Lev Vygotsky’s Secret Weapon for Winning Game Tournaments

Chef: Lev Vygotsky

As someone who regularly competes in Super Smash Brothers tournaments in New Jersey, I’ve learned that the top spots are hotly contested. For the latest game in the series — Smash 4 (2017) — a good chunk of the top 10 players in the world live in the Garden State. When you enter tournaments with the top players in attendance, you usually are happy with a top 20 spot rather than going for first place.

Sometimes your morale takes a hit. You think to yourself: “Is it even worth going to these tournaments?” or “Why do I spend money just to lose twice and get knocked out?”

Top 15 players in New Jersey for Super Smash Brothers for Wii U. Image courtesy of Twitter user FabledGG.

No matter what fighting game you play, if you were to ask its best players on how to improve, they’ll always tell you the same thing: “Keep playing.”

Understanding your own skill level and the skill level of players better than you is important if you want to improve. This especially applies to fighting games, which is one of the most competitive genres of electronic sporting.

What are you doing compared to what are the best players doing? What are you friends doing? Can you identify their skill level?

Meet Lev Vygotsky

That line of thinking is what Lev Vygotsky, a dead white Russion psychologist, built upon. He called it the Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky conducted research on children, and watched how they learn as they play. Like Jean Piaget, he discovered that play serves a key role in learning and that children often learn concepts based upon make-believe.

Lev Vygotsky’s portrait. Image source: http://jewishcurrents.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/portrait.jpg

In this article I will attempt to apply these age old Vygotsky theories to our favorite fighting game. To preface, most of my knowledge encompasses the Super Smash Bros. series however applying Vygotsky’s psychology to your game wouldn’t be very difficult at all.


So, what is this mystical, mysterious Zone of Proximal Development? Does it have to do with zoning out your opponent? Does it have to do with proxy? Developing momentum during a match? Well, probably none of those things. A quick Google search will tell you that this zone is a concept that categorizes the gap of skill between a novice and an expert. It also visually represents the skill level of a novice with the aid of an expert.

Lessons are gradually becoming more popular within the Super Smash Bros. community. Top level players offering paid lessons to people is a perfect example of the zone.

Graphic displaying the top player for Smash for Wii U, TSM Zero, offering lessons. Image courtesy of his Twitter account, TSMZero.

However, ZPD isn’t just a visual representation of this skill level gap. It’s also an essential component of another Vygotsky concept: instructional scaffolding. Instructional scaffolding refers to a learning process of which the desired outcome is a deeper level of learning. There are three vital features of this theory.

Smash for Wii U allows you to save replays of matches and watch them later. Image captured from the game in question.
  1. First is that it’s required that learning take place between someone who wishes to learn and someone who is an expert (or “more capable other”). The interaction between these two (or more) individuals is collaborative and constructive. The next time you practice with your friend, take note on what they do in the game and what you do in the game. In Smash, for example, does your friend roll a lot? Do they utilize a lot of tech skill? Do they focus on forcing your approach versus their character? What about you? How do you respond to their attacks? What is your thinking process throughout the match? Record your matches. Some fighting games support saving replays of matches, like Smash 4. Other games, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult and don’t have a built in feature to enable this. You may have to find some way to manually record matches via an external capture card device. Watch those matches with your buddy and note what you guys did. What were some other options that you had at pivotal moments? Why did you chose to do what you did at this situation? How well do you know your friend’s style and how well do you capitalize against it? Talk with each other and exchange your notes. Getting to know each other’s thought processes is super important in trying to improve your play. For example, in Smash, let’s say you always get punished for consistently jumping from the ledge, but you don’t realize it. Talking about your play with your friend can help you understand your habits and what you can do to modify those habits to benefit you, rather than hinder your play. Continue to do this every time you have a session with your friend. When you go against skilled players in tournament, ask them: “Do you have any tips for me?” Skilled players’ opinions are very insightful. Sometimes they may think of things that you’d never think of before.
  2. These insightful opinions are very resourceful, especially when we consider the second feature: the learning should take place within the learner’s Zone of Proximal Development. Going back to the zone, consider a skilled player and you. What has a skilled player done to get to where they are? Top players aren’t there because of pure talent. What have you done to get to where you are currently? Several top players in Super Smash Bros. are prominent social media content creators. It’s not uncommon for one of them to have a YouTube video about what they specifically did in order to improve. It may be discouraging to go against a top player in tournament. You may lose, but that’s A-OK. For me, I get excited whenever I face against a really skilled player in Smash 4. I get to witness, first hand, how they play against my style, how they react to my attacks, and what tips they may have for me when I ask them after the match. I can also brag to my friends and say “Yeah, I took a stock off of [high level player’s name here] before I got wrecked, I’m pretty good.” Always take top-player tips to heart. Sometimes they may not be useful or their words may not be what you’re looking for, but they may be handy later. Obviously they must be useful if they’re at that position, right?
  3. The third and final feature of instructional scaffolding is that the scaffold, usually in the form of guidance and support, is gradually removed as the learner becomes more proficient and the gap between apprentice and expert closes. I have problems with this feature. In fighting games, one can never stop learning from the community and their fellow players. Fighting styles, character choices, and thinking processes are constantly and dynamically changing as time progresses. This is known as the metagame and every fighting game — every competitive game in existence has one. Talking about metagame is important because not everybody plays the same game for a very long extended period of time. Taking breaks is fine, and encouraged even, and sometimes players come back a year or two later to a game where fighting styles have changed completely. Not asking for tips, not watching your matches and analyzing them, and not training is a surefire way to go down the annals of history and not adapting yourself to the current era.
Thumbnail image for a YouTube video. The players evolve just as much as the game. Continue learning! Image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezrj9RUUCCw

The zone is a great way to visually represent improvement in a fighting game. Having skilled players help analyze a match you’ve recorded can be extremely resourceful.

Here’s the bottom line. Applying Vygotsky’s psychology to the volatile and dynamic environment of fighting games is good way to improve yourself. Attending tournaments with the mindset of looking to progress your skill offsets the discouragement from possibly losing all of your tournament matches. Talking to people and getting to know them not only is an awesome way of socializing over a common hobby (fighting games) but also a great way to know what they think on certain things within the metagame, or components of a match, etc.

Promo video for the SSBM Tutorials YouTube channel, where viewers can see videos of tips and tricks for Super Smash Bros. Melee.

There’s tons of other tips I can possibly write here. But that’s a story for another day. Or maybe not, since it’s been well documented already by several other high-profile people. If you like what I wrote here, you have Lev Vygotsky to thank. Make sure to check out some other similar stuff too! I’ve linked some of them below. Many of which are related or can be applied directly via psychology.

About: Nicholas Laureano is an Interactive Multimedia student at The College of New Jersey. He is the creator of Yet Another RPG and is known more prominently online under the moniker Frosty. For a full Google Slides presentation of his work within the Interactive Designer’s Cookbook realm, click here.