[ES] Mindset

This is the second post of  The Elementary Series. This is not your typical mindset article about how to improve in Starcraft and climb the ladder.

I believe a healthy mindset is extremely crucial for a game as intensive and hard to master as Starcraft. You probably have read about things like how to tackle ladder anxiety by changing your mindset etc., and such articles generally start off by highlighting certain mental weaknesses players have. As someone who is doing research in social psychology, I will like to point out that these “weaknesses” or many would call them “biases” are simply human nature. Thus, it is important to understand and embrace the human biases we have, and not perceive these biases as something negative that we think we are bad or weak because we show such signs.

I will start the post by suggesting a goal-oriented approach, then discuss how different biases can get in the way to achieve that goal. I believe interacting with Starcraft should be a motivated process and not an automated one, and hence, a goal-oriented approach is fitting.

A recent survey shows that an overwhelming proportion (98%) of the players consider themselves as casuals, and this post is only applicable to this majority. Professional or highly competitive players are likely to benefit from a different mindset.


This is just a game.

By that I don’t mean to downplay its significance, I simply want to restate the ultimate goal that we want to attain when we play games. We want to be entertained. Our primary goal is to get joy and satisfaction out of it. This very fundamental goal should drive our mindset for the game, and everything else should be aligned with this goal. If you only get frustration out of the game, you should not play it. I don’t mean quit forever, but just don’t play it until you think you can enjoy it.

Different people get joy and satisfaction from the game differently. For example, some love the sense of progress and improvement, while others love the satisfaction from defeating the opponent after an equally matched game. All of us enjoy these few things, but we also are more sensitive to different elements of the game. It is important to find out what the few things are for yourself.

I like to understand things systematically, and make well informed changes to things to improve the results. This explains why I blog about my observations and explain them in a way that makes sense. My source of satisfaction does not directly come from playing the game itself, so I generally play less. It is interesting when I look back to the time in 2010/2011 when I was always so eager to play and got so frustrated at my defeats. I also didn’t understand why a friend of mine who did not really like to play the game himself was willing to travel to my place just to watch me play (I was only gold-plat), and he loved to discuss about what happened in the game with me after each one. I didn’t really understand why he would rather watch others play (not like I was a pro and he could learn from me), but it makes sense once you understand that different people get the joy out of the game differently.

When you get frustrated at the game, you should ask yourself why do you still play it? If you can give good reasons, you actually get less frustrated at it. The question basically forces you to justify your action, and you will have a much more positive attitude toward the game if you can do so. Further, it also increases your attitude certainty, which helps to withstand opposite thoughts like how much you hate the game. I find this helpful in maintaining a healthy relationship with the game, and it also keeps me in check that I should do other more entertaining things if I cannot justify it.

The rest of the post is linked to this basic goal of getting joy out of the game, and I will discuss factors that hinders us achieving it.

Unfair self-assessment

Many of the dissatisfaction issues come from inaccuracy in self-assessment. We, as human beings, have a basic need to maintain a positive self-image, or to put it simply, we want to feel good about ourselves. We usually maintain this positive state via self-enhancement tactics in day-to-day life. Decades and decades of social psychology research is built on this basic human need, and we can easily observe how this intrinsic force affects our mindset in Starcraft.

Estimated versus actual ability

I am sure you have read gaming articles saying that “you are not as good as you think you are”. This is actually based on the fundamental self-enhancement need. Research has shown that people think they are above average in ability across many different domains that they may or may not be familiar with. When asked to estimate how good they are in certain things, almost everyone reports that s/he is above average. But that does not make sense, as there have to be people who are average and below average if there are some who are considered to be above average. This shows that we are not able to have an accurate estimation of our own ability. In other words, like what the subheading implies, we do not have a fair self-assessment.

