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Just playing a game a lot will of course make you better, but there’s a more efficient way to expand your skills, saving you time and ramping up your strengths faster, so you can have more fun kicking ass earlier.
Think of how a basketball player gets better: he doesn’t just play games. He trains specific areas to improve, like free throws or three-pointers. In a videogame, if you just play matches over and over, your improvements will be diffused over too many areas, slowing your progress. Instead, choose a specific thing. For example, say in an RTS you want to focus on spending resources efficiently. So you play multiple games in a row, where your only concern is efficient resource spending. Intentionally allow other aspects to be worse: your micro and strategy will suffer, but that’s okay. You’re burning the one skill into your unconscious, so you can do it in your sleep, at which point you can move on and focus on something else.
Another example is in a shooter. Let’s say you’re not very good at shotguns. Spend time only using a shotgun. Use it in every situation, even when it’s not appropriate. Accept that you will die, and that you’ll look silly doing “noob” things. If you force yourself to only use the shotgun, you’ll learn its effective range to a more precise degree. You’ll also learn timing of shots, and you’ll learn how to fight against the shotgun better.
Above: I finally learned how to really use shotguns by abusing PlanetSide’s uber shotgun, the Jackhammer, AKA the Noobhammer
You can apply this specialized training to any aspect of a game: strafing, flanking, burst firing, micromanagement, listening to audio cues, watching your own back, healing teammates, trying an unusual strategy, etc. By separating each element and learning its nuances, you then have an arsenal of choices at your disposal. You may end up not being a shotgun-focused player, but you’ll know when a shotgun is the best choice, and when you do use it, you’ll know exactly how to use it.
There’s a fascinating article by Malcom Gladwell that shows how if you’re willing to put in more effort than your opponent and/or think outside the box, you can overcome seemingly impossible odds, and your opponent will hate you for it. Interestingly, it ties back into the notion of playing to win. See, often times if you use a tactic considered cheap, it’s because the “good” players don’t like being beaten. They will ridicule your cheapness because if you play by their rules, they will win. You’ll get angry messages like “Use a real gun that takes actual skill, noob.” What this translates to is “Use a weapon that I’m better at using than you are, so you will lose against me.”
If you can’t beat someone at their own game, don’t play that game. Sometimes an unusual tactic will work because the opponent isn’t used to dealing with it, or even better, hates dealing with it, and therefore will get angry and frustrated and make mistakes. Sometimes, it’s more about putting in effort than being unusual. For instance, it might be worth it to creep way around the outside of a map just to sneak up on that sniper. Another example: if you’re not a crack shot, how about learning the maps really well? Of course, putting in the extra effort can mean extra hours, but it can also simply mean stopping to think about how to do something differently, so that (for instance) your flanking attack gives you the edge over someone with faster reflexes.
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