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Here's why you're surprised when you stink at multiplayer games
Here's why you're surprised when you stink at multiplayer games Exclusive
April 3, 2012 | By Jamie Madigan

April 3, 2012 | By Jamie Madigan
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Social/Online, Exclusive, Design

Let me describe a scenario that I think we've all been in. You pick up a game like Gears of War 3 or Starcraft II or the deck-building iOS game Ascension.

You jam through the single-player campaign or do a little comp'-stomping in skirmish mode -- maybe even on the second-to-hardest difficulty 'cause you're totally hardcore like that. And you're better at the game than anyone on your friends list, judging by the local leaderboards and the way nobody will play with you anymore. You've got this game figured out, man, and you think you're pretty good.

So you decide to venture online and try your hand at ranked ladder matches, a tournament, or maybe even just some pickup games via online matchmaking. You get creamed. Murdered. Owned.

At the end of the match, your competition has left you with a kill/death ratio in a realm of negative numbers so low that mathematicians hadn't even bothered to think about it yet because they figured nobody would ever use them. This baffles you, because by all previous accounts you're totally awesome at this game.

Congratulations, you've encountered what psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Named after the authors of a 1999 paper by Cornell University professor of psychology David Dunning and his then graduate student Justin Kruger, the effect describes how those who really aren't very good at something overestimate their skill while those who are experts tend to sell themselves short.

The reason is that the more skilled you are in some complicated task (the effect is more prominent for difficult, complex tasks), the more you understand that there's stuff you don't understand. Or that you haven't mastered.

Really good guitar players, for example, understand everything the instrument is capable of better than someone who has only now figured out how to bang out the beginning of that one Blink-182 song. Similarly, those of us who are really bad and inexperienced at a game often lack a true understanding of what's even possible.

You can't accurately reflect about your own opinion of yourself because you're not good enough. And you're not good enough because you can't accurately reflect on your own opinion of yourself.

In their initial research, Kruger and Dunning gave students tests of logic, grammar, and humor (really, he had them evaluate the LOL potential of jokes from the likes of Woody Allen and Al Franken). When the researchers asked the subjects to guess at their performance on these tests, they consistently found that poorest performers overestimated themselves.

Someone in the 12th percentile, for example, would guess that they were in the 62nd percentile. Further investigation showed that the poorer performing subjects overestimated their ability simply because they weren't good enough to know how difficult the tasks were. And they didn't know it.

I think I see this come up in video games a lot, especially ones with competitive multiplayer or even just those with challenges that let you compare your performance against others via leaderboards. It's exacerbated by the fact that the single player versions of games often allow you to be incompetent in the pursuit of fun.

You can soak up bullets in Gears of War 3 instead of using cover effectively or choosing the right weapon for the situation. You can brute force your way through a campaign scenario in Starcraft II using just Marines instead of appropriately countering the enemy's army build. You can kite mobs around in World of Warcraft instead of using teamwork and assembling a set of equipment or list of perks with the optimal resistances.

In each case, you're frankly quite incompetent, but the limited feedback you're getting doesn't allow you to know it because you're simply not that good at the game.

Think of it in terms of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. I may not know the melting point of Beryllium or the cooldown on an enemy mage's frost bolt spell, but I know I don't know that. But there's also stuff I don't know that I don't even know exists or is a factor. Like what implications that enemy sniper's loadout has on my ability to sneak up and backstab him in Team Fortress 2.

The latter is the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. The great player sees every misstep and every missed opportunity for perfect play, and beats himself up over it. The novice bumbles along missing all that but getting the occasional headshot, and thinks he's doing all right for himself.

Some games are learning to address this fact by forcing novice players to learn the true scope of the game. Starcraft II, despite the fact that I've been using it to illustrate the Dunning-Kruger effect, actually tries to address it by inviting players to complete multiplayer-oriented challenges where they learn things like unit counters, defending against rushes, and other advanced tactics.This kind of thing helps, as well as curating of community guides and videos illustrating everything a game has to offer.

