Skill acquisition is important for gamers, both in real life and in video games. This article contains techniques for learning skills more efficiently. Some of these techniques can also be applied to learning skills in games. By using these techniques, you’ll learn skills faster and have more time to unwind by playing games. I’ve included a bullet-point summary of the main takeaways at the end of the article.

Ah shit, I have three assignments due next week. I’m too stressed to start work, but if I play something to relax, then the deadlines are just getting closer.

When you’re trying to learn new skills as a gamer you’re faced with difficult choices. Do I unwind by playing games, or do I push through the stress to study? If you take a break to play games, you’re often left feeling guilty, your deadlines creep closer, and your work is no more complete. On the other hand, if you force yourself to study you’re prone to burning out and wasting time producing low quality work.

These decisions are difficult to make, and sometimes it’s not clear what the correct call is. While I’ve previously made the case that you might be able to reduce future instances of procrastination by playing video games, a key shortcoming of that approach is that doing two things takes a lot more time than doing one thing. To do both, you need strategies for learning and working efficiently. In this article, I’m focusing on the learning part. 

Before we get into it, my name is Dr. Cody Phillips – I have a Ph.D. in Computer-Human Interaction and I’m an academic games user researcher. My research looks at the intersection of motivation and wellbeing, and how games can impact the people that play them. In general, I believe that games can be a great source for personal development, but if you’re anything like me games can sometimes feel like an obstacle to achieving your goals. I launched Self-Respec to empower gamers to make make positive changes in their lives.

It’s Okay That You Suck

When it comes to learning new skills, the research shows that mindset matters. Reflect on a time in your life that you felt incompetent and you’ll quickly realize that it can be shattering for your self-esteem and your mental wellbeing. We’re social animals, and we’re innately concerned about our status in the herd. Being perceived as incompetent can make us feel like irredeemable trash, and the fear of that feeling prevents a lot of people from taking action. This mindset is not a great place to be.

Fortunately, you can shift your mindset and turn your relative lack of incompetence into a force for progress. When you approach things from a growth mindset, sucking at something just means that you’ve got lots of room to get better. If you internalize that mindset and push through the initial feelings of incompetence, as you learn you’ll get a bunch of small wins along the way, and they will fuel your continued progress. You kickstart a positive feedback loop that pushes you forward until you eventually plateau. And you will plateau – but you’ll be a hell of a lot further than wherever you are now.

Sidenote: to overcome such a plateau, you need to build resilience – an article about that coming soon™ – in the meantime check out work by Dr. Jane McGonigal or her related TED talk

One of the key behaviours that people with this sort of growth mindset do, is to engage in deliberate practice.

Deliberate Practice

The concept of deliberate practice isn’t revolutionary, but it’s important to understand – especially in the context of games. For most people, skill development in games is incidental, we’re often not deliberately practicing, we’re just playing. If you’re familiar with competitive games like League of Legends, you’ll know that there are many Bronze tier players who play for hours every single day, but just can’t seem to ‘Break Bronze’ and escape from ‘Elo hell’. Statistically, there’s a decent chance that you’re one of them. People stuck in low tiers will come up with all sorts of justifications for their low placement – but what most people won’t blame, is a lack of practice. 

To a degree the Bronzies are right. Despite the popular “10,000 hour rule” (which is a bastardization of nuanced research, and was never meant to be a ‘rule’), deliberate practice will not allow you to become a master of anything. Recent studies into deliberate practice have found that time spent deliberately practicing accounts for just 15-20% of a professional athlete’s performance. Practice may not make perfect, but it still makes you better than you are today. It’s not a coincidence that every professional athlete engages in some form of deliberate practice.  

My girlfriend, Dr. Madison Klarkowski, is an esports researcher, and through her and my friends, I have come to know a reasonable amount of professional esports players and coaches. To the untrained observer, there’s no difference between them ‘playing’ and them ‘practicing’, but under the hood there’s a shift in perspective. They’ll scrim, they’ll run strategy drills, they’ll spend whole rounds playing with a certain gun even though it gives them a clear disadvantage, and they’ll set up situations that are less focused on winning, and more focused on personal development. If I were a betting man, I’d wager a lot of cash that there’s a statistically significant relationship between the number of custom games that a person creates and their in-game rank – entirely mediated by their willingness to engage in deliberate practice.

The studies on deliberate practice are pretty clear. Practice won’t make perfect. But for most people, whether it be gaining skill in League of Legends, programming, or playing guitar, deliberate practice will be the differentiator between sucking at something and being sorta okay at something. While you can certainly learn through play, you should also try to set aside time for deliberate practice. The faster you can learn new skills, the better.

The Importance of Taking Breaks While Practicing

Okay, so practice is important for skill development. That’s not exactly a mind-blowing revelation. So let’s get into some actionable tips:

A lot of what most people know about practice is wrong. For example, people generally believe that to maximise a practice session’s benefits you should practice continually for however long you have. Academics love naming things, and we call this concept ‘continuous practice’ (also sometimes called ‘massed practice’). These terms were popularized in sports psychology, where the literature determined that continuous practice is suboptimal. For a while, people believed the diminishing returns associated with continuous practice arose from the physical stress of exercise. However, more recent research has found that the diminishing returns of continuous practice have also been demonstrated in less athletic areas, and even in video games.

Okay, so practicing continuously gives you diminishing results. Great. That still means that the more time you put in, the more benefit you get, right? Interestingly, that’s not the case. There’s another concept, called ‘spaced practice’, which refers to taking breaks between practice sessions. When you’re engaged in spaced practice, you learn at a faster rate than if you’d continuously practiced. So, taking breaks is actually more efficient when trying to learn new skills than just grinding away at it all day.

In 2019, a colleague at my lab, Colby Johanson, led a study using a clone of Super Hexagon. Here’s a quote from Colby’s paper:

We found that spaced practice led to significant gains in performance, particularly for novices. This result shows that players can achieve an immediate improvement in skill development, simply by scheduling short breaks in their play session; designers can also make use of this result by building rest periods into the structure of their games. Our study also indicated that breaks are valuable both in the short and the longer term – in a retention test after one day, all of the groups performed similarly, suggesting that even if a player does not use spaced practice initially, taking a break after the play session can still lead to improvements.

So, if there’s a skill that you want to learn – give spaced practice a try. While you’re deliberately practicing, consider setting a Pomodoro timer and use your breaks to play five minutes of a game. That way you’ll get mood repair benefits at the same time that you’re getting spaced practice benefits. If you’re trying to learn skills in a game, I recommend using your breaks to get up and clean your room. 

Main Takeaways

  • Learning efficiently gives you more time to unwind
  • Skills are skills, whether they’re in-game skills or real-life skills
  • We can learn skills faster by applying skill development theories
  • Sucking at something is okay, especially if you’re trying to get better
  • Becoming a master isn’t the goal, improvement is
  • Deliberate practice of specific skills is important 
  • Taking breaks while practicing lets you learn faster
  • The above effect is called ‘spaced practice’
  • For best results, give yourself short breaks during deliberate practice sessions

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