Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

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.

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11 Responses to “The Psychology of Starcraft 2”

  1. evizaer said

    You should try a more macro-oriented RTS. It would be less a test of multitasking and more a test of planning and adaptability. RUSE is the best that I can think of in this category. Your mental APM has to be faster than your physical one in RUSE, which is a rare trait for an RTS and bodes very well for the game in general, I think.

    Unfortunately, RUSE is currently in some kind of closed/private beta in a pre-release mode. It comes out early september, though. When it does, you might want to consider giving it a try.

    • Ben Zeigler said

      APM is a different issue. I’m sure I could train my physical APM up enough to deal with SC 2 (well, except for the part where it destroys my wrist), but as long as Ruse involves dealing with issues unfolding in multiple locations that have to be dealt with in quick success I’ll be horrible at it. The mental APM is really what my article is about: I don’t have it.

  2. Layla said

    I’m *very good* at multitasking things that I’ve completely internalized, But as soon as I’ve got to multi-task something like creative writing and having a conversation with a friend, I’m in trouble. I prefer to lock myself away from all distractions when I’m writing!

    The 2nd part of that article, if accurate, is troubling; however, the first part seems a bit undercooked to me… It’s no surprise that multitasking on tasks that you haven’t internalized would be slower… I think it would be much more interesting to see them test multitasking on internalized tasks. For example, to use the oft-cited case of multitasking while driving a car, ask people who have been driving race cars for 20 years to do simple math while driving, then ask the same questions to students in drivers ed. Assuming your race car drivers haven’t forgotten how to do addition and subtraction, I would bet that they’d do much better at the math, and have fewer car accidents at the same time! (Of course, you could do control non-multitasking math questions with both groups, and then just compare their own results to their multitasking results, and voila! ~_^)

    About the games… Rush as an RTS strategy is just not any fun for me. I personally feel that the real fun in an RTS is to develop big sprawling civilizations, and then see how well they do against each other. Actually, I enjoy the building part *far* more than the rest, so maybe I should just stick to Sim City 2000? πŸ™‚

    • Ben Zeigler said

      Basically you can’t multitask anything that requires conscious thought, which includes essentially all language-based tasks as well as anything needing logical deduction or judgement. You can drive just fine when engaged in a deep conversation but you’re likely to miss your exit or run out of gas. I am unsure how much of SC2 you can make subconscious, but my conscious brain (which has to learn it first, the way you learn to drive) isn’t enjoying getting to that point at ALL so I’ll never get there.

      If you like the building bits of RTSs but not the multitasking, I will highly recommend Anno 1404/age of discovery. It’s all about setting up trade networks and the like and doing real time economy management. Combat is super minor. I’m pretty sure you’d like it πŸ™‚

  3. Simon said

    RTS games were what got me started playing computer games. The reason that I enjoy them so much is because as soon as I realized what kind of games they were, I immediately started thinking up massive, grand schemes that would eventually result in (to my mind) assured victories.

    I mention why I first fell in love with RTS games because the “master plan” component is something that any competent (never-mind good) RTS player must have in order to win. In essence, this means that from the start of the game to the end of the game, an RTS player must be trying to complete one, and only one task – not several (though this doesn’t mean that players cannot drop one plan and make up a new one on the go). There are several different tasks required to complete the larger “master” task, which is true of any project. For instance when a vehicle mechanic decides to fix a car, we might say that his master-plan is to fix the car. However, fixing the car involves him completing other tasks that might include diagnosing the problem, testing his diagnosis, taking everything apart, and then putting it back together again. As the mechanic does each of those steps, he must do even more tasks, such as switch between tools and angrily curse anyone who is too slow giving said tools to him. A game like SC2 doesn’t have tools, but you do have to switch between your buildings to queue up more units, monitor your scouts’ progress, micro your units, and so forth. Even though these might be distinctly different tasks, each task that the player takes part in is part of one larger master task that the player has in mind.

    Thus, contrary to what you said about players needing to train themselves into behaving like someone who has ADHD, players must actually train themselves to be extremely focused on bringing their plans into fruition. Instead of switching between a variety of tasks, they are actually working on only one single, larger task. It’s very easy for some people to become lost in the details of their plan, or simply to be overwhelmed by the variety of things required to complete a single plan, which is why I think that some people are no good at RTS games (even if they have excellent micro and can manage several different things at once). At any rate, if I’m right, then there is no need to worry about people’s task performance suffering from playing RTS games. Players don’t become good by having high APM numbers, because all the micro and macro in the world isn’t going to save players if they don’t have a plan to win.