So next time you find your ladder rankings of your K/D ratio not living up to your expectations, take a second to reflect about all the things you don't know and how your experiences so far may have been designed to make you feel more competent than you really are. Then go pick up some tips from those totally awesome hardcore players who know how totally awesome they really aren't.


Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Leads to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 1121-1134.

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Tynan Sylvester
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I think this idea is more interesting when you apply it to game development skill rather than game playing skill.

Anonymous Designer
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lol nice

Thierry Tremblay
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And programming... And....

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Hardware and InterwebZ plays a huge role in this too. I wasn't aware of how bad a wireless modem(Even with a dedicated wire and nobody using your wireless. They need an off button -_-) was until I got one. Living alone was way easier to play when your sister/niece aren't using the phone(Which causes static) or surfing the net.

E McNeill
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The tone of this article seems a little nasty. "You suck. In fact, you suck so bad you don't even know you suck!" I get the argument underneath, but I wish it could've come in a less accusatory form.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is fascinating, but not relevant in any general way to games. If someone crushes the single-player challenges and then finds himself or herself out of depth in multiplayer, that speaks more to the different natures or difficulties of single-player and multiplayer modes than to the total incompetence of the player. It seems to me that the player really *is* skilled at the single-player game, especially since the game itself is providing the standardized metric of skill. Your argument seems to only apply to the clueless subset of players that refuse to acknowledge the greater possible skill of others, and I don't think that this group is all that large.

George Blott
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You said it, E.

Jonathon Walsh
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It is very relevant to games, maybe not in terms of single player vs multiplayer, but within players of multiplayer games.The DotA community is pretty much entirely made up of people under the Dunning-Kruger effect and only a very small % of the population even understands the overall strategy of the game (hero picks, map control, min/maxing farm, etc.). The easiest way to show how widespread the problem is in DotA is the oft rumored (but not true) concept of 'ELO Hell' (when your rating is in a range where your teammates are so bad that you can't win and get a higher rating) that players think they're in, despite the fact that such a thing does not exist.

In SC2 I used to talk to bronze players (as a Master's level player) all the time. Many of them tend to think they're basically playing right, but lacking a bit mechanically or some other basic flaw that keeps them lowly ranked. Instead the truth is that they fail at every single level of the game from micro to unit positioning to hotkey usage all the way up to basic build orders and strategical decisions. Most of the bronze level players will attribute their loss to something that occurs 5 or even 10 minutes after what actually cost them the game. Even when these players view high level play they just aren't good enough of players to internalize the lessons they see.Maybe the article is blunt, but it's very true. Sure there's a 2nd factor of player education that comes into play, but it's not the only factor. It was really common to be talking to a bronze level player and have them talk about their play style preferences and what's 'best' in a situation as if they had a strong understanding of the game and were skilled enough for such concepts as a play style.

E McNeill
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Jonathon: I suppose you're right that the Dunning-Kruger effect is especially apparent in multiplayer populations, and so it may be especially interesting to game designers. I don't like the original article's framing of it, but I'll grant that it's relevant.

I'd mostly just like us to separate qualitatively different single-player and multiplayer game modes. I tend to play a lot of skirmish mode in RTS games. I don't think that makes me deluded about my skill level or incompetent or unskilled; it just means I'm playing a different game than the guys in competitive multiplayer. Perhaps the tone of the article just got me defensive...

Jeremy Parsons
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There's also the group of people who play only local multiplayer or in private games with friends, and then go on to get stomped by the random unknown guy through online play (I think that would have been a better concept to latch onto for the article, rather than comparing to mastering single player). This kind of mentality is pretty common in lower-to-mid-level competitive FPS teams. You play and practice within your safety zone, challenging a handful of the same teams that you know won't murder you into oblivion, and it ultimately leads to you feeling more prepared than you really are.

The best advice I got for competitive play was "play often, play as many different people as you can, and try to join a team where you're the worst player." You're only as good as those around you will push you to be. If the people you play with and against are bad, or average, or simply right at your skill level, you have little to nothing to learn from them. If you only play the same handful of people, you're only prepared for that same handful of ways of thinking, and not the other weird, but functional tactics others may have come up with.

