Change the way you think to get better at games

If you’re reading this, chances are you like to play games. Maybe you really like to play games. One thing you may not ask yourself is why you play. It may sound like a dumb question to ask, because the answer is obviously, “For fun,” but if that was the only reason, then you could easily substitute games with movies, or books, or music, or just about anything that isn’t work (unless you’re a porn star… but sadly, I’d bet even that becomes work eventually).

So. Why do you play games? Immersion? Exploration? Social interaction?


A lot of you would say, “No, I don’t want a challenge. Life is hard enough. I just want to sit back and enjoy myself.” This is a reasonable response. But this article is about change. About striving for something more. “Why bother?” you might say. Well…

Why bother to get better?

Years ago, I played a little game called Warcraft II. I’d never seen an RTS before, so it blew my mind. It never occurred to me to play anyone else, or to learn more advanced things like hotkeys. A few years later, I was working as a tester at a game company, and got to work on another RTS game. At first I thought “Ugh, I’ve seen everything an RTS can do. I’ll be bored to death.”

I got assigned to multiplayer balance testing. The company hired a couple of hardcore RTS guys to teach us how to play. Suddenly, my brain went: “Wait, WHAT? You can do THAT in an RTS? You mean it’s a FAST PACED game?” Not only did I learn that RTS games are fast paced, they are the fastest games in existence and also the most difficult games to be remotely competent at.

Above: StarCraft II is coming, and if you have fewer than 150 APM (Actions Per Minute) then you will suck, horribly

I went from thinking I knew everything about a genre, to realizing I knew nothing, and a new world opened up. See, getting better at games isn’t just about feeding your ego or conquering arbitrary, meaningless goals. It makes games more fun. It makes them deeper, richer experiences. The great part, though, is that you can take this challenge as far as you want. The moment a game stops being fun because you’re too focused on getting better, you can dial it back and enjoy yourself.

So with this guide, I encourage you to cherry pick the things you want to do. Try them out, and don’t do them if you don’t find them fun. Now, there’s one glaring thing I need to address first…

What is skill?

The definition of skill is debated constantly on game forums because everybody has a different viewpoint. For our purposes here, skill is what you want it to be - but realize that pulling off headshots is not the only definition. Skill is applied knowledge along with dexterity and talent. Outthinking is just as skillful as outfighting. If you prefer one idea of skill because it’s the most fun for you, approach this guide with it in mind. Maybe being on the top of the leader/match board is most skillful to you. Maybe being the best team player. Maybe just winning the match. Maybe just devising creative/funny strategies.

One mode of thinking that will absolutely hinder your ability to improve is to point at what others are doing and say “That is not skillful. I am better than them because I don’t do the cheap, skillless thing they rely on.” Now, grenade spamming may or may not be skillful, but worrying about such things is a waste of your time. What you should worry about is how to adapt to grenade spam instead of crying about it. Crying about it is a mental wall that once built, actually reduces your ability to adapt to the thing that annoys you.

Treat everything that beats you as skillful. Why? BECAUSE IT BEAT YOU. They won, you lost, get over it. Even if the winner is technically “less skilled,” tell yourself otherwise. For instance, start thinking of every little thing you can do to not let that grenade spammer beat you again. Yes, grenades may be overpowered and too easy to use, but there’s nothing you can do to change that. What you can do is equip yourself with anti-grenade loadouts, and most importantly, spend time becoming good with the thing you hate. Become an expert grenade spammer. You’ll learn the nuances that play into the success or failure of the tactic. Then, you can go back to your preferred playstyles (you must learn more than one playstyle) and have the knowledge to help you beat the spammers.

Above: Holy shit is this guy annoying. But crying about it won’t stop him. He gets kills because his opponents are predictable. So many spawn kills because the victims mindlessly sprinted for the objective (or stayed at the spawn point), instead of just moving to an unusual spot to wait for his initial spam to pass. Also, Blast Shield


  • fryry - June 6, 2014 6:28 a.m.

    I made an account just to say that this is one of the most finely crafted and interesting pieces of video game writing I have ever read. Well done!
  • tehgamingworld - September 30, 2012 6:44 a.m.

    What a great guide! I find that playing games on the hardest mode possible, does improve your skill but is defintiely time consuming. I personally much prefer to get straight into the multiplayer section of games, and I tend to learn what I need from there. I found another post similar to this one, which really helped me with fps games, I will leave a link to it below if anyone is interested, but quite honestly any game requires a lot of focus and dedication to become an 'expert' in it. Nevertheless, it's always good to havesome useful tips behind you!
  • SuperCharizard101 - July 19, 2011 1:10 p.m.

    @SparkleDevon but Protect is an accepted part of the strategy, and if you predict their use of it, it is free switch.
  • SuperCharizard101 - July 18, 2011 5:21 p.m.

    I love this article, especially the stuff about cheapness. I play competitive Pokemon, and I used to call people cheap when they applied the most overused movesets or Pokemon. Now, I try to find unique ways to counter the overused sets and take joy in doing that.
  • LewisR - July 16, 2011 12:57 p.m.

