and emulating these videos without actually understanding why these combos are good or important.

You can see the same problem of giving information without context in forums, guides, and FAQs all across the internet. Go on any character forum on any strategy website and you’ll see combo list after combo list with only a few tips on how to use the combos listed. Conversely, you’ll find lots of ways to counter different characters and strategies with specific normals and specials, but you won’t see what combos those normals and specials can transition into.

As a community, we can work on this problem in two ways. On a personal level, we can all study and dissect what we do with our characters a bit more. We can be skeptical and ask questions about our combos and strategies. This involves trying combo variations and not accepting the things we see on the internet as the be-all-end-all of character strategy. We can examine where our combos drop, and for what reason and we can examine our damage output, meter gain, and most importantly what hit-confirms we use. By doing this, we broaden our toolset and focus more on the basic game rather than on combo execution. This will lead us to develop new combos on the fly, even in the middle of matches, because we will begin to comprehend the underlying mechanics that make combos work. It will also lead us to try new responses to old tactics in the middle of matches. You might find out that your character of choice has some undiscovered piece of tech you never even thought about just because you tried something crazy when you were about to die.

On a more global level we can strive to refine the information we make available. If you are creating a combo video, take a few minutes to type up a couple of notes to go along with it. It won’t take nearly as much time as editing the video in the first place. When you talk about counter-strategies, talk about why the strategies work rather than just saying they work and leaving it at that. Discuss hit-boxes and invincibility frames. Discuss mobility and poking. Make every piece of advice you give a tiny little lesson. That way, when you tell someone that you can roll past Terry’s Power-Wave, they won’t come back asking you how to avoid Ryo’s Kohkens the next day. Make more tutorials that talk about gameplay theory. A couple more videos like FC Jago’s Babies Guide to UMVC3 would go a long way toward increasing the overall comprehension of fighting game newbies.

A Request to Fighting Game Developers: Teach Theory, Not Just Practice

The other day, a friend of mine who was new to fighting games asked me “What do I use a dragon punch for?” In a few minutes I was able to explain how it’s invincible on start-up, allowing you to interrupt your oppoent’s moves, and how it travels vertically so it’s useful for hitting people who are in the air. Then he asked me “why doesn’t the game tell me that?” … I didn’t have an answer for him.

Over the course of these articles, I’ve made it clear that I don’t believe developers are doing enough to teach newbies how to play fighting games. However, they also aren’t teaching newbies the correct information either. Some fighting game out there has to bite the bullet and say “OK, we are going to teach the basics,” and by that I don’t just mean the basics of control. I mean the basics of understanding how the game operates. DandyJ’s King of Fighters tutorial is a great example. It shows how different moves interact, what options you have in different game states, and why you should use the options that are available to you. Atlus/SNK could literally just include that tutorial as a video on disk and the entirety of the new KOF player community would instantly become better. With a little extra effort they could even make an interactive tutorial based on the video. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Here’s my final word on comprehension; it doesn’t matter how tight your execution is. It doesn’t matter if you can land one frame links or standing 720s. It doesn’t matter if you can pull off the flashiest combos in the world. If you don’t know why and how to use the techniques you have mastered, you might as well be mashing. So always ask “why”. Why did I do that combo? Why did I get punished for that move? Why did I lose that match? By answering these questions you will simply become a better competitor.

Tip #6 – Frustration Management

Frustration: Another Form of Distraction

Let’s go back to your school days once again. Think about the piles and piles of homework you had. Would you say you retained more information at the beginning of the night, when you just started your homework, or at the end of the night, when all you really wanted to do was watch cartoons and veg out in front of the NES? Not convincing enough? OK, how about this example? Do you think you would be better off studying on your own, or with an assistant that pokes you in the arm every five seconds?

My point is frustration is just another form of distraction, and enough distraction hampers the learning process. In the first example, you are too busy thinking about Bugs Bunny and Contra to efficiently internalize new information. In the second example, you are too busy thinking about how nice it would be for your jackass friend to stop poking you in the arm. Simply put, when you are frustrated your mind becomes pre-occupied with thinking about being frustrated. When you begin thinking about your frustration more than you are thinking about the task at hand, your learning efficiency starts to drop.

How to Manage Your Frustration

When I first announced the topic of frustration management, I got a lot of responses from people who were frustrated by their game of choice (mostly online UMVC3) and were looking for some magic cure that would make them enjoy it again. Unfortunately for these readers, I have some bad news. There is no magical frustration cure. Dropping combos due to lag, losing to zoning strategies you can’t respond to due to button delay, and being unable to block on reaction will always be frustrating. In fact, you really can’t stop any particular frustrating event from being frustrating in the first place. If we could, we would have figured out world peace by now. What you can do, however, is successfully manage frustration after you encounter it. So here are a couple simple pointers that should help to reduce your sodium intake.

