Reaction Speeds in Gaming

The topic of reaction speeds comes up a lot in my pet-genre of fighting games, especially when talking about casual players. Commonly they will exclaim “I just don’t have the reaction speed to play these games!” which I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of how one’s reactions work. There is a biological component to reaction speed that is hard or perhaps, impossible to improve, but that is not what most people lack. This is much like the concept of APM in RTSs. People commonly exclaim they don’t have the finger speed to play despite easily being able to type over 100 characters a minute. The bottleneck is rarely biological. The bottleneck is in your head.

The mental component, unlike the biological aspects of your reactions and reflexes, is readily and almost easily improvable. It represents the ‘skill’ component of reactions. The biological component of your reaction speed might represent your upper limit (which, by the way, is not perfectly represented by online reaction checkers), the vast majority of your sluggish reaction times in activities come from complex mental processes.

What I’m about to say isn’t strict science, but more so, a personal theory, coming from years of both gaming and watching other people improve at games. It might not perfectly represent the actual mental/physical model of what’s going on, but I think it’s a useful tool for understanding it in a way that will help you improve.

The Stack

The stack is the mental “post processing” that occurs once stimulus is received. Just like the post processing on many televisions, actions taking in one’s mental stack delay the time it takes to respond to something you see on screen. In the above (and silly) example, the new player is spending so much time trying to parse what’s going on, what he can do and how he’s supposed to do the thing that he wants to do that he not only fails to respond to the stimulus (a fireball), his thought process is totally out of sync with what’s going on in the game. He is getting hit and thrown before he totally can remember where the kick button is. This might sound ridiculous, but for anyone who can remember what it was like even as an experienced player to switch from Pad to Stick, the amount of extra processing that goes on in your head to remember what button you’re supposed to hit is ridiculous and frustrating.

A player in sensory overload can commonly think their reflexes and reaction speed are terrible simply due to the fact that they are not experienced enough to know what’s going on. Or how can they be expected to make a good decision after being knocked down when not only can they not parse the seemingly infinite pool of possible actions and responses, but is probably too mentally backlogged to be able to generate a meaningful decision until after the knockdown situation has passed? The problem seems overwhelming, but all the player has to do is clean up their “Stack”.

Cleaning Up Your Stack

The first part of improving is realizing you WILL get better if you try. Especially your reflexes. Games always seem to get slower as you learn them. You can help speed up the process though by really thinking about what you’re doing. My advice to all new players is to, as soon as possible, have a plan. A bad plan can be changed, modified and adjusted. Making such adjustments without a plan is often messy and unreliable. One of my favorite bits of advice is telling people to use less buttons when they play. This isn’t always applicable, but is especially relevant to Street Fighter. Lets take Ryu…

Medium Kick (all versions)
cr.LK (close up poke)
Cr.HP (easy anti air)
Hadoken (range attack)
Shoryuken (anti air)

We’re cutting a move set of 30+ moves down to 6. More so, you can have a gameplan with only like 3 of these moves. The player can use MK for basically anything. It’s a good jump in, cr.MK is Ryu’s best poke and standing MK is okay. All the player needs then is a Hadoken and some Anti Air. This GREATLY reduces the stack. When standing in front of an opponent, one doesn’t have to think about all of Ryu’s moves — if they’re somewhat close, cr.MK. If they’re far, Hadoken. Lets represent these stack processes…

One important thing to remember: Problem solving can ALWAYS be eliminated. Problem solving in match generally means you’re losing. That’s stuff that you’ll be doing outside the match. You might also experiment in a match to figure out something against a more experienced opponent. Regardless, you want to avoid it when possible. You’ll also probably never get good enough that you’ve eliminated all problem solving from your stack, but in theory you could (thus becoming the best player ever). As you learn and become familiar with situations, these should naturally vanish, even if that situation is “doing a move”. Eventually there is no overhead for inputting a move. Your muscle memory will have that covered for you. Eventually you won’t have to run all the calculations on which move to anti air someone with, you’ll just skip to the important part — getting him out of the air.

“But wait!” you exclaim! Eliminating DECISIONS? By what sorcery do you just ANTI AIR automatically? In fact, anti airing every time someone is in the air seems like it’d be kinda dumb and would fail all the time! You only want to AA someone when the AA attempt will succeed and with that, aren’t there tons of other observations that weren’t included? Wouldn’t they read like…

“The opponent jumped.” “Is he going to be able to reach me?” “Is he attacking?” “Have I noticed in time to do a Shoryuken?” “Normal?” “Do I just block?”

