Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mental Focus and Concentration

You know how in stories and movies, where the hero gets beaten up and even though he looks like he's down, somehow his strength of will pushes him on?

Yeah... this article isn't about that.

This article is first and foremost about focus and concentration. One of the things we don't think about when we're playing games is how much we can think about at one time. Some people insist they are gods of multitasking, but they are woefully predictable when I play them in Street Fighter. Focus is all about preserving that mental resource and using it when it's most important. Concentration is the same thing. I'll be using those terms more or less interchangeably. Hopefully that's not too confusing.

StarCraft is probably the most focus-intensive game in existence. Other games have focus costs to play them, but they are not as hard as StarCraft. In SC you must make many decisions at once, and you are free to make as many focus-intensive decisions as you can - the more you can make at a time, the better you are at StarCraft. Speed chess is a focus-intensive game too, and any fighting game is also very taxing on mental energy. But SC uses mental energy far more than any other game currently played in competitive leagues (when SC2 comes out, it will still be true - SC will still be harder).

Focus can be thought of like a mental "mana bar." If you're doing something in a game, it takes up focus that you can't use to do other things. We gain focus over time, although if we keep doing things that take up focus, it will keep getting used up. This sounds weird, but it is actually fairly true. If you enter a high focus decision point where you must use a lot of mental energy deciding on what to do (and otherwise do nothing), using up all of your energy at that point will actually keep you from making smart decisions for a second or two. Usually if we are forced to make a choice at that point we resort to our instincts, which are easier to predict. Our instincts can still be right in this scenario but we are sort of leaving things up to chance.

One of the things I've noticed over the years is my absolute lack of this skill. My concentration level is far, far lower than other nerds. I have many failings in gamer skill such as relatively low dexterity, but my biggest weak point is low concentration. Many of my friends absolutely destroy me at this. I think my younger sister who is a non-gamer has a higher concentration level than I do. I make up for this in other ways (particularly with a good propensity for decision-making and a very fast OODA loop), but my lack of concentration basically screws me out of being a pro StarCraft player.

Like any RPG stat, we can level up our concentration/focus through practice. The best ways to do this is to play games with very high focus requirements. The best is StarCraft, and speed chess is also a good test. Guild Wars PvP also has tremendous concentration requirements if one is playing an interrupt class or a healer. World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs can build concentration if you play a reactive class such as a healer too, especially if you are a healer in a 25-man raid guild.

All of these examples require a lot of time investment into other skills and in the case of MMORPGs, grinding in order to get to the level where you have tests of focus. There are other games that take very few outside skills to practice. Most of them are probably familiar to you.

The games I have in mind are puzzle games. Tetris, Bejeweled, Hexic 2, and Puzzle Fighter all have very high concentration requirements. I prefer competitive games, but even Tetris and Bejeweled in their single player modes can improve your focus with practice. If you play tons of Tetris and are good at it, your play will get faster and faster and you will get better and better at putting pieces in the right places even when they fall at the speed of light. This is the exact same skill needed to be good at StarCraft. If you are a SC player who is a little burned out from practicing build orders over and over to get better, Tetris is a good place to get mental exercise and is pretty relaxing too. Even if your game of choice is not an extreme concentration game, having a higher reserve of focus is very beneficial and puzzle games are one of the best ways to do it without having to grind a priest to level 70.

There are other ways to improve your level of focus, but they only apply to very specific tasks so they will not improve your concentration skill very much outside of the game you are playing. The main way to do this is 'chunking.' I'm not referring to throwing up or hitting an opponent with an explosive so that they blow up into bloody chunks. I'm referring to taking a block of memory and condensing it into a bite-sized chunk of data. If you chunk correctly you will access the memory to do a chunk of complex tasks, such as setting gateway waypoints or doing complex air combos.

A bit of an anecdote here: I was hanging out with a bunch of friends and I was very, very drunk. We decided to play some games of Melty Blood: Act Cadenza, a game that I was pretty decent at. My skills in that game were chunked so well that I would hit confirm into very long, flawless air combos on hit, and blockstring mixups on block, even though I was so drunk I could not walk straight. In fact, one of my friends reported that I was not even looking at the screen while I was doing air combos. This is not to say that my chunking skills are particularly good or even that I am an amazing Melty Blood player (I'm not) but that those skills were so ingrained into my brain that I could do them even with close to 0 focus available (as a side note, I had a very hard time hitting people as one might imagine, but when I did, combo time!)