This becomes mentally upsetting when we are being placed into a league on ladder, whereby the system has data of the whole population. If we get placed in say silver, we know that we are below average. That upsets us not just because we are not that good, but mainly because we can no longer have the delusion that we are above average. This inconsistency between what we think and what we are creates frustration in our mind (or called cognitive dissonance), and we will try to resolve it. Again, based on the fact that we want to maintain a positive self, we will resolve it by taking a mental shortcut to attribute the difference to the inaccuracy of the ladder system in judging our skill and not to the inaccuracy of our self-assessment.

I can tell you that I am no exception to such self-enhancement bias even though I am well aware of it. I was placed in bronze after I played my first set of placement games in 2010, and I was not too happy because I expected myself to get gold (or silver if I didn’t perform well). I even attributed the results to the one game that I got disconnected. I am in silver in Overwatch now, and I believe I should be in gold (lol – because my teammates are shit, not me). The interesting thing is that this phenomenon does not dissipate when we get better in the game (attenuate at best). This explains the “high diamond low masters” joke, whereby diamond players think they should be in masters.

Something funny happened to me recently when I played ladder the first time for close to two years. After taking into account of the potential bias I have about my ability, I expected myself to play at the level of gold to platinum. I was pleasantly surprised that I got placed in diamond 2 after five placement games, and I was progressing to diamond 1 ten games in. It was then it occurred to me that I would not be as happy as I was if I had expected myself to be in diamond to masters at first. In a way, I was not having a fair self-assessment in the opposite direction, but it resulted in a much more positive experience. Thus, without literally improving our actual ability, our baseline self-assessment alone can determine how much we enjoy the game. This links back to the fundamental goal I mentioned earlier.

Perspective taking

Ever felt that your opponent got lucky after a defeat? The answer is probably yes. Before I continue, I must stress that I believe spawning location is the only reasonable luck factor in Starcraft, so generally I won’t attribute the results to luck. Then, why do we suggest that opponent is being lucky? Of course, this can be explained using the same inaccurate self-assessment reason, but I want to bring another related concept: egocentric bias.

We generally overestimate how common and obvious our own perspective is, because we see the world with ourselves being the centre of it. I don’t mean it in a way that we are all self-centred in a selfish way, but it is about how we perceive the world in a subjective sense. When you link this to Starcraft, we often emphasize on what we have done in the game, and play down on what the opponent has done. For example, “the mech player just make Tank and Missile Turret to turtle up, I cannot beat it even by dropping at multiple places and out expanding!” This is normal because the information and knowledge close to us is more accessible to our mind, and we almost always never adjust away from that enough to give a fair assessment to the situation. Thus, this results in us not giving enough credit to the opponent when things don’t go well for us. I have seen people rage at me, “who the fuck drop at this timing, you must be a noob”, “it must take you lots of skill to do a doom drop”, and “just make Marines so easy”!

The difficulty to look at the game from opponent’s perspective is accentuated in a game of incomplete information like Starcraft. I still could recall a game that I played in Wings of Liberty that I was macro-ing up behind a well walled natural on two bases against a Zerg. Just when I lower the Supply Depot wall to move out, opponent rolls in with many Banelings as if it was an all-in burst. I lost everything on the spot, and I have yet seen another more cost efficient Baneling hit since then.  I watched the replay, and I noticed neither of us had vision of the opponent’s army, so I concluded that I would certainly have won the game if I moved out 2-3 seconds later, as the Banelings will be crashing onto my wall of Barracks and Supply Depots, and my sieged up Tanks will be well positioned for that situation. It was just me being unlucky. I won’t get into specific timing, build interaction and scouting about this scenario, and the point I want to make is that I would have said that I made a good timing attack if I was the Zerg player instead. This is because I am more conscious about my decisions and effort than my opponent’s, even though the whole situation is 50-50. Such conclusion also affects how quickly one learns, because I wouldn’t have learned the lesson to move out with a Marine leading the way for me to spot the situation if I did not reflect about the game from my opponent’s perspective. This then hinders my ability to give myself a fair assessment about my performance in that game. More importantly, if you always feel that the stars align in a way which goes against you, it is hard to find joy.