Well yes, but we can not only explain that, but greatly simplify what and you need to observe!

Simplifying the World

One of the big pieces of speeding up your reaction time is deciding what is worth observing and looking for. If an opponent is right next to you, you do not generally need to look for them to jump (unless they’re a dirty, dirty dive kick character or have a brutal crossup). If they’re totally across the screen, putting priority on the fact they’re jumping isn’t important either. If you’re at midscreen, you generally shouldn’t be setting up your stack to respond to overheads. If you’re knocked down, you can go slowly break down what your opponents options ACTUALLY are with experience, and once the basic high/low/throw/meatie okizeme situation is internalized, you can put all your observation can be put toward tiny details to help you make the right decision. If an opponent doing something in a situation wouldn’t make any sense, or if responding to it wouldn’t give you any benefits, then there is little reason to be looking for it and by looking for less things, we can respond and act faster.

I also want to introduce the concept of Autopilot. Autopilot is the subconscious script your gameplay follows once you get good but aren’t terribly playing attention. You can learn to play the game quite competently without really “thinking”. The advantage here though isn’t that you don’t have to think — it’s that you can use your autopilot to free up mental resources to make more decisions. Combos are something that are often able to be done on autopilot after a while. The great thing there is you can use your mental energy during the combo to either plan on what you want to do after the combo, or look for things going on in the combo that might be concerning. In games like Guilty Gear, realizing that your opponent is a bit out of position in an air combo and finishing the combo differently to compensate can be a big deal. It’s also something that can only be reasonably done when the combo is running on auto pilot. If you’re looking to anti air your opponent because they seem to be in a “jumpy mood” it is super beneficial to be able to play decently while waiting for the jump. If you just stand there and wait for the jump, they will likely never jump (and might even gain an advantage). Having a functioning Autopilot allows you to decide what things you want to put your focus on. Your auto piloted actions will never be as good as they would be if they had your full attention, but by choosing where you full attention goes, you can pull off things that seem, to inexperienced players, super human.

This is also why having a plan is SUPER IMPORTANT. Even if your plan is to do cr.MKs -> Hadoken, just doing that all reflexively gives you the breathing room to think about what you’re doing in more detail. It gives you the focus necessary to decide what should be in your Stack. By managing whats in your stack and using your focus carefully, you can, with average or even bad natural reaction speed, do things that seem stupidly robo-fast.

It’s not about being about to perceive and react to everything, it’s about being able to simplify the problem and removing the clutter from your brain that slows down your actions. It’s experience that holds you back more so than your inherent abilities.

28 thoughts on “Reaction Speeds in Gaming

  1. Is “…type over 100 characters a second.” near the end of the first paragraph supposed to read ‘…type over 100 characters a minute.’?

  2. Learning to do the necessary thinking automatically is how all video games are learned (and in fact how most learning takes place period). The difference is, when was the last time your average lifelong gamer encountered an entirely new kind of gameplay? Especially one that didn’t have meticulously designed levels and tutorials to provide a pedagogically sound introduction to the necessary principles? It’s been so long since actual learning took place that one forgets what it’s like.

    If you’re succeeding at 50%-80% of your attempts to do something, that means you are learning. That’s the magic range. Less than 50% and feedback is too infrequent to build off of; more than 80% and you’ve mastered it (and only then can you use that mastery as a stepping stone to reach more sophisticated practice). If you want to keep your player from being frustrated long enough to actually see what’s going on, do whatever it takes to get them above that 50% threshold as quickly as possible.

    Incidentally, that’s why you only learn anything when you’re playing against opponents near your skill level. Against a stronger player, even if you are able to execute a mechanical decision over half the time, your opponent’s effective response will negate your success, potentially preventing you from getting that sweet, sweet reinforcement that is absolutely necessary for learning.

    That 50% bar has to be cleared at every single level of understanding and interacting with the game, or else the player will stop progressing and grow frustrated and decide to find something better to do with their time. The lowest levels of understanding are the most important ones, because, having less investment in and no good memories of the game, the player needs only the flimsiest of reasons to give up. They’ll rationalize their lack of learning as some fundamental shortcoming of the game or themselves, and become an unreachable curmudgeon like me.

