An Examination of Skill pt.16
Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 12:43PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Skill, StarCraft

We have finally come to the last core skill. Adaptation. The reality is B.E.S will not be making a game to test your adaptation skills. The reason is because adaptation is the most complex, illusory, and ambiguous skill therefore it's too difficult to test and measure. Adaptation is the skill of tweaks, adjustments, changes, and shifts, and it happens constantly. Whether the gamestate changes, the real time activity progresses, or our own physical and mental states shifts we have to continually adapt. Understanding what we change and why opens up a conundrum that even a puzzle master can't solve. Even if we can't quantify and measure our capacity to change (adaptation) we can organize it. 

There following are 3 major ways one can adapt. 


image from Marina Gardner

Tier 1. Within a Skill or Facet

Analyzing a situation and making an adjustment to any skill or more specifically skill facet (among knowledge, dexterity, timing, and reflex) is the simplest type of adaptation. Ignoring the fact that analyzing is a mental process based on one's knowledge skills, we can clearly see that only one facet of skill is being exercised or changed. If you're shooting in Mega Man and you increase your button pressing speed to shoot more bullets, that's adaptation. If you're slightly ahead of the beat in Guitar Hero and you gradually shift your static internal timing according to the notes sliding down the screen, that's adaptation too. Even though the second example involves multiple facets of timing skills, it still falls within the single timing skill group making it a tier1 type. Also keep in mind that for the purposes of this examination, I assume that one cannot significantly increase their pure, maximum skill capacity. Rather, adjustments involve shifting the level of output between inactivity and one's limit. 

Being conscious of limits is important for understanding the next level of adaptation. 


Tier 2. Between 2 Skills

Everyone has limits to their skills. Tier 2 adaptation involves using one skill to support, supplement, or in some way augment another skill. For example, in the UC Berkeley StarCraft class that Sirlin wrote about and I riffed off of in my Pikmin series, the professor talked about things a player can do to make up for lacking skills. If you don't have particularly good reflexes that enable you to respond quickly and effectively to enemy surprise attacks, then it may be a good idea to fortify your base(s)/defenses with static defensive buildings (cannons, turrets, sunken colonies, etc.). If you do so, even if you're taken by surprise, by the time you react and move your units into place, the damage can be minimized to an level equal to if you had great reflexes.

For other games, if you don't have adequate timing or dexterity skills perhaps it's best to change one's strategy (knowledge) from long combos in Street Fighter 4 to using fireballs, dragon punches, grabs, and jabs. We all make adjustments like this naturally. This makes our skills the main factor in determining our choices (what characters/classes/tactics/strategies we pick) and our playstyles. 

Understanding that one skill can be used to aid another complicates things severely. Unlike in teir 1 adaptation where the activity, challenge, or gamestate provides a context or an output for one's skills, teir 2 adaptation involves a thorough understanding of the activity/game system. Grasping tier 2 adaptation requires a double translation. Using the StarCraft example again, good reflex skills are obviously necessary for responding to a threat quickly. However, understanding why a static defense precautionary strategy shift augments poor reflex skills requires an understanding the game mechanics, dynamics, rules, and value scale. This is the second translation in the double translation. Even if you understand ScarCraft very well, figuring out the ratio of knowledge skills used to reflex skills gained is a complex process that no one is willing to go through at this point. Not even me. And it only gets more complex from here.   


Tier 3. A Shift in the Entire Skill Spectrum

We use our skills to manipulate the world (virtual or otherwise). From the tier 2 description, we know that understanding how our skills are applied requires an understanding of the task or system at hand. This means that the external activity puts our skills into focus by setting their relative effectiveness. To complicate things further any given activity or game challenge beyond of the most simple tests (found in the 4 skill games released) rarely tests just one skill or even a fixed ratio of skills. In fact, the more emergent and dynamic a system the more likely one can use multiple skills in a variety of proportions to accomplish a task.  

In the article I wrote on Station 38, I introduced the term skill spectrum:  the range of skill needed to play a game at a specific level. I was very selective when I chose the word "spectrum." Unlike using "range" or "spread," spectrum implies a level of overlap and blending between the ideas; "spectrum: a broad range of varied but related ideas or objects, the individual features of which tend to overlap so as to form a continuous series or sequence" 

I also introduced the DKART system.

As a pun on  René Descartes' "Cognito ergo sum/I think, therefore I am," the DKART system is rooted in the fundamental concept of video gaming. Being a uniquely interactive medium, players have the power to influence the game state/presentation/art form. This act of influencing is our agency. To act we must use some facet or combination of our skills. Therefore, we can express the idea of selfhood or agency in a virtual environment as, "I DKART, therefore I am."


To illustrate the overlapping nature of the skill spectrum, consider playing a particularly difficult sequence of notes on a piano. When I'm faced with such a task I have a variety of approaches to choose from. I can either use muscle memory (knowledge) and simply work the sequence into my fingers. I can use external timing to look at the keys and aim accordingly. I can use dexterity and reflex skills to read the sheet music and feel my way around the keys. Finally, I can use all of these methods and adapt or switch between them on the fly. Sure, to play the music at all I have to use some degree of my knowledge, dexterity, and timing skills. But from this point it becomes increasingly difficult to measure how my skills affect each other and how much skill it takes to play the difficult sequence.

Does this mean that we can never know or measure exactly how much skill it takes to play a game making it impossible to truly compare one game to another? Of course not. However, from here on out, we have to use some "poetic math." More on that in part 17. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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