Playing video games is not only good for the brain, it could also teach us something about improving our skills, a new study revealed.
Researchers have set out to investigate what kinds of habits and practices work best in effectively pushing people to become better at what they do.
What's the best way to do that? Studying gameplay.
Led by a computer scientist from Brown University, the team discovered several helpful insights after analyzing a trove of data from online video games, such as Halo: Reach and StarCraft 2. One is a first-person shooter game, while the other is a strategy game.
Jeff Huang, a professor at Brown and lead author of the study, said game data is valuable because it's naturalistic, well-measured, and expansive.
"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," said Huang.
How Gamers Get Good
This science fiction war game allows players to battle with grenades, rifles, and other weapons. Its most popular feature is the Team Slayer, where gamers are placed together on teams for 10- to 15-minute matches. The team that scores the most kills wins.
But before the teams are organized, Halo: Reach rates players using TrueSkill, a metric that gets constantly updated as a gamer completes more matches and their skill level improves.
This allowed Huang and his colleagues to compare the habits of elite gamers to those with lesser skill.
Based on data produced by seven months of Halo matches, researchers discovered that those who played the most games per week - 64 matches - had the greatest increase in skill over time.
However, playing lots of matches in a week does not automatically result in an improvement in skills.
In fact, when Huang and his team examined the groups that displayed the most improvement per match, they found that those who had four to eight matches in seven days gained the most skill, followed by those who played about eight to 16 games.
This meant that if a person wants to play efficiently, there should be a gap in doing matches and they should avoid playing "too intensively."
When it comes to breaks, Huang and the team discovered that breaks that lasted for one or two days are not a big deal. Players still gained the lost skill over the next match. On the other hand, a 30-day break affects the gamer's skills in a different way. It usually took around 10 matches before players regained their skill level.
Lessons From 'Halo: Reach'
Huang said the Halo study revealed that moderation is essential when it comes to learning efficiency, as long as breaks do not last too long.
This second game is a strategy game that requires users to manage hundreds of game units simultaneously. They can build infrastructure, train soldiers, manage economies, and command them during combat.
Huang and his team analyzed data from a hundred Starcraft matches and compared the habits of elite gamers and lower ranks. What was different between these two types of gamers is the use of customized keyboard shortcuts called "hotkeys," researchers said.
Players with lesser skill tended to use hotkeys less, choosing to point and click to command a unit, while elite gamers made copious use of these shortcuts. Hotkeys were used for up to 200 actions per minute during a single match.
Lessons From 'Starcraft 2'
What was valuable here is that elite gamers formed consistent and unique habits in how they use hotkeys. Their habits were so consistent that Huang and his team managed to identify certain players with an accuracy rate of 90 percent just by examining their hotkey patterns.
Researchers say it is possible that these habits come as second nature to elite players, allowing them to keep cool when the pressure heats up. What's more, elite players also conduct "warm-ups" with their use of hotkeys. During the start of a match, these players scroll rapidly through the commands just to practice.
Applications In Real Life
Beyond online gaming, the research team hopes that their work will provide insight into the general ways that people optimize their performance. For instance, maybe warm-ups would be important for people whose jobs require paying attention to different things at the same time.
Huang said one such example are air traffic controllers. When someone gets in the seat, they should take a few moments to re-enact what they do so they can get warmed up, he said.
The results of the report echo cognitive science research. Huang cited cramming as an example, as it is considered as less efficient than doing bits of studying throughout a semester.
The findings of both studies were featured in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.
Photo: Denis Dervisevic | Flickr