I mean, have you ever played an FPS with friends on a regular schedule, and find out that you just know how everyone is going to play? Jim's gonna be running up that hallway, Mike will be roaming that area, Alice will be standing in that doorway watching the same way she always does, and Dave will be camping like an idiot in that corner. That's all you know what to expect when you go "hmm, I wonder what online play is like," and BAM, 99% of the people don't play the way your limited exposure got you used to, and you die repeatedly. because "wtf, why are you THERE!?" and "why are you doing THAT!?" You can be better than your friends or close-knit private games community, but ultimately be totally incompetent when it comes to how the game COULD be played.

Terry Matthes
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I don't think the article's tone is nasty at all. Those comments are just tongue and cheek. Lighten up :)

E McNeill
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Terry: I don't think it's intentionally nasty, nor are my feelings actually hurt or anything. It just makes for unpleasant reading, and any lightheartedness didn't come through.

Mike Rentas
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I think there's a disconnect between your initial statement of the phenomenon ("I rock at the single player in this game, I should be awesome at multiplayer too!") and the psychology you're discussing. I'd say the problem has more to do with the single player and multiplayer games being entirely different beasts.

A campaign will give you a basic idea for the rules of the game, but it doesn't teach you a damn thing about the limits of those rules, or how people will learn to exploit them. It doesn't teach you the layouts of multiplayer maps. It doesn't teach you how to deal with someone camping your spawn point, or cannon rushing you.

Look at PVP in World of Warcraft - the gear, talent specs, and play styles used are *completely separate* from what people use for endgame raid content. Both are considered "high level" play, but they have almost nothing to do with each other. Moving up or down a league in the Starcraft 2 ladder means you need to unlearn everything you were doing to win and figure out the version of the game this new set of people is playing.

I think an examination of the Dunning-Kruger effect in the pure context of competitive multiplayer games could be interesting (could it be related to the reason so many people feel the need to spew racist vitriol on xbla?), but I don't think it has much to do with the single player to multiplayer skill gap. Unless maybe the game designers who are building the campaign levels are overestimating their ability to include elements that will make players experts at headshots :)

Nathan Mates
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In FPSs, there's usually a fairly short feedback cycle; in RTSs (the focus of this article), things like a suboptimal build order can shaft you 15 minutes later. Where is the feedback that you lost -- in part -- because your build order wasn't perfect? Some players can scrub over replays and get some clues, but all you can see is *what* someone else did. There's no *why* attached to most replays.

It would help if game designers could provide better -- and player understandable -- metrics for things. If there is an optimal build order, as so many RTSs have gravitated towards, then there should be a training area where users can practice that, and only that. Mario Kart has time trials. Where are the build order trials? Then, for all the other areas where there is an ideal for the game, build training levels.

If players are on a competitive track -- note, some are NOT, and do not like this focus on MP as the be-all, end-all of gaming -- then there needs to be accurate and useful feedback such as "you got a C grade for build order because your 4th SCV should have done X, B- for scouting because you scouted to the NW, but not SE, D+ for mixing units well." Basically, useful and specific feedback on gameplay other than "you lost, and good luck figuring out why until you play 200 hours and get good."

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Mike, I think you are exaggerating how much a player must specifically adapt to Starcraft's leagues. At those levels of play, simple consistency and mechanical ability is king, and a player entering the low league only needs to develop those basic attributes (or already possess them) to advance. Metagaming is unnecessary.

Nathan, if the game has a single optimal build order, that indicates need for urgent rebalancing rather than better tutorials. The best and deepest games never offer such a narrow choice. Optimal *decisions* of what to build, when and where to scout etc depend on the metagame, the map, information scouted, reads on the opponent, the player's impression of their own skills and the skills of their opponent, and finally game theory. I'm sure you could use heuristics to find some inefficiencies from whatever the player did, but it's a hard task, and any feedback you could give to the new player would pale in comparison to "never stop building gatherers; keep spending all your money".

Starcraft II offers some challenges which prepare you for various aspects of multiplayer; among them is a challenge where you are tasked with building a lot of stuff to a strict time limit, which requires the player to create and execute a build order for that particular situation.

