Today I’ll be discussing player mindset and its importance to achievement in real time strategy games.
“Our thoughts shape us. We become our obsessions. Our thoughts can enslave us or save us.” – Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls
Mindset is the mental approach that a player adopts in their real time strategy career. This means things like self-awareness, positive or negative outlook, and locus of control. In this piece, I’ll argue that mindset is critically important to achievement in real time strategy games. To do this, I’ll leverage the idea to re-frame the relationship between hard work and results.
Hard Work and Results
Let’s start by crisply defining hard work and results.
Hard work usually refers to time-consuming work that involves some form of sacrifice. When people think of this concept, they imagine someone slaving away at a difficult or tedious task for hours on end, using discipline to stay focused and avoid getting distracted. The time invested and the personal sacrifice are what make hard work hard. Playing a few ladder games isn’t enough – when people talk about hard working competitors, they’re referring to players grinding out thousands of games a season, day in and day out.
Results refers to the goals that someone is trying to achieve.
The relationship between work and results is typically framed as cause-and-effect – in order to achieve some result, a person needs to work at it. Particularly difficult goals – like winning a prestigious event – are framed as the result of especially hard work. Different people may place different emphasis on the importance of circumstances, good fortune, natural talent, and so on, but no one could reasonably argue that a great deal of work is somehow optional to winning a major StarCraft tournament – the importance of muscle memory alone puts that argument to rest.
The Problem With Hard Work
“That player is only in GM because they play all day. I would be in GM if I played that much, too.” – Players Who Suck
This cause-and-effect relationship misrepresents the role of hard work, or at least frames it in a misleading way.
The issue is that cause-and-effect often subtly implies that the cause is spontaneous – do this and that will happen. Do this exercise and that muscle growth will happen. Take this medicine and that disease will be cured. Study this text and you will pass that test.
But anybody who’s worked as a personal trainer, prescribed medicine or handed out a test knows that it’s just not that simple. People will search for any excuse possible to avoid exercise, willfully ignore doctor’s orders to their own peril, and procrastinate studying for important exams until the very last minute.
What’s the gap? Between knowing what to do and doing it is a space: a space that we’ll call mindset. Mindset determines whether you think exercise is important, whether doctors are worth listening to, and whether tests are worth thoroughly studying for. In this way, doing something is not really a cause so much as it is an effect – an effect of a proper mindset.
Readers may argue that it’s both – mindset causes work, and work causes results. What’s important to remember is that we don’t care about work, we care about necessary work – the work that’s required to achieve a specific result. There’s a whole bunch of work out there that we don’t care about, and only the right mindset is what causes us to do the right work, the necessary work.
Case Study: Dirty, Dirty Cheesers
Let’s bring this back to real time strategy with an example. One particularly tricky situation for players is defending cheeses, particularly very all-in cheeses. These are challenging because they require responses that are starkly different from standard play. Simply making small adjustments to a typical build order is rarely enough to stop a baneling bust or a cannon rush.
As a result, even if you’re some kind of real time strategy savante, odds are that you’ll lose the first few times you face a new kind of all-in cheese. Our goal is to improve our play and win future games – so what’s the right response? Here’s a few ideas:
- Watch the replay. We’ll identify our key mistakes and correct them in future games.
- We’ll practice against the AI to perfect what we think is an optimal counter-build.
- We’ll ask a friend to execute this strategy against us over and over until we feel confident we can beat it.
- We’ll post the replay to a public forum and solicit others’ feedback.
There are probably a bunch of other good responses, but for the sake of argument let’s assume the right answer is captured by the above list. Now that we know what we need to do, we just need to do it.
So what makes that hard?
How Fast Do We Act?
Our first obstacle is choosing one of the good choices over one of the many bad ones.
For instance, let’s say we prefer to play a defensive macro style. We consider “real StarCraft II” to begin once both players have at least three bases.
We just lost to a cannon rush. We didn’t get to play the kind of game that we enjoy, and that makes us frustrated. What are some bad responses to this feeling?
- We can externalize our locus of control and blame our situation on Blizzard and their game design decisions.
- We can choose a negative outlook and dwell on how our next ladder game probably won’t be “real StarCraft” either because we’re playing a “dead game”.