    I could be wrong, but I highly suspect that when you’re playing RTS games, you are either not forming strategies to guide your play, or at some point in the match you begin prioritizing the completion of small tasks over the completion of your master strategy. No one (not even the pros) can actually do everything at once, so if the latter possibility I mentioned is true, then I would like to suggest that you learn which tasks are actually really important for you to pay attention to. Learn to do that first, and the ability to keep track of whatever else is going just comes with practice. You might even begin finding it fun πŸ˜„

    Those are my thoughts anyways!

  4. John Smith said

    The trick is not to use the map to click around to find buildings. You can set all your buildings to hotkeys, or a single hotkey that can be tabbed through. Then while you are fighting and running around the map, you can still be watching your base and building units. If you spend your time looking at the base, and not the combat, it gets kinda difficult. But once the base is on hotkeys, its simple!

    So in this way you have to focus your multitasking to make it more productive. It doesn’t make sense to take up visual space with your building orders, so stop looking at your buildings. ADHD would involve constantly clicking every command, moving between your army and your base, etc.

    Another angle might be to look at studies about Chess players – can you learn chess after adolescence? because they are almost identical if you play chess on a timer!

  5. Steve said

    This is exactly what infuriates me about RTS’s and I think I’m now coming to the realization that you seem to have had. My brain just can’t handle it. Ironically enough, I’m not ADHD enough to play this fucking game. They even made it MORE complicated with larval injection, chrono boost, and mules than the last game if the original wasn’t enough. Well actually I think my anger is misplaced, the fact that I just can’t handle it even though I know what I want to do pisses me off. Its not the games fault, the fault lies with my prison of a human body.

    I think I’m gonna go do some meth…

  6. RMN said

    I have the exact same problem, and I’m struggling to go through driver’s ed for the very same reason (focusing on one danger on the left side and missing the one on the right). I think you’re on to something.
    I plan to read the book “The Multitasking Mind” by Dario D. Salvucci and Niels A. Taatgen and hope to find some answers there.

  7. mouse said

    Outside of starcraft I cant talk in the phone while doing anything else really, but in-game im injecting that larvae while harrassing one base with my mutas and another with my zerglings. A diamond/master wonders what that means?

  8. Mike Callahan said

    ADHD does NOT advantage someone at SC2 across the board. I have the “hyper focus” variety, and I can’t STOP doing something mundane until I haven’t multitasked enough to keep up my Econ, stopped my units from running into fire, etc. ADHD does not necessarily increase one’s ability or predisposition to multitask. For many of us, it’s a case of “hyper tasking”, or excelling at one task to the detriment of all others. Great points on maintaining long run priorities, etc., but it’s offensive and more than a bit ignorant to suggest that the blight of ADHD (how I’ve experienced it) is somehow ADVANTAGEOUS? It probably helps you to put us all in a box and justify your own failure by comparing it to your superiority vis a vis everyday tasks vs us ADHDers, but it’s simply not true. We all fail, and some of us, myself included, probably suck worse at SC2 than you because of it. C’est la vie. I’m a permabronze because I can’t defend simple minded attacks from better-at-basics opponents. Ironically, I had more success in Silver due to the spurning of simplistic approaches…until several ABC123 guys knocked me back to bronze. It’s not a lack of &$*% ADHD that’s hurting your play, buddy, TRUST me.

  9. Hui Gen said

    Every game that has a multiplayer facet involves micro. Of course some game requires less then the others. But then the game without the micro aspect gets boring very easily. If every aspect of a game is macro, then it really takes out the fun from the game in the first place. The game is now more of a puzzle solver rather then an actual ‘action’ game. In such cases, it would be better to read a book. An you know puzzle solver always get boring after a while. But then an ‘action’ game still gets boring if it does not take much strategy. For example CS. Not saying that CS does not involve much strategy but then since the unit you are playing is almost the same, the map is almost the same unless you play a different map. Thus the basic strategy is kinda same. I mean I have not played professional CS, but I think the way you position your character does not differ from map to map. You just have to understand the map and then adapt the strategy over there. So yes, the strategy towards CS is about positioning of the units of different functionality. The micro is the part that makes the game fun. Because, it introduces the distraction tactic. It makes the game requires more skill. If a game is just macro, then almost no skill is involved. Just planning. But why would you play a game that requires no skill when you can do other things.

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