Change the way you think to get better at games

The Dunning-Kruger effect

Learning how to recognize your own skill level will enhance your ability to improve. While it seems simple to say “I’m better than that guy, but worse than this guy,” in fact it’s human nature to believe we are really good at something we are terrible at. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states:

The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than in actuality; by contrast, the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to a perverse result where less competent people will rate their own ability higher than more competent people.

Above: American Idol shows the Dunning-Kruger effect at its purest. These are people that are awful - just atrocious at singing - and yet they believe that not only are they good, but good enough to be a professional singer

When you first play a game, you won’t think you’re awesome at it. Yet give it a bit longer, to where you know just a little bit more, and suddenly you’re the king of the goddamn universe. You haven’t yet learned the nuances required of becoming a true expert, but you’re sure better than some noob who’s never played. It’s easy for you to see the difference between you and the noob, but the difference between you and the expert can seem invisible. You’re actually incapable of understanding what makes the expert better than you, precisely because you haven’t learned the little, less obvious things the expert has.

It’s like a musician listening to music – he hears things the non-musician can’t. He hears choices of notes, and even the lack of note choices in a way that others can’t. A Street Fighter expert sees a different game when watching a tournament match. You may think, “Wow, these noobs barely even use combos.” The expert is thinking “Wow, look how they use single, light punches when a combo would be too risky. Look how they are controlling space. Look how they are predicting each other’s next move.”

Above: Not the best time to oil up…or is it?

If you think you’re good at a game, you’re probably wrong. You either haven’t encountered better players yet, or you're not acknowledging who is better. You need to go where the better players are playing. How do you know they’re better? They beat you. Remember, don’t call them cheap when they win. They won because they used that cheap thing at exactly the right moment, in exactly the right situation, and in exactly the right way.

Approach every defeat as: “Nothing defeated me but my own lack of skill and my opponent’s abundance of skill.” Thinking you are good at a game is the first step to being bad, and a brick wall in your continual improvement. Unless you’re literally number one on the global leaderboard, there are better players than you, and you need to fight them to get better. If you’re in a game and see one player beating everyone else, intentionally seek him out and try to defeat him. You’ll lose, but with the right mentality, you’ll also learn.

Playing to win

I’ve talked about throwing out the idea of cheapness. There is one man responsible for giving me this mindset. His name is David Sirlin, a game designer, Street Fighter tournament champion, and writer of a book called Playing to Win.

Above: Sirlin has an eye for dissecting a game from the inside out. You can become better at games just by watching his videos, reading his articles, and then applying that type of thinking to whatever games you want to be good at

Before I read his articles on playing to win, I was a believer in cheapness. I used to cry cheap all the time. Sirlin made me realize I’d been a fool, for there is no such thing as cheapness.

I know this is a hard concept to swallow, but it’s true, whether you like it or not. I didn’t like it, until I understood it. Know this: you will never be truly great at games if you believe in cheapness. I know how it feels to read that. It probably goes against your every molecule, each one screaming out “But cheapness is for crappy, unskilled players who need a crutch! Whatever happened to sportsmanship? If everyone abused cheap things, no game anywhere would be fun!”

Did I cover everything you wanted to say? It’s still wrong. All of it. I’m sorry, and if you want to cut the head off the messenger, go ahead. Call me an idiot in the comments. If you want proof, take a look at any professional gamer. They do everything they can within the rules of the game to win (note: this means other than actual cheating, like hacking). Nothing is cheap in a tournament. The best are always cheap bastards. If you went to a tournament and cried cheap, you’d be laughed out of the building.

Above: “You cheap asshole! You should have used the skillful submachine gun at point-blank range!”

Again, though, you don’t have to take the playing to win mentality all the way. Take it as far as you want, because of course you still want to have fun playing. If a game is truly designed well, though, playing to win should make the game more fun because all the cheap tactics will have counters, and then the counters will have counters. So instead of wasting your energy declaring something cheap, instead devote that energy in finding a way to counter it. Not only will it make you a better player, but it will make those cheap things you hate less annoying or even downright laughable as you employ counter tactics that crush the supposed cheap maneuver.

If you still refuse to believe cheapness doesn't exist, think of it this way: calling something cheap is an excuse to not learn how to defeat it. So if you must declare things cheap, at least get it over with and move past it, and concentrate on how to beat it.


  • 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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