Criticism is easy, teaching is hard

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“Teaching” is an overloaded word these days. There are a lot of people in fighting games who try to help teach others; we stream, we post tech and tutorial videos, we create reference resources, we answer questions, sometimes we even write books. It’s a beautiful thing, and there are many people who find it useful. But I don’t think we’re very good at it, yet. I’ve been getting a decent amount of practice doing 1-on-1 Guilty Gear training on my stream, and we’re only just starting to dig into learning how to level people up. What I’ve found is that most people come to fighting games not knowing how to learn, and most experienced players have no idea how to teach.

A week or so ago, Daigo “The Beast” Umehara posted a video on “Tough Words to Younger Players”, which was translated by @fgctranslated and posted here. (Thanks!) In the video, he describes a social dynamic between older and younger players, and notes that he is reluctant to ask the younger players questions like “Why did you do that?”, and admires Tokido and Mago’s willingness to ask those questions, because he is worried that they’ll react negatively and quit.

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Why does this sound so familiar?

Learning to ask yourself that question is important. It’s perhaps the most important thing you can get from fighting games, because learning to recognize patterns in your own behavior is a useful tool for pretty much everything you do in life. But when it’s someone else asking you that question, it can be pretty hard to deal with at first, especially when it comes right after they just got done beating your ass.

We old people in fighting games like to talk up a lot of the hard lessons we learned playing fighting games, because they’re valuable lessons that we want to pass on to others. But most of us did not have the experience of learning these lessons from someone who is 10–15 years older. ‘Why do you do that?’ can feel different when it’s coming from someone who’s old enough to be your uncle. Besides, any instructor knows that most people have a hard time learning something when they’re stressed or frustrated, never mind when they’re emotionally defensive on top of all that. Which sucks, because the stronger player wants to help! That’s commendable! But if you really want to help, you need to make sure you’re actually being helpful.

If you’re good enough at a game to beat someone consistently, it’ll be easy for you to point out all the things that your opponent could be doing better. That has its place! It can be very helpful. You’re doing them a favor by making it easier for them to identify the stuff they need to work on. That’s a lot nicer than most people in the arcades were. Just don’t be surprised if there are times where they don’t want to hear it — learning to take feedback is also a skill, one that gets lots of practice in fighting games, and some people are better at it than others.

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Also, remember that giving the feedback is the easy part. Once someone tells you all the things you suck at, you now have a list of things you need to fix — but it’s not always clear how to fix them. Fighting games are physically, mentally, and emotionally complicated activities, and it takes an immense amount of cognitive work to process all the inputs you’re taking in and output motions, decisions, and reads as quickly as you must in order to keep up. Think of it this way: if the best players can adapt within a match, great players within a set, and good players within a session, then everyone else — the vast majority of fighting game players — probably aren’t capable of changing up a behavior or habit within a session.

For example, let’s say you’re getting blown up in footsies, and the person you’re playing with tells you, “Hey, you should use [button] more, it’s pretty good.” (If you have ever told or been told this before, you owe me a retweet on this essay right now.)

In order to act upon this advice and make the appropriate adaptation, the other player must:

  • Recognize the situation you’re talking about: I know when this button is a good idea.

Look at all that stuff that a player has to do in order to change a single habit! That’s a lot of work to do on-the-fly, especially for newer players who may not be completely conscious of all the things they’re doing in any given situation.

Let’s look at another common example — “You should wakeup DP/other invincible reversal less often.” It sounds simple! But ask yourself these questions first:

  • Does this player keep track of how often they wakeup DP? Try counting them out loud, if they’re not keeping track they’ll probably have a pretty strong reaction. (Bonus points for your best Count von Count impression.)
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I’ll let you walk through this one yourself.

So: Telling another player these things is helpful, but it leaves a whole lot of work to them, and they probably don’t even know how to begin doing that work intentionally. Think about how many times you’ve been told to press a button more or wakeup DP less; did you sit down and make a list of things you need to do in order to change your behavior like I listed above? Of course not. You thought to yourself, ‘Hm, I guess I should wakeup DP less’ and eventually you figured all that stuff out on your own, and it probably took a lot longer than a single session. It’s slow and easy to lose focus, maybe you had to try a few times, but eventually you started doing things like keeping track of your DPs, and paying attention to the times where your DPs are more obvious, because you realized that those were useful habits for varying your DP usage.

In order to adapt to the feedback you give, a player not only needs to understand which changes they need to make in the moment, they also need to understand how to make those changes. This is hard as shit! Even the best fighting game players, the ones who can do this multiple times in a set, are not necessarily conscious enough of what they’re doing to be able to explain it to someone else. Which is probably why even Daigo sees himself choosing between two options — give harsh feedback, or be politely encouraging — as if no third option exists. He seems to want to teach other players, but he’s worried that they won’t want to learn from him.

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The Mind of a Chipp Player, by Irene Koh

I think that’s because the kind of teaching that he’s talking about — asking “Why did you do that?” and pointing out flaws — is incomplete. A great teacher is one who helps the student bridge the gap between who they are and who they want to be; bodying someone and criticizing them is simply giving them homework and hoping they pass the test next Tuesday.

Yes, we’re all here to get stronger, but getting stronger by yourself is lonely, and being able to make someone else stronger is a rewarding proof of skill in its own right. In the world of IRL fighting games (AKA martial arts), teaching is considered an integral part of a practitioner’s growth, and as you ascend the ranks, your mastery of the art is measured not only by your individual ability to practice, but also by your ability to share your knowledge of the art with others. And since the fighting game community is reaching a point in its life where we have multiple generations of competitors playing these games, I think we’re all going to have to get better at teaching — not just giving homework.

Thanks for reading!


-patrick miller

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