Ian Uniacke
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@Nathan, Starcraft 2 actually does have this kind of thing. They are called challenges and has stuff like "defend against a rush" "build 100 units in 10 minutes" etc, etc

Justin Nearing
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The Dunning-Kruger effect may give you the expectation that you would be good at multiplayer, but defining the actual differences between single-play and multi-play is a concept that should warrant more attention by developers.

Jeremie Sinic
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I think the Halo games do that quite well: players are matched based on their level. When you lose consistently, you get to play against lower level players and when you win consistently, you play against stronger players and level up faster.

Basically, if you've completed the game on Heroic or Legendary difficulty, you have little chance to feel overwhelmed in a level 1 Matchmaking Deathmatch.
The example of Gears of War 3 here seems to suppose if one is doing fine in easy/normal mode (not taking cover, etc.) one might think they can do fine in PvP.
Maybe then developers should indicate to players that what they are to expect is likely more like the "Insane" mode.

Daniel Martinez
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The same goes for the psychological effects the brain undergoes during difficult exams. As a personal example: I felt I was doing relatively well in the GMAT and I ended up with an unsatisfactory score. Later in the year, I felt I was performing poorly in an accounting exam, and I did well.

Jeffrey Marshall
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When I started playing multiplayer games online in 1996 with Warcraft 2, it was pretty easy to win even though I had only single player experience. Gradually, things changed and the vast majority of players were replaced by those with obsessive compulsive type personalities who played their game a lot and were very serious.

Even in 1998, winning at Starcraft or Total Annihilation online was possible with very little practice. But by 2000, you could not expect to jump into any online RTS game and win without significant multiplayer experience. It remains that way to this day. This article has many good points, but fails to address the possibility that online competition is at a significantly high level not reflective of the average person.

Dave Long
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Some interesting ideas here, but there's also the issue that skill is all relative. From the example provided about the person in the above article, relative to their peers, they were skilled. If they could play through and complete the game in the second hardest setting, then in most cases, relative to the vast majority of the single-player playerbase (most of whom never complete the campaign at all) then they _were_ skilled.

It's all relative - someone might be the best 100-metre sprinter in Italy, but put them up against Usain Bolt and they'll get hammered. That doesn't mean they're not a good runner. It's all a scale. It's very likely that, if skill was defined as the top 20% or so of players who had played the game, the player in the example _was_ skilled.

However, were they able to compete with people that play the game competitively regularly, and possibly put in tens of hours more a week into it? Not likely. But I think a lot of the 'hardcore' forget that they are a _very_ niche group. Sure, plenty won't have the skill they do, but that doesn't make them unskilled unless one is taking a very narrow perspective, likely derived from the 'hardcore' wanting to prop up their own egos.

So, in short, the above article fails to define 'skilled' in any meaningful way (although it implicitly suggests such a narrow degree of skill that it probably wouldn't be particularly useful unless examining the issue purely from the perspective of organised competitive gaming), and that makes the rest of its argument pointless.

It's also playing the 'straw man' a bit (or the author has a fairly limited range of people they game with/against). For one, I don't know too many people who fall into the above example (well, not too many people that are older than 18, to be fair ;)) - most people with some gaming experience know that the step between 'experienced casual' to 'competitive in leagues' is huge, and expected to get stomped early. The implication from the article that most people who are unskilled don't know that they're unskilled only holds true for those that have fairly limited gaming experience, or those that are very young and seeing the world through a emotional filter that's different to those of adults.

On another note, one thing that the discussion is missing is a discussion of 'smack talk' - there _are_ plenty of adults (or semi-adults, if we're looking at maturity from the perspective of emotional development) who will talk themselves up, but still expect to get stomped a bit early. This is due to plenty of other psychological effects, and probably makes it a bit trickier to judge what's actually going on.

I do think it's commendable that the author has had a crack at looking a bit deeper into the way people think and understand their world about them :). The article's got a few gaping holes in its logic, but it's a good start at least :).

