One Thing A Violent Video Game Taught Me About Success
I leap over the low brick wall, 9mm Micro in hand. I can see one of my teammates is already in trouble. She is on her hands and knees by the base of the burnt-out structure ahead, bleeding out and moving in tight circles as she cries for help. Another is engaged shooting at an oncoming duo that are trying to pin him down between them and kill him. My focus is on getting to them as fast as I can which is why I don’t see the trap set for me until it is almost too late.
The characteristic staccato bark of an AK 47 is immediately followed by the heavy thud of a 7.62x39mm round hitting my shoulder but by then I am already rolling, counting on the weapon’s heavy recoil and lack of accuracy to save me from the attacker that had been lying in wait for me. I should be afraid but I am too busy planning how to get round him and use the superior rate of fire of my Micro to obliterate him and get to my team on time. It’s all happening in micro-seconds my heart is thumping in my chest and my brain is racing taking in as much as possible and running scenarios.
Everything is in the balance.
The first Uncharted came out in 2007 for Playstation 3 and I got it that Christmas. I have been upgrading Playstations and Uncharted versions ever since which gives you an intimation of how hooked I am. Because I whiz through the game so I can get to the online multiplayer version I have, by my estimation, logged in well beyond the needed 10,000 hours to get me to a pretty proficient level of gameplay.
This is not where I am currently at or at least I wasn’t a few months back when this whole thing started. That’s a fact that must surely make Gladwell’s detractors happy. But this isn’t all there is to this. While I’ve been playing the game in each of its iterations since 2007 it’s only since the end of April 2018, while experimenting with a 58-hour fast that I discovered that there were Community stats that tell you how you are doing as you play in Multiplayer mode. During that particular weekend I had a lot more time on my hands than usual and the inclination to sit still browsing static screens was actually appealing.
In retrospect I realized that my game success rate has been relatively steady since the very early days I started to play. In each five-member team make up I hover on the last or second-to-last slot. The stats told me that I hovered around the 45% mark which meant that I am part of a team that losses, on average, six out of every 10 games we play. It doesn’t matter much that the team is different each time. Team dynamics transform each team, in each game, into a seamless entity and while a really strong player or a really smart team can, at times, make up for the deficiency of a player whose mind is not really in the game, this is the exception rather than the rule. This means that I had to face the harsh truth that my gameplay, most times, doomed my team to be on the losing side.
This is where it gets educational and while the lessons I learnt sort of cascaded from a relatively small change I made, I have detailed them all here.
Team Dynamics Require Responsive Players
To understand the impact a single unfocused player can have on team performance we need to consider what that player represents to the team. In a game like Uncharted a player provides firepower (you have a weapon), he or she moves things towards the end goal (winning the deathmatch by killing more of the other team than the times he has been killed), helps to increase the chances of success (by temporarily taking opposing team members out of play and reducing opposing team size) and helps maintain team operational capabilities (by healing downed players and providing cover when needed). All of this requires critical decision making. It is so finely balanced that one bad decision can put a team behind by two-three points creating a gap from which it never recovers.
Decision-making, as it turns out, requires not just an understanding of the situation (I know the game really well by now) but also an awareness of the larger picture (the score, the other team’s behavior, the terrain and what it can afford and the type of weapons the other side is fielding). Military planners call this situational intelligence and consider it indispensable to taking proper action in a battlefield situation.
I play (or rather I used to play) to escape. If there is something that’s mentally bugging me I tend to play in Uncharted (sorry past teammates) to give my brain time to work it out. And, ironically, Uncharted was my go-to game of preference for de-stressing and deep thinking while I wrote The Sniper Mind. I say it’s ironic because one of the concepts behind The Sniper Mind is the interoperability of the brain’s learning that allows it to transfer skills developed in, let’s say, a digital environment to a non-digital one and vice versa.
“The process of playing the game had been enough for me and that’s what I had focused on.”
The realization that I was so bad in the game despite all the hours I’d spent playing it made want to see if I could raise my personal score. It takes roughly three wins to bring up the score by 0.1% so to achieve a single percentage point improvement meant I had to play and win in thirty consecutive games. Losses would only make the climb to that one percentage point that much harder by adding to gameplay time that my busy schedule doesn’t really provide.
To make it interesting I decided to be methodical. It was April 28th when I realized my abysmal gameplay skills. By the end of that week I had decided that I would play ninety minutes a day, every day until I got to the 50% mark.
“The unspecified desire to win is not how you succeed.”
Wanting To Win Changes Nothing
By the end of by the end of May I was at 51.3% and as I am writing this, despite no longer playing as long, I am at 52.3% and about to go to the 52.4% mark.
The improvement is significant and I now know there is a neuroscientific explanation behind it which also explains the success (or failure) of the 10,000 hour rule and, by association, success and failure in life and business. Let’s be clear: the unspecified desire to win is not how you succeed.
In retrospect my knowledge of this was there before but it hadn’t helped because I simply hadn’t thought about it. The process of playing the game had been enough for me and that’s what I had focused on. The brain, in order to learn, requires a specific goal that is subject to a rules-based reductive process. This goes on in the background of our concentration and directs our attention to what we think is happening so we can actually formulate behavioral strategies and learn from it. Attention is expensive which is why the moment the brain directs it towards what it observes it changes the perceived reality of it and, using the exact same facts, delivers a different outcome.
It was not so much that I now wanted to win more than before. It was that I wanted to win each game in order to raise my personal wins score. That small, perceptual change, was a game changer. It shifted the goal that my brain focused on from something abstract (to win, in general) to something measurable (to win each game in order to raise my percentage of games won.)
