Not Just a Video Game: Lessons Learned from Starcraft

Wrote this a few years ago, still relevant.

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April 2014

Starcraft is known for being one of the most cognitively demanding and stressful video games out there. As a real time strategy multiplayer game, it requires impeccable execution of build orders and ninja-like reflexes for reacting to the opponent’s tactics. It’s because of the multiple layers of complexity of the game that I find it worth investing in; watching oneself being able to split marines successfully and proceeding to secure a victory is rewarding in ways that a non-player cannot possibly comprehend. That being said, there are more general lessons that I’ve realized from playing Starcraft over the last nine months that went far beyond what I’d expected to encounter in a video game.

Planning is No Substitute for Thinking or Reacting

When I started out in bronze league, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I think what got me out of bronze was learning a cloaked banshee build order, but I didn’t know what to transition into after making a banshee. So I stayed in silver. After battling silvers for ages, a forums chatter who is now my friend showed me a macro-oriented build order (1 rax fast expand), which I worshipped and memorized down to the exact supply number. This build order gave me a sense of consistency and dependability; knowing that I could control exactly how many units I could make at an exact time with certain upgrades was certainly comforting. I adhered to this build order and moved up into gold, but still lost a good portion of my games. I rarely watched my replays, instead, I obsessed over perfecting my build order against each matchup, and blamed my losses on deviating from the ~*~*~PERFECT BUILD ORDER~*~*~.

Doing this, of course, blatantly ignores the “strategy” aspect of the real time strategy game. This fact may seem obvious. Perhaps it’s that I’ve always been a planner. I depended on planning because of circumstances in high school that made me obsessed with time management. At one point, in order to feel assured that I had enough time to study for my biology and chemistry IB exams, I devised a detailed 2-month study schedule down to the exact sub-category of each subject on each day. In the end, this was enough for me to scrape decent/passing grades in those subjects, but the stress that was associated with blindly following a plan and not focusing on the main task at hand meant that that was probably not the best way to go about it. Since I was so preoccupied with whether or not I was strictly adhering to the divine plan, there was less energy left for focusing on absorbing the material I was supposed to be studying. Granted, I was also incredibly stressed out and doubting whether or not I could handle the exams, so there was also the factor of self-doubt. Jesus, I was just a mess of anxiety and stress. I’m certain that if I had worried less about the timeline of studying and concentrated more on taking in the material itself, I would have exerted much less energy and directed said energy towards efficient studying, with minimal stress and better outcomes. The same idea can be applied to Starcraft. Instead of relying so heavily on a build order, and freaking out that you’re two supply off where you’re supposed to be, it is far more important to focus on other, SPECIFIC aspects of that game, such as whether your opponent is attacking you or macroing, what plan of attack would be best suited for this map, where your opponent’s army is at the moment, etc. Sure, having a plan as a backbone for the game, under ideal circumstances, is important. But for a strategy game, being able to react and adapt is far more important to securing a victory. This applies to real life as well. If you’re really set on getting an A in a class, you can plan to study exactly 2 hours every day from 5:30pm to 7:30pm. Or, you can put in the amount of effort that you think is necessary based on how challenging you find each topic presented, and use excess time for absolutely anything else in your life. Whoa, extra time? Is that allowed? I thought you had to experience pain in order to achieve anything. Sure, but it doesn’t have to be a painful process when unnecessary. In fact, if you really focus on trying to enjoy the learning process, hardly any pain has to be involved at all. There will inevitably be pain when you fail though, but we’ll get to that later.

It Forces You to Look at the Bigger Picture

As I’ve made it quite clear by now, planning is important but it is one small piece of the large puzzle that is the game of Starcraft. The only factor that contributes to your skill level, and hence your “league” determination of a game is whether or not you win. Now, win/loss status is one singular representation of a game that requires multiple skills and even luck. The key to maintaining a good win: loss ratio is to be able to possess each and every one of these skills, and even then, luck may throw off the occasional game or two. Once again, these skills include multitasking (being able to micro and macro constantly), trying to know exactly what your opponent is doing and where he is, reacting well (countering his army composition, defending an attack), dexterity (APM, or actions per minute, is usually in the hundreds for high-level players) and even the correct mindset. It takes almost all of these skills for a player to be focused, and by that I mean you take into account each factor of the game and determine which one in particular is the most important to work on for you to win that particular game.

If you just fast expanded and discovered that your opponent is going four gate (an early game attack), then your priority should be to throw down a shit-ton of bunkers, fast. Don’t get engineering bays for upgrades, don’t keep going with your build order. Get units out and prepare to defend at any moment. As obvious as it sounds, I had trouble doing just this for the longest time, hence being stuck in gold league for months. Decision-making may not be as easy in other cases, especially when you’re not entirely sure what your opponent is doing or thinking. There will always be a degree of uncertainty, despite extensive scouting efforts. This uncertainty and the necessity for multitasking is just what makes Starcraft so difficult. In order to win games, an incredible ability to focus is critical. You need to mentally make a list of everything you need to do, and rank them in order of importance, and this list is fluid at every passing moment in accordance to the progression of the game. In one instant, your focus is to macro and lay down the basic infrastructure for production. The next, a dropship unloads in your main mineral line and your priority is to save your SCVs and kill the medivac. If you’re too far behind from the attack, you may have to make the risky decision of going for an all-in counter attack. Whatever the decision, every one of them is made with the ultimate objective of winning. “How can I possibly win this game in this situation?” is what you’re constantly asking yourself at every moment.