Ryan Marshall
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The consensus seems to be that, though your perception of your ability is governed by the psychological effect upon which this article focuses, actual lack of skill stems more from fundamental differences in the single-player game and serious multi-player. (If you can beat your friends, it is because you are all handicapped equally in trying to follow the single-player methods.)

I would take this one step further and say that the problem isn't how the single-player campaign fails to teach for multi-player, but that it's a design flaw for those to be so different in the first place.

If anyone is un-familiar with the Pokemon tournament scene, you'd probably be suprised at how little you get out of mastering the single player game. Even such basic concepts as which mons are strong or weak have to be re-learned because of the tier system and the metagame, and that's before even getting into things like Effort Values and breeding chains.

I would argue that such arcane (deep) gameplay serves as a terrible barrier against entry, especially to any who actually enjoy the core (solo) aspect of the series, and we'd all be better off if they removed those from the multiplayer aspect rather than trying to force them upon the single-player. (OR alternatively, make them a fundamental part of the single player, so that they become intuitive and are no longer a barrier to the multi-player; I don't mean to come out against specific mechanics, so much as the unwarranted difference in mechanics between two halves of the same game.)

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Another interesting phenomenon is the likelihood that you will be playing someone better than you, even if you are in a high percentile. I imagine the pareto principle applies: 20% of a game's players put 80% of the total community hours into the game. Even if you are at the 80th percentile in skill, there are very good odds that you will lose most of your matches as you will be matched against these players, unless some sort of ranked match making is in place. The people who are best at the game got that way because they play all the time, and likely will keep playing, whereas most people worse than you only played multiplayer once or play it rarely, so while you're likely to be able to beat them, you're unlikely to catch them during the sparse time they are on.

I bring this up as a counter talking point to the article: You might be surprised that you lose a lot when you start playing multiplayer, but you might still be well above average despite losing most of your games.

Ian Uniacke
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Good point Jeffrey. That's what keeps me motivated when trying to excel at a game. I always look at my position in the total list and tell myself that I've accomplished a lot, even if I still suck. :P

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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That's a good point, but I imagine that most people quit playing because they lose interest far sooner than they reach their personal "limit". For FPS's, I imagine there is quite a bit of "low hanging fruit" for new players to learn over several months for easy improvements (getting better at aiming, learning the best routes through levels, minimizing reaction time, getting a sense of predicting common behavior, get even better at aiming, minimizing reaction time even further).

I suspect that the density of people who can no longer improve is incredibly sparse for most of the low end of the percentiles and gets suddenly dense in the upper few percentiles. If you played a game professionally, you probably put more time into it than 99.99 (.999? .9999?) percent of all players, and I still suspect that if I picked a random person that was better than you the odds are greater than 50% that they put more time into it than you.

Terry Matthes
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Good little article! I really do believe the Dunning-Kruger effect is a major force in online (or any competitive game) Look at a title like Street Fighter. Each match-up of characters has it's own tricks and techniques to master. Less skilled players get beat by their lack of knowledge more than skill.

Without knowing enough of the game's details players form broken strategies. They lure themselves into false securities because 80% of the time your strategy works, but when someone beats you you chalk it up to lag, luck, the game being stupid, whatever... You haven't even realized you're strategy is flawed because you're still assuming you know more than you do. I don't understand how people can miss this as an element in multiplayer games. It seems impossible to have one without the other.

A lot of doing bad at multiplayer games come from a misunderstanding of your goals and objectives. Philosophy can play a great roll improving your skill in any game. There are people out there who won't stop talking about this stuff. Sean Plott aka. Day[9] is one of them. So many of his videos are just philosophy lessons dressed up as multiplayer advice. Plug ==>

PS. You're losing at Starcraft because you're playing Terran. Long live the hive! ^_^

Matthew Williams
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yeah then there is this kind of crap goin...just to throw it in the mix

Jack Kerras
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I don't really think that forcing people to learn anything is going to help at all.