Chunking is something we actually do naturally through practice. This is why most martial arts require you to do many punches and kicks in a row, day after day. If we practice to do those punches and kicks, eventually they stop being awkward and start being easy, and soon we don't even think about the specific motions of the punch or kick and just think "I'm going to do a side kick" or "I'm going to do a backhand." If we want to chunk something, there is only one way to do it. We must do it over and over and over until it becomes routine. It actually isn't enough to just do it until we can do it exactly. We must do it until we are doing it naturally, without really thinking about it.

My Melty Blood skills were fine-tuned due to being able to play a large variety of players vastly worse than me, making every battle 'combo practice.' If you are fortunate enough to have a lot of people you can play at your game who are much worse than you and who are willing to get beat up by you a lot, use them for practice of difficult techniques. If you can't do that, you'll have to go to your game's training mode and practice dilligently. However, I feel that the best way to practice is to have the ability to train in a 'live' environment, because that allows you to improve your ability to not think about what it is you are doing.

There is a downside to chunking though - once you've chunked a lot of things such as combos or board positions or build orders or block patterns, it gets harder to train up your focus using those methods since doing them uses up less focus. It's still incredibly valuable (usually essential) to practice chunking things, but if you chunk your build orders so much that they become easy, you should probably play Tetris to improve your concentration. Even Tetris has chunking though, because once you get good at the game you learn exactly how to place pieces to make the best moves. Once you're there though, the game still keeps getting faster and faster so even if you have things down to a science, you must still do that science faster and faster and faster!

Tetris is a good game!

There is another problem with chunking. The main issue is that it is boring. Once you have something learned to where you can do it every time, it ceases to be fun to practice any more. Our brains like learning new things, and forcing our brains to do old things over and over is a very good way to get bored. As I said before, practicing with many bad people is a great way to learn various expert skills without feeling bored. The problem is that they will probably get bored of being owned by you. Feel free to lose a match here and there to give them the idea that they might have a chance of winning. It's perfectly okay, in the long run, if it means they will continue to serve as 'combo practice.'


  1. So, here's my question about chunking.
    What do you see as the "upper limit"?
    How much are we actually capable of chunking before it becomes impossibly long?

    I'm trying to think of a decent example of this, so bear with me. I'm hoping that it will come to my as I write.
    When we memorize combos, and practice the repetition over and over, until performing them on a successful hit becomes little more than reflexive, we're chunking maybe a few seconds worth of information, all tied up in complicated (-ish) hand and finger motions.
    The same goes for performing chunked processes in a game like StarCraft, when you can just reflexively build things with little or no real concentration beyond the thought of "OK, I need to build this now."

    But there's hints in non-gaming life that imply that humans are capable of chunking even larger (or just longer, perhaps) strings of commands or actions.
    Take, for example, the auto mechanic who has been doing his job for so many years, on the same type of engines, that he can practically reassemble the components of the engine blindfolded. He's able to perform the complex assembly of this mechanism with little to no concentration, to the point that he's able to focus the majority of his mental focus on other tasks.

    How much of this do you see as chunking? Is the entire long process one big chunk, or has this mechanic, like, chunked the chunks together into one super-chunk?

    I'm interested to know what you see as the upper limit to this process is... how much can we chunk before we're really just performing strings of chunks, of which the transitions between probably are taxing our mental focus?

  2. Yeah...

    The reason why combos are hard to learn is because they're actually hard. It takes our fingers a lot of effort to learn these things because they have a small margin of error.

    But things like driving home from work are not very hard and we repeat them a lot so we chunk them. Driving home might be an hour long endeavor for some people but yes, we pretty much chunk it and spend almost no mental effort doing it.

    I have no idea what the limits are. I'm sure that pretty much any task that is repeatable and not broken up by sleep/breaks/rest can be chunked.