1. Take a Break

Sounds simple enough right? If you feel yourself getting too frustrated, just stop playing for a while. When your mind becomes pre-occupied by frustration it needs time to unwind or it’s going to make bad decisions and bad decisions hamper the learning process. In poker, this is called “going on tilt.” When you are on tilt it’s recommended you fold the next few hands or, if you are playing at home, go get a drink and take time to cool yourself off. The same can be applied in fighting games. If you go on tilt, you’ll make bad decisions and these decisions will just lead you to poor blocks and dropped combos which will frustrate you even more. Take a break, unwind, and come back to it later. Heck, if you feel like you are going on tilt between matches in a tournament, take a moment to compose yourself before your name is called again. Strike up a conversation. Check out the merchandise booths. Get a burger or a soda if they are offered at the venue. Just be sure not to leave the tournament area without a judge’s permission, as a disqualification will only add to your frustration.

2. Take a Nap

OK, so this sounds kind of lazy and foolish to do, but bear with me. Taking a nap will give you the same benefits of taking a break and will actually help you commit everything you recently learned to memory. Studies show that REM sleep helps in the consolidation and retention of procedural memories such as how to ride a bike, how to play a piano, or how to bust out that 100% HD combo in KOFXIII. During a normal sleep cycle it takes 1-2 hours to reach REM sleep, but when we nap, our bodies actually reach REM sleep much quicker because our natural sleep rhythm is broken. When this happens, our brains try to cram in as much useful REM sleep as possible because they never know when they will need to get up again. The average nap time needed to complete one full cycle of REM sleep during a nap is 15-35 minutes, but it differs per person. Set your alarm and try it out for yourself until you find the optimal time needed for an afternoon siesta.

Now I’m sure many of you are skeptical about the power that naps and breaks have in aiding the learning process. So if you don’t believe me, believe this article in the New York Times instead.

Researchers led by Sara C. Mednick, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, gave 77 volunteers word-association tests under three before-and-after conditions: spending a day without a nap, napping without REM sleep and napping with REM sleep. Just spending the day away from the problem improved performance; people who stayed awake did a little better on the 5 p.m. session than they had done on the 9 a.m. test. Taking a nap without REM sleep also led to slightly better results. But a nap that included REM sleep resulted in nearly a 40 percent improvement over the pre-nap performance.

3. Find Another Distraction

The mind is kind of a weird thing. It can only focus on a limited amount of things at once. With this knowledge, you can actually mitigate the negative effects of a distraction by causing another distraction. I know, it sounds weird, right? It’s all about allocating mental resources. Put simply, you can occupy your brain with something else which causes it to be too busy to feel frustrated. The next time you take your game to the lab, try putting on some music in the background. Even better, play an episode of a TV series that you kind-of care about but wouldn’t mind missing the details of. It takes a bit of trial and error to find the sweet spot, but when you do you will find your mind is just too busy to get frustrated without being too busy to learn.

4. Eliminate Repetitive Useless Information

As discussed in the last article in this series, repetition helps aid the acquisition and retention of new memories. However, as I said before, the brain can only focus on a limited amount of things at once.  If something unrelated to training is repeated over and over again, your brain starts trying to remember it even though it isn’t important. For the life of me I don’t know why game developers decide to put the most repetitive and droning music into their training stages. It’s not just annoying, it’s actually hindering the learning process. Change up your training atmosphere frequently. Train on different stages with different music against different characters. Even repetitive voice samples can get in the way of effective learning, so be careful.

5. Get Personal

The biggest advantage of playing fighting games online, as opposed to playing the A.I., is that you get to play against real people that make real mistakes and have real behavioral tendencies. However, the majority of people who play fighting games online never even put their opponents through the Turing test. You could be playing against robots and not even know it!

In all seriousness though, an effective way to reduce frustration during online gameplay is to become acquainted with the people you are playing with. Why? Well, because it creates a reason for each win and loss. You see, even though you know that there is another human being on the other end of your internet connection, your lower brain isn’t entirely convinced. What it sees is a room, a game system, and one person getting stomped on by images on a computer screen. By giving your brain proof that there is someone else playing you, it eases the cognitive split. Suddenly, your opponent becomes a gamer that is trying his best, just like you, instead of just a harder replacement for the CPU. Besides, what do you have to loose? You might make a new friend or two in the process.

Also, you can lie to your own brain to a certain extent. If after every match you simply do the sportsmanlike thing and say “good game” to your competitor, the repetition will start to sink in and you will, to a certain extent, start believing it. Certain people can lie to themselves better than others, and while this certainly isn’t any sort of hypnosis that suddenly makes online gaming 100%  fun, but it does help in a small way.

A Word About “Caring”

A piece of advice I very frequently come across is “don’t care so much and you will get less frustrated.” There is some merit to this idea. If something doesn’t matter to you, you are far less likely to get upset about it. We have all heard the saying “It’s not whether you win or lose it’s how you play the game,” and that’s a great rule to live by. Not only that, but there is a sort of zen to letting your losses roll off your back without taking them too harshly.

As a final note, I would like to say that no one ever became the best at what they do by not caring about it. You never hear Superbowl winners say “eh I just sorta fell into football,” nor do you hear rock stars go “I’m not really that into music.” You have to care about things you want to be good at. There is no quick fix that will allow someone who really doesn’t want to get better at fighting games to start playing on the level of Daigo Umehara.

I would recommend you care, but recognize that your failures are only just steps toward greater success. No one will have a perfect win record. Expect to lose, but try to win. Only by wanting to become better will you actually ever level up your game, and hey, by recognizing that the only way to get better is through lost matches and dropped combos here and there, you might avoid a little frustration while you are at it.

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.