Extension of self

Another key psychological factor that hinders your enjoyment is you perceive your Starcraft account as an extension of yourself too strongly. There is no doubt that we perceive things associated with, belong to or created by us to be an extension of ourselves, and this is also another fundamental assumption in many social psychology research. This perception is further enhanced when the effort input is high, and Starcraft is probably one of the mainstream games with the highest effort requirement. Thus, we are likely to exhibit different kinds of self-bias behaviour, and I will name a few below based on the idea of our Starcraft account being our extended self.

Loss aversion

Given that the matchmaking system matches us with an opponent whom we have 50% chance of winning, we are actually likely to not play at all. This is because of the famous behavioural economics phenomenon that we put more weigh on losses than gains (it is called prospect theory). In line with the notion of extended self, we take it that it’s “us” who have succeeded when we win and it’s “us” who have failed when we lose, this further enhances the our loss aversion nature. When we have a close to equal chance of winning (i.e., gain) and losing (i.e., loss), we value that the expected dissatisfaction of losing outweighs the expected satisfaction of winning. This also explains why many of us have ladder anxiety. In fact, I will argue that all of us have ladder anxiety, and it is just the degree of it that is different.

Together with the strong 1v1 meritocracy nature of the game whereby we can only attribute victory and defeat to ourselves, loss aversion is an extremely powerful driver to avoid playing the game together. Research has also shown non-comparative self-enhancement tactics used by human to make ourselves feel good even though we are not negatively compared to others, for example, we play down the significance of something that we do not do well. Similarly, we justify our fear to play the game by suggesting that it is not as fun as other games (like sour grapes), and intuitively, these “other games” are usually games that allow you to attribute failures to external factors. For instance, luck in Hearthstone and teammates in MOBA and Overwatch.

Interestingly, I find myself moving back to Starcraft every time I get frustrated at luck and teammates in other games, and it is such experience that makes me appreciate and enjoy Starcraft more. This has a lot to do with preferences and personalities.

Pressure to improve

After you have got past the stage to understand that you have to brace through ladder anxiety to improve, you are likely to overcompensate the loss aversion tendency and force yourself to play more. You may have experienced this, “ok, I’m not that good, but I’m going to get better. I am going to play X number of games per week, and analyse my replay. I will not say things are imbalance, as I want to improve.” I have actually seen something very similar on the front page of a Japanese Starcraft wiki site. I cite two of the lines,

  • Ranked戦を毎日5戦、毎週30戦を目安にプレイする。
  • 負け試合のReplayは必ず確認し、敗因と対策を考える。

They roughly mean: Play five ranked games a day, 30 a week. Review the replays to understand the reasons behind defeats.

The point is, it shows how serious people are toward the game, and how much they want to improve. However, it is very important to play the game because you want to and not you have to. As time goes by, you may just force yourself to play the game, because of the commitment you have with yourself. That is definitely not fun, and it goes against the goal-oriented rationale that underlies the mindset I think is positive. Probably those who have to force themselves to play should ask themselves, “why must you play?” The reply is probably because they want to improve. Then, “why do you want to improve?” It is likely that the words “enjoy”, “fun”, and ” like” don’t pop up.

Think about this, if you just found out about Starcraft, and others tell you that “you need to practise a lot, and expect to lose many games. But you have to keep doing it.” Just think about this for a second.

Does it even sound attractive to you?

The answer is clearly no, and you probably will be thinking, “but this is Starcraft, it is a different type of game and it is not for everyone.” Sure, most players are attracted by the competitive and meritocracy nature of the game, but many of us got lost along the way in regards to our mindset. Unless you are a professional player, you should not feel that you have to play it. You should only play because you want to.

The issue with this is the relative importance of long versus short term goals in our mind. The long term goal for most of us is somewhere along the line of being the best player we can reasonably be, and the short term goal is to have fun. This is where understanding the source of joy plays crucial role in our mindset. For most of us, the joy comes from the process of interacting with the game even though the precise “source” may vary. The purpose of improving is to simply further enhance our enjoyment value in the process, it is not the only source of joy per se.