While there is no universal end objective of life overall, unlike how in a game of Starcraft all you need to do is win, individual situations in life require focus in order for one to succeed. Because I’m a nerd and my life is fucking boring, I can only think of school-related examples. If you need passing grades, and you’ve got a month to study for five finals, it’s crucial to make yourself aware of the key ideas in each curricula. Sure, you got 100% on that one limits quiz. But if you can’t do derivatives for shit, then don’t expect to pass calculus. It’s akin to nailing your build order for the first ten minutes. But if you can’t micro your units, how can you WIN this game? How are you going to WIN at calculus if you can’t derive functions? In real life, rarely will you find yourself with unlimited time to do anything. By ensuring that you have in mind the fundamental bits of information and a strategy for overcoming the main obstacles, it will be much easier, if not, possible, to achieve a certain end.

Opportunism is Key to Success

This goes back to the idea of not depending too much on a plan and being receptive to external influences. Perhaps this is more so in Starcraft, perhaps not, but opportunism is VITAL to winning. Starcraft is a very responsive game. You respond to your opponent, and he responds to you. If you are dropping units into his mineral line and his army is nowhere to be seen, you stay and kill as many workers as possible before retreating. Why the HELL would you leave if a)he’s not attacking your base and b)his army is far away? Staying in his base and destroying as many structures and/ or units as possible in the time it takes for him to makes his way back could be the difference between you winning and losing. You can PLAN to do whatever you want, but you can never plan what your opponent does or where he is. Thus, in order to win any game of Starcraft, you have to constantly be responding to your opponent’s strategy and positioning. Similarly, in real life, you can sketch out your entire life, your career, your long-term plans, your ideal mate, or even your daily schedule but all that means jack shit unless you can comply with the real world’s standards and your own circumstances in order to achieve any of it. As much as we’re wrapped up in our own worlds, we heavily depend on and serve others every day by performing our highly specialized jobs because modern society functions this way. And in order to reap the benefits of what the external world throws at us, we must be receptive to opportunities that open up. This could be as simple as hoarding free granola bars given away by Prep101 in order to win at the not-starving-to-death-college-student game or as important as choosing an apartment that’s $200 cheaper a month than the original one you had your heart set on. (If you’re noticing a trend with these real-life examples, give me a break, I’m Asian.)

Nobody’s Going to Be There to Save Your Ass When it Matters

In the online multiplayer mode of Starcraft, you have the option of going 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4. It’s common knowledge that 1v1 is by far the most stressful and requires the most focus, because one person alone is responsible for winning a game, whereas for team games, allies can help pick up your slack if necessary. In my experience, however, teammates having to lend a hand to incompetent teammates (usually me) tends not to result in successful games. The only difference between 1v1 and 2v2 in reality is, believe it or not, that there are two extra people in 2v2. You still have to make the same structures and units. Sure, your tactics might change a bit, but it’s not as if the units and buildings are suddenly easier to make. You still have to be on top of your macro, micro, decision-making, scouting, etc. Two people having to do this on a team does not mean that there is less work for either of them. Two people on a team are still making the same amount of mistakes they would in a 1v1 game, because in Starcraft, you can never play perfectly. If a player is so wrapped up in trying to keep on top of his own production, how can he be expected to help guide his partner who apparently can’t figure out how to place down more than one barracks? I’m not saying that teamwork is impossible because everyone works best alone. Not by far. I’m saying that in order for a team to be successful, or at the very least, to play better than two players would individually, then there’s a minimal threshold of competence that all team members should meet. If two players on a team both can handle the basics of Starcraft in terms of multitasking and being able to apply all the necessary skills, then there is no reason to doubt that their efforts will complement one another and the team is stronger than the individual players.

It’s crucial for a player to be able to play 1v1 at a basic skill level in order for him to play team games at a high level. For example, hypothetically speaking, you can only ever make SCVs and expand for some reason. You send all your resources to your teammate, who is expected to make army units. What if your teammate doesn’t want to spend your minerals for you? You’re both fucked. What if your teammate can’t macro either? You’re both fucked. Maybe every once in a while you’ll be matched up with a complying teammate who can, in fact, macro. Then you can work something out. The point is, if you can’t win 1v1’s by only making SCVs, you’re depending a hell of a lot on chance that your teammate can save you. Think I’m going too far? Put it this way: if you’re always counting on others to fulfill a certain, important role, then you’re effectively rendering yourself useless as long as that role is unfulfilled. And that’s fine, if you’re fine with being temporarily handicapped until external, uncontrollable circumstances happen to make everything fall in order for you. Additionally, presenting yourself as a burden to others isn’t exactly fair for the teammate who has to pick up the slack. They might not want to play with you in the long term, because maybe in their mind, you can learn to make your own goddamn barracks.