    The best games article ever. The buzz of outthinking an oppenent/oppenents is a very hard feeling to match. Kudos
  • SparkleDevon - May 17, 2011 2:43 a.m.

    Meh. I agree that really there isn't "cheapness" and I know i'm a pretty crappy player, but no matter what you say, Everyone knows it's annoying as hell when someone uses Protect or Detect, and you don't have a Pokemon that knows Feint with you >.<
  • ReaperBR - April 30, 2011 7:01 p.m.

    Great, GREAT post.
  • Milkman - April 29, 2011 12:10 a.m.

    Well said, I play a lot of Brutal Legend, and when someone utilizes a "cheap tactic" instead of trying to tell them to stop (which is pointless)I think about ways to counter it, thus finding knowledge and wisdom out of a frustrating noob moment. Also I love it when i completely dominate an opponent, i get a response along the lines of "No fair! you didn't give me time to rebuild my army before you attacked!" XD
  • elpurplemonkey - August 16, 2010 3:01 a.m.

    Damn, what a great article. Also, that Sirlin video is an eye opener.
  • chicknwang93 - August 13, 2010 1:44 a.m.

    I really enjoyed this articles point on cheapness. And thanks for the advice on sniping. I almost beat one of my friends (big sniper), he won by 2 or 3 kills in a one on one match
  • Metroidhunter32 - August 12, 2010 9:20 p.m.

    Time to change the way I think.
  • InnocentBud - August 5, 2010 5:57 p.m.

    I love how you say you can use video game as like a trail for life. You can be fearless much easier in a virtual world and use it as practice for the things you do in life. Thanks for the help!
  • GamesRadarMatthewKeast - June 28, 2010 6:18 p.m.

    @BadCompanyBrik I haven't played Rome Total War, but I'm familiar with strategy games. Here's my take, for what it's worth: The Elephant cannot be cheap, but it can be overpowered. I don't regard the two terms to be the same. Now, even if Elephants are too powerful, it still may be possible that there is a counter for them other than the unconventional setup you metioned. I've seen in strategy games where a specific unit designed to counter some power unit (like Elephants) actually isn't an effective counter, because of the reason you describe. However, often times pro players will discover another counter that doesn't involve the counter unit, and instead involves a particular army composition or build order. The key, of course, is that this counter doesn't ONLY counter Elephants. Sometimes, the developers won't fix something that is overpowered. What you have to decide as a player is: does this problem affect enough of my matches to make this game not worth playing? Since you can't force your opponents to not use Elephants, you have to decide: stick with the game and keep looking for counters, or move on to a better-balanced game.
  • chavbuster1 - June 28, 2010 11:45 a.m.

    This is better than the Art of War! lol
  • Smeggs - June 28, 2010 1:24 a.m.

    "Use a weapon that I am better at using than you are, so you will lose against me." How have I never thought of it like this before? My god...EVERYTHING I THOUGHT I KNEW ABOUT MW2 IS A LIIIIIIE!!!!
  • vigeoman - June 27, 2010 7:43 p.m.

    I actually really enjoyed this article thx
  • araknafire - June 26, 2010 10:49 p.m.

    After reading this, i totally agree with there being no such thing as cheapness. And using something over and over to get he ins and outs of it. This is in my opinion one of the greatest GR articles ever. Also the translation of use a real gun, noob was preatty great.
  • zexorg49 - June 26, 2010 8:42 p.m.

    I have to say to all the people who Bashed this Article, Just Stop Playing games. This Article is PERFECT. I used to pay old games like Spyro the Dragon (whole original series) and all that. My first game I beat? Spyro 2 Rypto's Rage. I thought I was the S*** for years. Games got easier and easier, Then Came the current generation consoles and online play. Wow was I wrong. Did I whine and B**** about it? No! I trained to get better, Played More, Played Harder Difficulty, Played more people. I'll admit, Compared to tournament Gamers, I SUCK! Compared to most Gamers, I suck. This article is exactly what it takes to become a true Gamer. Don't Bash this at all. Listen to it. It's all true. Thank you for this Amazing and True Article, I await more like this.
  • BadCompanyBrik - June 26, 2010 7:46 p.m.

    Very interesting. On the subject of cheapness, you say that a good game will have a counter for everything. But what if I'm playing a game in which there is a tactic that has no effective counter? As an example, in Rome Total War, people generally regard Elephants as cheap. Now, there is a counter to Elephants, but it needs a pretty unconventional setup. The thing is, you can't know whether your opponent will use Elephants, and so you can't know which setup to use. Do you use the anti-Elephant setup, and run the risk of facing a normal army that will kill you, or do you use a normal army, and run the risk that the opponent will deploy Elephants? There is no way to know, and it turns a normally deep strategy game like Rome Total War into a coin toss. So most people play without them. Now, I ask you, are Elephants cheap?
  • CAPST3R - June 26, 2010 2:49 p.m.

    Actually, I use gaming as a release for my emotion, allowing me to stay rational the rest of the time. I also enjoy the adrenaline rush given by faster-paced games (if you don't get this, try immersing yourself in the game more. The only drawback in this is that you will shout vulgar words. Loudly.)

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