There's another concept that fits alongside this particular psychological phenomenon that makes it make -even more- sense:

Unconscious Incompetence
Conscious Incompetence
Conscious Competence
Unconscious Competence

This is a spread of different states of being. For the most part, people fit squarely in the first category; they're playing a game and they feel like they're pretty good at it. This isn't really due to a lack of gameplay understanding, though! Lack of understanding contributes, but these folks will think they're hot shit even if they lose all the time. These are the folks who are constantly blaming others for their failures, and lack the metacognitive capability to understand that they are not only poor at the game, but -not learning- specifically because they do not -think- they're poor at the game. They grade themselves high (and THINK they're in the top few percent of players) because people like to feel good about themselves.

In the second state, you reach a turning point. Conscious incompetence means that someone has grokked that they are not, in fact, hot shit. This is the day in Battlefield or any of the various MOBAs where you figure out that your abysmal KDR is not due to the fact that you get no support, but rather because you lose fights; whether you can't decided quickly and effectively whether to cut your losses or you simply don't have the reflexes or skills to execute your plans properly, you -realize- that you are doing poorly and can therefore strive to improve yourself.

In the third state, you're actually getting up there. With focus and dedication, you can elevate your game, but it takes honest effort in order for you to maintain that state. You're still learning and improving all the time, but now you're getting to the point where skill caps could conceivably be reached, and distracting factors, unusual enemy strategies, or other issues can seriously hamper your ability to maintain your game. Here you're actually starting to get good, but it takes real dedication to maintain it.

In the fourth state, you've completed your proverbial or literal ten thousand hours. Your mastery of whatever skill you've been attempting to learn (this can be applied to anything) is complete, and despite the fact that you're still able to learn, you can carry on a conversation while you top charts in Battlefield, you start to develop a spider sense about ganks in MOBAs, and you find yourself waiting precisely the right amount of time between refires of a semi-automatic weapon before you fire again, minimizing downtime and 'jams' from attempting to fire too fast... without even really thinking about it. In this state, you no longer require real focus in order to maintain a high level of play; you've done whatever you're doing so many times that it is second nature to call missing, to strategize with agility and cunning, or to put your crosshair in the right place at the right time. You're still learning (this is always true) but now it is no longer an effort to grasp every new skill; you can effectively assimilate interesting strategies that you see others use without having to thoughtfully deliberate on each, and your game evolves almost on its own even when you just hop on a game to fuck around.

Dunning-Kruger is -sort of- about learning, but the real kicker is figuring out that you -aren't- good at things. It's not a question of grokking specific skills or learning -how- to play a game; the phenomenon is accomplished by accepting that you have a lot to learn, not specifically by learning itself. You can learn in almost all cases, but until you realize that human learning (and indeed almost all learning) is based on play, and all your playing can be used to learn, you're not going to break past that first state of not knowing how bad you are.

Most players never do. Most -people- never do; accepting that you're not just inherently great is a big step towards maturing as not only a player, but as a person, and that degree of self-awareness is hard-won. When that first step is taken from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, very often people will see in broad strokes that their incompetence spreads to other areas, that they are not Superman, and that work and effort can improve them.

Upping your game requires the humility to realize that you game needs to improve. Specific learning (and teaching) cannot instill this important truth; it is partially a matter of game knowledge, but it is fundamentally a matter of SELF-knowledge.

Mike Griffin
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Thankfully I still kick ass in multiplayer. Across a wide range of modes/server/player/clan types, etc., so it's not just me selecting specific servers I know I can own. I better laugh it up now in my mid-30s, because these reflexes and quick, adaptive reactions won't be with me for much longer, haha. Sadface.

Jack Kerras
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I dunno. I always hear about this, but way back in the medieval-reenactment days, one of hte quickest guys out there was in his mid-fifties. That motherfucker could hit you in the face and have his sword away again so fast you couldn't tell who'd hit you. Or which way was up or down, for that matter. No weakling, him.

Everyone says you slow down as you get older, but I'm not sure that's entirely true, at least not before you start getting way up there. If you keep sharp, you'll be able to maintain more of that dexterity and adaptability for longer than you expect, I bet.

We just haven't seen the gamer generation get old yet. I think they'll overturn the whole 'you get slow as you get old' thing due to continuing practice.