I used to depend quite a lot on my smart classmates back in high school, especially in chemistry labs because those things were confusing as fuck and I really needed a good mark. My lab partner was incredibly smart so I just assumed everything she did was right, not really bothering to figure out how the chemistry worked by myself. When I got stuck doing the lab write-up, I would text her and await restlessly for her reply, not even considering looking up the information myself in a textbook or giving Google a search. I’m amazed she put up with my irritating presence for so long, because I sure as hell wouldn’t have. Of course, some might not think autonomy is so important because there are always people there to help them out, whether this is Starcraft or real life. What if your friend on whom you depend unexpectedly decides to leave town for a week? Well damn, guess you’ll have to twiddle your thumbs until he’s back. If you’re fine with putting a certain activity or task on hold until your savoir is back, because maybe he has this thing called his own life, then there’s no problem with excessively relying on others.

 

When it All Goes to Hell, You Just Have to Laugh About it

Few things hurt my ego more than losing at Starcraft. Sometimes I think I’m masochistic because I invest so much time into this game but one losing streak is all it takes to deplete all the self esteem I have at a given moment. In fact, the stress caused by playing Starcraft is the reason why so many quit despite hundreds or thousands of games played. Indeed, it is soul-crushing to watch everything you’ve worked so hard to perfect pillaged and destroyed before your eyes, having to “gg” because your skills seem to have proven worthless and so too have you. Determined, you watch the replay and see that your opponent was a total idiot, and despite the million mistakes he made, you were somehow an even bigger idiot. It’s completely natural, even expected, to feel like shit at this point. You tried your best and it wasn’t even good enough against an awful opponent. Then you start doubting your skills or even your own capability as a person to function in other aspects of life.

There’s no way around facing failure and the shitty feeling it brings. Failure is a necessary hurdle to overcome in order to learn any new skill set. Not only do you have to be persistent, but you have to be resilient to failure, and accept it as an inevitability in order to improve at Starcraft. Everyone goes through a learning curve when trying out Starcraft because it takes time to learn the intricacies of each race and the current meta-game. Sure, some may be faster learners and some slower. However, everyone will lose a lot of games in the beginning and throughout your gaming experience. Starting out, it may seem impossible to ever get out of bronze league. Slowly you improve over time and maybe get promoted to gold league, and feel great about it. Then you keep having losing streaks, and you might even be tempted to quit the game because of the mental distress associated with being utterly, hopelessly steamrolled by opponent after opponent. Losing is inevitable, losing streaks are inevitable, and these inevitabilities are prevalent in every single league and are faced by every player at some point.

Ways of dealing with failure varies from person to person. In general, I take a small break from the game when I have a losing streak and try again another day, starting by watching my replays from the losing streak. A lot of the times it has to do with mentality. Losing many games can affect confidence, and thus concentration, the utmost importance of which I have already stressed in order to play well. Some take a lighthearted approach to losing. A friend of mine once said “you have to be able to laugh at your entire army disappearing so quickly”. I’ll admit he’s a bit mental but hey, if it works it works. The point is despite that Starcraft is about winning individual games around fourteen minutes in length, there IS a bigger picture. It’s a real long-term commitment, learning to play such a complex and temporally demanding game. If a person doesn’t have a good reason not to, it’s easy to quit when the game seems impossibly hard and the losing streak never seems to end. After countless hours of micro training, watching pro players, following build orders, and still not improving much, it’s easy to quit. After playing for days, months and even years, and still being stuck in a league with little progress, it’s easy to give up because God knows you have better things to do with your time than to get better at a video game. And maybe you do. Alternatively, those who do have a reason to keep playing, whatever that might be, are forced to accept failure and defeat countless times before they notice, miraculously, that they’re improving. Everyone’s learning curve is slightly different, but only those who keep going will have one at all.

For those who play a musical instrument, unless you’re some sort of musical prodigy, you probably remember how many cacophonic noises you’ve produced before managing to play a song properly. It takes real determination to keep practicing despite the multiple hits to your ego every time you play a wrong note. Numerous others would call it a hopeless case after that much damage to their self-esteem, because they truly believe they are incapable when it comes to reproducing a melody. Just as how you can’t merely play one game of Starcraft without learning to play the game from a comprehensive level, you can’t merely play Fur Elise without knowing how to move your fingers on piano keys. In both cases, you’re heavily investing efforts into learning a skill set that will enable you to do something pleasurable or useful in relatively short performances. Learning new skills is not easy, and anyone who says it is is just feeding you sugar-coated bullshit. Learning requires failure, which is painful. People have different reasons for wanting to be good at Starcraft. Dedicating time and effort into playing Starcraft is a subjective choice and whatever your reason for playing is, it’s probably different from that of the next guy. In the end, you may have won countless games but winning games doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Why do you win games? Does it make you happy? Do you enjoy getting better at playing Starcraft? Similarly, you can’t just “win” at life. You can, however, become a better player.