In my opinion, nothing is more motivating than having a sense of progress, and this is something that game designers are extremely conscious about. If you like Starcraft or at least interested enough to find this website, you probably enjoy the process of improvement in the game. The survey I mentioned earlier also reports that players consider improvement as the “most fun” aspect of the game (28%). However, it can be counter-constructive if we feel pressured to improve, and we start to forget about our goal to have fun.

Ending words

As I have stated clearly at the very top of this article that this isn’t your typical mindset article. I have come across quite a number of such articles that give me a feeling that I am mentally weak or I am a lesser person/player, because I have shown the signs that they are addressing (e.g., ladder anxiety). I want to make it clear that it is absolutely normal to have the issues I discussed, and you are definitely not alone. I actually think that those who say they don’t have them are in fact exhibiting indirect self-enhancement bias, whereby they want to say that they are mentally stronger than average people.

All-in-all, the goal is to have fun after all, and that’s why I picked the above banner image for this post. Don’t feel pressured to get better, as you are likely to improve quicker and happier simply by doing it at your own rate and term.

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7 thoughts on “[ES] Mindset

  1. Great article. What do you think about the phenomenon of “being stuck” at a certain point?

    Background (if you are interested): I found myself being stuck between Diamond 2 and Diamond 3 (which means that I had a diamond 2 icon but my MMR goes from 4200 to 3900 and back up again quite often these days). Obviously, it is a little bit frustrating if you try to improve and the opposite happens but I thought “Okay, I just do not know how to spot/defend this all-in yet” or “Okay, I need to work on improving my mechanics” and stuff like that. But the improvement in terms of getting results for understanding the game better has not really happened yet for me (except that I can play the game a lot more relaxed, my “ladder anxiety” is barely an small grumbling at the back of my mind when I did not take time for playing for a few days).
    I think from a psychological aspect this is something that happens at a point where you think you understand the basic elements of StarCraft quite well and when you start to dig into the details or to say it in a generalistic way: “You realize how much more there is to learn” or “You realized how much less you know than you thought”. And at this point I think two outcomes can happen: Either you are motivated to climb even more or you are frustrated because you realize how far you still have to go. And I think this can happen at multiple levels but is especially a phenomenon which you will see by observing diamond/master players.
    E.g., I played a few games against a clanmate of mine who is a master level protoss player and played Zerg as an Offrace. The difference between him playing Zerg against me and the common Zerg you find around my MMR on EU servers was like night and day in terms of execution and macro mechanics (this is especially true if that player tells you on TS that he feels like his macro was bad). And it made me realize that I may have reached my limit with the time I am willing to invest into playing the game (which is kind of demotivating to be honest ^^).

    1. I have had experience of being stuck too (stuck in silver on overwatch – up and down 100 points), and I get what you mean. A good way to think about the issue is to see improvement as a non-linear function. I’m sure you have experienced a time when you have a light bulb moment as you have figured something out, and you improved by a notch suddenly. Similarly, there will be patches whereby you do not improve enough to feel that you have improved, but you actually are improving bit by bit. You’re actually “building up” to your next improvement mini jump even though you feel stuck and not making progress. It’s an incrementist process.

      The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. The ability to accurately point out where your mistakes are is an extremely valuable skill.

    2. I think when you stock in a league in sc2 you have tout think about your S.M.A.R.T goal. For example i m silver and i want to be GM in 2 month. It s not smart.
      I m gold i want to be Diamond without read and pratice a bo…
      I have 4 Child android i want to beaucoup GM

      1. Starcraft requires soooooo much dedication that it is hard to even maintain a level without playing much. I can barely play 5 to 10 hours a month, and my mechanics is horrible. I will say the new mmr system lets you have a better gauge of progress to make more reasonable small goals.

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