- We can vent and exaggerate our negative emotions by lashing out at people with a “Protoss” flair on Reddit.
The important thing to realize is that while none of these responses gets us closer to our goal of winning, they are all remarkably easy to choose. They appeal to our basest instincts and provide an illusion of making us feel better. Many people lack sufficient self-awareness to realize when they’re tilting hard and need to deal with that before doing something else. And even the most mentally strong have moments of weakness.
Why is this important? Because in a competitive real time strategy game like StarCraft, the skill ceiling is unreachable. Every player can always substantially improve. Every moment that they waste writing up an angry Battle.net post is a moment that they didn’t spend practicing. Sitting down to play a few ladder games and stopping after fifteen minutes due to frustration with the game’s design is a lot of lost time – multiply this by days or weeks or even years and the effect on a player’s skill level is devastating.
This is one of the reasons working on our mindset is so important. If we can get to a place where we can handle difficult situations without feeling frustrated or tilted – or at least process these emotions faster than other players – we earn ourselves many additional hours of practice time relative to our competitors. We’re less likely to burn out and more likely to know what we need mentally to keep trucking along.
To use another example, let’s say we’re playing a nail-biter of a TvZ. Our opponent’s been complaining that Terran is too strong all game long. Right as we think we’ve clinched it, we miscontrol our bio forces – we trade horribly against a group of banelings and effectively throw the game. Our opponent mocks us for our mistake as we leave the game.
What we need to do is work on our army control. Anyone trying to compete seriously will eventually do this – the only question is when. It could be soon, where we take a quick break from a tough game, reset ourselves mentally and then get back into it. Or it could be awhile, as we trade insults with our opponent, rage at Blizzard for the micromanagement burden of playing bio, and consider quitting this “dead game”. It could be hours or even days until we start to feel better and focus on what we need to do.
From my perspective, this is one of the clearest advantages of the Korean practice environment. The ability to pluck young people from their homes and place them in a strong training environment at a very early age prevents bad habits from sinking in. Working hard at StarCraft becomes a way of life rather than a decision that needs to be made consciously. There’s no conflict of wills with a voice in your head telling you to rant on a public forum or assume balance problems are the source of your career woes – the thought occurs to you, a coach slaps it down, and you move on.
How Correct Is Our Choice?
Choosing optimally is better than just choosing well. Mindset determines how likely we are to choose optimally, assuming that we know what the optimal choice is.
For instance, as noted previously, effectively defending a cheese means a tailored, specific response. Small changes to a standard macro build order are rarely enough to beat something like a cannon rush. Learning the right response efficiently means intentional practice, ideally with a partner who can execute the strategy against us over and over.
But that’s not easy, is it? Finding a partner might mean reaching out to others on public forums or joining a StarCraft community in order to build contacts. What if the person we practice with turns out to be a jerk? And even if we avoid that, asking someone to help us also obligates us to help them out in the future, which might be inconvenient. Wouldn’t it be easier to just practice the theoretical counter-build against the AI a couple times and keep queuing on the ladder, hoping we see the strategy enough times?
Learning build orders is another good example in and of itself. Copying and learning a professional build order might take thirty of forty minutes, but it’ll save endless frustration and lost practice hours of losing due to inefficient builds that deliver key units or technology seconds too late. Yet players are so unwilling to do this crucial work that an entire in-game UI was built to make it easier for them.
Here we can see the difference between hard work and necessary work. It’s often easier to sink hours of time into something familiar than it is to do something that’s uncomfortable, even if it’s technically easier. What’s required of us is not hard in physical terms, but in mental terms – we need to grow as people and become more comfortable doing something that’s outside of our comfort zone.
In fairness, when it comes to real time strategy games I think this concept might be too abstract for some people. The truth is, making sure you’re doing the right thing in addition to just working hard is largely the purview of high levels of play. What most lower-tier players need is really just more practice time on the ladder – i.e. “classic” hard work.
Perhaps a better way of illustrating this idea of necessary vs. hard work is language learning. Like real time strategy, developing high skill in a second language requires a large time commitment of grinding out the hours – learning vocabulary, absorbing new grammatical forms, practicing pronunciation, etc.
