The Psychology of Starcraft 2
Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 10, 2010
I’ve now played about 5 hours of Starcraft 2, on a guest pass. I’ve been concentrating on the Challenges (which are great for teaching multiplayer) and multiplayer because if I am going to pay $60 for a game I want more than a single player campaign that I’ll enjoy but never finish. After playing through all 9 Challenges and my 5 placement matches (1-4 record with sole win via disconnection), I am convinced that I will never be good at Starcraft 2 or any other conventional RTS because of how my brain operates at a deep level.
I’ve never been very good at RTS games, and even back in the day multiplayer Warcraft 2 was too much for me to handle. I am pretty good at both League of Legends and Dawn of War 2 single player, so the problem is not the perspective or controls. I am just not mentally capable of dealing with multiple focuses of attention at the same time.
The perfect test for this is the Opening Gambit challenge. The challenge is to optimally play the first 20 minutes of a simulated multiplayer game. You need to get a certain number of units produced within a certain time limit while dealing with pre-programmed assaults. I managed to get the bronze level on every other challenge on my first attempt, but Opening Gambit took me 8. After stumbling around a bit, for the last 4 I had a perfect plan that I completely failed to execute. After finally failing to suck I spent 4 more attempts trying to shave enough time off to get a Silver before giving up in frustration.
The reason was the same each time: I would start to focus on specific building or group of units and would neglect the rest. I would get my bunkers setup but completely forget to requeue my marines. Or I would be busy placing a building and completely miss the 30 aliens eating up the poor miners. Since I have been a child my brain is predisposed to stick with something until it’s finished, and to do well at Starcraft 2 you have to do the exact opposite.
The conscious brain is only capable of focusing on one task at a time and takes a certain amount of time to switch between areas of focus. There’s plenty of research that switching focus quickly lowers overall performance and increases stress, and there is no task that requires as much context-switching as playing a RTS game. In hardware terms think of the human brain as a single-core processor with a variety of vector units that can be dispatched for various tasks (your unconscious mind handles all the extensive pattern matching required for a Starcraft 2 game, and anyone can get better at that). Your consciousness is not doing more than one thing at a time, and context switching takes up time. For myself, I suspect that my cost of context switching is very high, and as a result I can never be good at Starcraft 2 or anything that requires real multitasking.
So what mental skills do you need to do well at Starcraft 2?
- Quickly switch between different tasks at different levels of progress instead of following one task through to completion.
- Respond to a huge number of stimuli simultaneously
- Interact with the game at a hyperactive rate as high as 100 interactions per second.
- Never stop moving your focus of attention between different points on the map.
Those are about half the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. To be diagnosed with ADHD a person must also have difficulty constructing integrated plans, and the top tier Starcraft 2 players are able to juggle the multitasking as well as construct build plans and react on the fly so the match isn’t 100%. But, I suspect strongly that if you were to poll good-but-not-top-tier Starcraft 2 players there would be a strong correlation with a diagnosis of ADHD. I am very skeptical that ADHD is a proper mental disorder (due to it’s crazy overdiagnosis as a catchall for behavioral problems), but the symptoms describe a cluster of mental properties that are well adapted for playing Starcraft 2.
ADHD isn’t a cluster of mental properties that develops later in life, and I suspect the same is true for RTS multitasking ability. Your brain is either set up for quick multitasking or it isn’t, and ADHD is probably what occurs when that cluster of brain properties matches up with difficulty controlling a bored brain. ADHD is also strongly male-oriented which matches with my anecdotal evidence of gender ratios in RTS vs FPS (I cannot find good data for this, please comment to prove me wrong). The problem isn’t that the RTS genre is “inaccessible”, it’s that doing well at it requires a certain type of brain structure that is NOT easy to develop after adolescence.
Interestingly, there is a bit of research indicating that experience with multitasking can interfere with solving more focused tasks, so in the best interest of my own brain I think I should probably stop trying to get good at Starcraft 2 multiplayer. Or, you know, it may just be because I’m a noob who can’t l2p. In the end I can better learn how to deal with a Roach rush, but there’s no chance of me really learning how to manage my economy and an enemy attack simultaneously.