The Brain Reprioritizes Resources
Playing with that mental mode on, diverting my attention to the game so I can actually notch up a win was a game changer (pun unintended). In the beginning I discovered that I played differently by not taking as many crazy chances as before. As a result I got killed fewer times (which gave the opposing team fewer points). Then I noticed that I now actually actively observed other players as I played. This was something I had not done before when my focus had been solely on me. I started to learn from them even as I was playing the game.
My gameplaying improved. Significantly. I started to creep up the score board. I made fewer mistakes, notched up more kills and on a few occasions was the key player who brought about the win when things went to the wire and we were neck and neck with the other team.
My improvement was rapid enough for me to notice exactly what I did differently and I then analyzed the difference that made. In retrospect all of this should have been obvious. The Sniper Mind details them all as specific steps to personal and business success, but because I had been using the game as a means of mental escape I hadn’t made the connection until the moment I looked at specific metrics and measured my own progress.
In no specific order here’s what changed for me that made such a difference (each of them is a lesson in itself):
- I use my tools better — Uncharted gives you a dizzying array of primary, secondary and special weapons to play with. As well as the fixed profiles you can create your own and I had over eight different combinations of weapons I flitted across, like a kid in a candy store. Worse than that I used to look at each game map that came up and try and ‘strategically’ choose a weapon set for that terrain. As a result I never became adept at any of them. This time round I settled on a single set comprised of the sniper rifle (for accuracy at any distance) and the rapid-fire Micro for all other work.
- I am familiar with the terrain — I used to look at each game map that would come up and marvel at the realism of the terrain like a tourist. Now I started to look at each one with the seasoned eyes of a strategist, mentally ticking off the other team’s weapons at the start and thinking where some of the players would position themselves. That made my own gameplay more strategic. It also prepped me for some of the other team’s behavior.
- I make better weapons choices — Because I was more familiar with the terrain of the game maps I started to pick whether I would hold my primary or secondary weapon earlier. That reduced the number of times when I would be surprised by the unexpected presence of a member of the opposite team and gave me a slight edge in personal kills.
- I make better decisions — Uncharted has the dynamics of a full battlefield. Traps may be set. Mines left all over the place. Snipers can overwatch a particular terrain. Team members may get wounded and lie in the open calling for help. The natural inclination is to rush to the aid of a stricken member and present the opposing team with an opportunity to score an easy kill. I stopped doing that. Instead I learnt to scout the area quickly, assessing the amount of health a teammate in need had left and tactically taking time to take out lurking enemies before playing nurse.
- I do not hesitate — Despite all the planning there would still be instances in the game when I’d get boxed in by two or more adversaries. The natural inclination is to try and run as it becomes really difficult to take them down. I stopped running (and dying because of it). Instead I’d empty my weapons and use up my grenades doing as much damage to them in the process. A few times I scored double and triple kills that way. More often I’d die but they’d be wounded enough to get taken out by a single shot from my own teammates. My “assisted kills” score went up.
- I stopped looking for perfect — I use the sniper rifle. A lot. I stopped looking for headshots and instead took every shot I could, whenever I could. Two things happened here: first, my headshot count went up. Second, because of the damage I could inflict my “assisted kills” count went up.
- I strategize on the fly — I used to play without a game plan. As a result I’d enjoy the game and end up running towards wherever a firefight was happening and, usually, get killed as a result. I stopped doing that. My game plan now is always depended upon the terrain, my team and what the other team members are doing. I process information faster and adjust to the situation in hand, as required.
- I take chances — Despite all my planning and strategizing sometimes chances must be taken. By launching what is an apparent suicide mission I either expose the opposing team to harm and make them vulnerable to my own team’s fire, or break up their pattern of attack or, occasionally, manage to surprise them and end up taking them out even when the odds against me are seemingly impossible.
- I don’t give up — Even when the game is seemingly lost (and sometimes we lose badly) I fight to the very end. This, I noticed, gives me extra practice and a mode of operation that delivers more wins long term, than losses.
- I remember good games — I analyze why some games are lost and some games are won and I try to learn from them. The dynamic, sometimes is hard to understand and occasionally an opposing team is just too good, gels faster than my own and gains a momentum that is hard to break even though we rally. But occasionally I see that the turning point can lie in one instance, one bad or good decision that gives us the lead and takes us to the win plus I now have a preset range of gameplay behaviors I activate at will the moment I see a scenario whose development trajectory is already familiar to me.
“Small events have large consequences.”
Articulating What I Learnt
Here’s what I learnt: Inside our head we are as subject to environment and circumstances as we are outside it. In order for us to learn things have to make sense. In order for things to make sense they need to connect so we can establish a reasonable chain of cause and effect. The world we experience however only appears continuous to us because of the mental narrative we construct. In reality our brains phase in and out to the tune of four times a second. This means that unless we actually focus our attention and do things mindfully we are unlikely to understand what is going on and we are then unlikely to be able to apply any learning strategy at all.
Small events have large consequences. All this started from my wanting to improve my gameplay score. That’s all. Yet that ‘small’ target required that I brush up on all my gameplay skills, cognitive awareness, time management and learning strategies.
It’s worth noting here that nothing changed apart from me. Opposing teams did not get any worse or any better. The teams I joined, similarly, did not on average, improve or worsen in skills. The game did not become any easier nor did the effectiveness of weapons change. What changes was my perception of what was happening, my intent when taking part in the game and my awareness of all the information that has always existed in the game environment. The reality of the game changed for me because of that and with it the outcomes I can achieve.
The psychological phenomenon of transfer tells us that what we learn in one area of our life can be transferred and applied to another. Yet neither learning nor transfer is automatic. Both require the expenditure of attention and an internalization of the processes involved so they can be assessed and quantified. In other words in order to learn and grow we need to be intentional.
This is a life lesson (a business one too, if you think about it).