Get Good – How to Use Neuroscience to Become a Better Gamer

By on November 10, 2021

Whether you’re a casual fan or a competitive gamer, playing computer games is a fantastic way to hone your reflexes and focus. Gaming requires hand-eye coordination, concentration, rapid learning, and keen awareness. Moreover, picking up each new game requires you to learn an entirely new set of rules and controls! This is an easy and fun way to become a “life-long” learner. As a means to prevent cognitive decline, and potentially even enhance performance in other tasks, the value of gaming should not be understated.

Git good

By the same token, however, this also means that the right understanding of neuroscience can enhance gaming performance. Just as an athlete can improve their game by learning how to train their body, a gamer can get more out of their grey matter by understanding its inner workings.

For a competitive gamer, this could be the difference between a big win or a badge for participation. For casual gamers, it could just mean beating that impossible boss and getting to progress in a game you’re enjoying. I’ve been playing a lot of Cyber Shadow lately, which has brought this into stark relief!

Even if you aren’t interested in games, the principles we’re going to discuss can be applied to a wide range of different activities. This is how you can use neuroscience to be a better gamer, and thus a better learner.

Cyber Shadow

Grease the Groove

Greasing the groove is a term used by trainer Pavel Tsatsouline to describe the practice of repeating movements regularly throughout the day. This is to reinforce the relevant neural pathways, such that we can access them more quickly in future.

Pavel argues that movements like the pull up are as much a skill as they are a demonstration of strength. So, rather than training with pull ups to failure with the goal of hypertrophy; you can instead train frequently but less intensively so as to practice the process of engaging the right motor units and muscles at the right time.

In other words: practice makes perfect.

See also: Greasing the Groove – Batman Skills Training

This is especially true when it comes to computer games, which are all about muscle-memory and quick reactions to established cues.

So, how do you apply this? The answer is to grind. Practice all the skills you need for that game and do so repeatedly! If your character has a parry, actively seek out enemies to get the timing just right. Expose yourself to danger and get as close to enemy fire as you can, so as to perfectly learn your character’s “hit box” (the sensitive area of the character model/sprite that registers as a hit). Take out weaker enemies using attacks that involve more technical button combinations. In short: create learning opportunities and repeat.

Mekadragon

In short, you want to get past the “cognitive” phase of learning, as described by the Process of Learning Motor Skills theory. Here, you’re still actively thinking about what you’re doing. Instead, you want to get to the “autonomous” phase, where your muscle memory handles everything for you. Even beyond this point though, you can continue to hone your skills simply by putting in more time.

Spaced Learning

With that said, there is a limit as to how much time you can put into your training before you’ll see diminishing returns. The aim is not to burn yourself out, which will take you out of that sweet-sport of learning. Doing so may even cause “synaptic depression” and make it harder for you to access the skills you need!

Instead, take frequent breaks. In fact, it is much better to divide a two hour training session up into four 30 minute sessions spread throughout the day. This approach is sometimes referred to as “spaced learning” and has been shown to improve recall and retention in those studying for exams (study).

See also: What is Spaced Learning – Learn Anything Faster!

The reason that spaced learning works, is it essentially allows you to “start from cold.” Each time you stop training, you enjoy a cool off period as those relevant pathways remain excitable. At the same time, you will be able to rehearse the process of “starting from cold” which requires more effort.

Sleep and Nutrition

Like bodybuilding, learning is biphasic. A lot of the organization and cementing of memories will take place long after your training, once you’re in bed. It is crucial to get proper sleep if you want to optimize learning. The same goes for nutrition, which can not only enhance your sleep, but even increase your neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to change shape and adapt to training. Much of this is dependent on the availability of neurotransmitters, many of which are synthesized from ingredients in our diet.

See also: Neuroplasticity – An In-Depth Guide to Improving It

Metroid Dread

Competitive gamers know the importance of maintaining general health. If you aren’t eating right, sleeping right, or getting any exercise, you will struggle to perform your best.

Focus

Focus is absolutely key for plasticity and learning and will lead to an immediate improvement in performance. While we might think we are capable of speaking on the phone while driving, for example, the research clearly shows that this greatly enhances the likelihood of accidents.

By the same token, you will improve your gaming skills best if you wear noise cancelling headphones, forget about the worries of the day, and just focus up.

Focus

Flow

The ultimate expression of focus is what is known as a “flow state.” In a flow state, you are optimally focussed on a single task, to the point that time almost seems to dilate as you forget all other things.

Focussing by removing distractions will help this to an extent. Unfortunately, it can still be quite tricky to really focus in on what you’re doing and to lose all distractions. Our minds just love to wander!

The good news is that games designers have struggled with the same problem. Their entire goal is to ensure that you remain wired in – that their games remain “intrinsically motivating.” One of the key ways they do this, is by tuning the game to the optimal difficulty. Ideally, you want the game to be hard enough to be challenging (and thus engaging) but not so hard as to be disheartening. This keeps you in that sweet spot where you’re still learning.

Huntdown game

So, what do you do when you hit a boss or an obstacle that you just can’t surmount? Simple: you go back to a slightly earlier point in the game (perhaps the previous level) and complete it again. The games designers clearly intended for that previous experience to be enough to train you reflexes and understanding ready for the next challenge. If that happens not to be the case, you may just need another go around before you adapt and overcome.

For a competitive gamer, conversely, this might mean seeking out easier (or tougher) opponents to go up against.

Train Your Fundamentals

The best way to get better at a specific game is to play that game a lot. This is the “SAID principle,” that’s: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. It means that you get better at the things you do the most.

But you can also train the underlying traits and attributes that “fuel” those specific skills. For example, a basketball player needs to get better at basketball, but they also need to train running, jumping, and cutting. More fundamentally, that means training their explosiveness and leg strength in the gym.

See also: Introducing the ATSP Hierarchy – Training for Anything & Everything

You can do the same as a gamer by training your visual attention, working memory, and concentration. I have plenty of posts on how to do this throughout this site, but a good place to start is with meditation, dual n-back training, and perhaps a spot of REAKT: Performance Trainer.

See also: How to Train Reflexes, Focus, and Decision Making

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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