However, there’s a lot of things a prospective bilingual student can’t get from a textbook. The spoken form of many languages is more informal than the written form. Spoken language also includes lots of slang, idioms and metaphors that students may not come across in their learning materials. Finally, understanding tone and developing social skills in a new culture is something that can’t be obtained from a textbook at all.
Learning this stuff requires a completely different set of skills than studying something in a class. It requires the learner to be comfortable embarrassing themselves in front of strangers and asking dumb questions. No matter your skill level, the range of vocabulary and phrasing in the real world will always be more varied than the pre-arranged content found in textbooks – without the right mindset, practicing a new language out in public can deliver crushing blows to your confidence.
There was once a time when I could use Mandarin to have reasonable conversations about technology or economics, yet have no idea how to tell a taxi driver to go straight. It took me a lot of time and reflection to realize that it was a mindset rather than work ethic issue – I just needed to become more comfortable not knowing how to say things and asking people. After a shift in perspective, it wasn’t long before my speaking, reading, and writing levels were all on par with each other.
My point here is that for many of us, sometimes working hard is a lot easier than doing what’s necessary because it’s familiar and more comfortable. If we really want to achieve our goals, the real hard work that we need to do is in changing our mindset – otherwise, we’ll be left choosing good choices instead of the best choices.
“If your best friend were to ask how she could live a better life, you would probably find many useful things to say, and yet you might not live that way yourself. On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice.” – Sam Harris, Waking Up
Mindset has a huge impact on whether we make good decisions, how quickly we make them and how optimal those choices end up being. As a result, I would reframe our relationship between work-and-results to view both items as results of good mindset.
Here we run into the same problem we had before, where viewing mindset as a cause subtly implies that it can be changed spontaneously. The truth is that mindset work – sometimes referred to by names like character development, leadership development, personal development, and so on – can itself be very hard and time-consuming.
To finish our case study of cheesing, quickly choosing the optimal response to dirty all-ins requires different work for different people. Those who view it as a less honorable or less “real” approach to the game need to re-assess how they think about strategy games. Those who don’t want to learn new build orders need to address their narrow mindedness and avoidance of new skills. And so on and so on.
Let’s think about another example – imagine our goal was to win the GSL. What are some mindset roadblocks that we might run into?
- Dealing with the unavoidable anger and frustration that comes from playing a highly competitive 1v1 game. Fail to handle this thoughtfully and maturely and we’ll never reach our full potential, constantly weighed down by negative emotions. In the worst case, we’ll burn out and quit the game completely.
- Dodging the mindset of comparison, so worried about our peers that we lose focus on ourselves. Get our priorities straight early, or else our schedule – how much we practice, whether we take breaks, and so on – will become tied to other people’s needs instead of our own, preventing us from maximizing our own abilities.
- Effectively internalizing our locus of control, realizing that while we probably have strong opinions on game or balance design, thinking about such things and blaming Blizzard for our circumstances does nothing to help us.
These are just examples – anyone who’s played StarCraft knows that there are innumerable mental obstacles standing between them and their goals.
Personally, this is why I find ByuN’s wins at the GSL and Blizzcon so extraordinary. It’s not the practice time or work ethic that’s impressive – plenty of people work very hard. What most haven’t done is endure the psychological pressure of endlessly practicing one of the most mentally demanding activities in the world, day in and day out for years without any meaningful payoff until the very end – alone. It’s a truly amazing mental feat and honestly something that everyone can learn something from, even if they don’t play StarCraft.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook to receive regular content updates, or checking out my game-design focused YouTube and Twitch channels. All the best and see you next time.
P.S. As part of my research for another project, I discovered this interview with paszaBiceps, a professional Counter-Strike player. It provides excellent insight into an esports professional’s mindset. I recommend it.
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Love this so much. Especially how much of this applies to real life. There are entire paragraphs here that can be taken out and applied to a whole range of situations. Ha, I’ve got a coworker that could really benefit from learning how to tend to his mindset.
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This is really great and really insightful. I love how so many of your points can be applied to other things outside of starcraft. Mindset, or self-awareness, is such a vital skill for improving in anything. I’ve always felt like it was closely related to humility, or being able to accept your own faults and errors.
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