  3. The ‘thought processes of a new player’ chart is a laugh riot, wow.

    I’ve never gotten good at any fighters, but what you’re describing is really similar to combat in MMOs. First just trying to overcome the hurdle of ‘I have WAY too many skills to worry about’ and then later ‘The other guy has WAY too many skills to worry about’ and then even later ‘I’m fighting 3 guys at once how the fuck am I meant to keep track of anything’. You start to pick up on what cues do or don’t matter, and especially what audio cues are important. Eventually in pitched fights between upwards of 10 vs 10 you can keep track of what’s going on in the whole fight by listening and still focus your ‘real’ attention on fighting one guy properly.

    Once you’ve got your own game plan down and unthinking, you get another boost to reaction times too. Once you no longer spend much effort on what you’re doing, you can put all that excess towards spotting what the other player is doing. In a certain situation you might work out there’s only two things the other guy might reasonably do, and even moreso he keeps choosing to do the first one. When someone has started to do the exact thing you’re anticipating, suddenly you can seem to have really good reactions without it being about biological reflexes.

  4. Hmm… I use the same basic concept for playing mind games in most competitive games. Basically, I realize (without thinking) what the opponent is most likely going to do and then trap him, if there is a possibility. If there is no possibility and he is playing safe, I already initiated my movements to manipulate him in a situation which favors me – if that’s possible.

    I’m not into fighting games for the most part, because there I don’t have as much time to set up and manipulate my opponents.

    I really like that article, but I’m not sure I understood it.. Maybe I’ll read it again later ^^

  5. At the risk of sounding stupid, what’s retarded about trying to Spinning Bird Kick over a fireball?

  6. Sick stuff! Awesome article, Ive been trying to explain stuff like this to some beginners mate. But never succeed, because I am ass at explaining. Which you aren’t! Thanks.

  7. Thank you so much for this article Kayin, it’s really well written and you do a fantastic work of explaining things right, like SevenDaggers mentioned. I am a beginner (extreme beginner, let’s put it this way), and this article has definitely helped me understand one of the reasons for failure in matches is the excess of mental processes and information management going on inside the mind during those crucial moments.
    But that’s not all your article gave me, it also (and very importantly) made me feel confident again, made me believe “I can get there” if I try! :-) Cheers!

  8. Nah, thank you for the kind words, Oscar! I think that confidence is the important thing. When people don’t do thinks because it’s “too hard” it’s not because they don’t necessarily want to put the work in to succeed… it’s that they think they will get nothing out of the time they put in. “Reasonable confidence that you can succeed” is like the magical super power that lets someone get away with doing so much in life.

    Anyways, good luck! Here’s hoping you find out that you actually have blistering biological reaction speeds once you sweep the cruft away.

  9. Well, I did read this again later. No idea why my past self didnt understand. Its pretty obvious, andI think I can agree with this theory

  10. I think, honestly, that this is absolutely the most important concept to improving at a fighting game that exists, and that this particular article puts it in a perfect way that is simple and entertaining to understand. Every single concept in a fighting game stems after mastering this idea, because this isn’t necessarily what to do to improve, but how. The how to do that everyone wants to know and nobody who knows can really explain, and you did. Serious kudos, one of the best reads on fighting games I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. I’d love to read more from you like this.

  11. Man I WISH I could get out more articles like this. But of course I gotta wait for something to come to me. Can’t just force it.

  12. I came across this from the recommended reading at the end of Patrick Miller’s Educated Video Game Enthusiast’s Fighting Game Primer, and just wanted to reiterate what people have been saying. Both Miller’s Primer and this article on “reaction speeds” are hugely entertaining and helpful. They make the whole process of learning and understanding these complicated games so much more enjoyable, and I feel like I have obtained an entirely new vocabulary with which to convince my friends that playing these games in general is a wholesome and downright fascinating exercise.

    Thank you Kayin! Hope to see more from you in future.

  13. I also came here from Patrick Miller’s Educated Video Game Enthusiast’s Fighting Game Primer and wanted to say that to beginners, like myself (started this summer with umvsc3), this information in addition to Patrick’s excellent guide, makes bucketloads of sense and helps tremendously. I have a reasonable understanding of how to go about learning, but reading all this makes such a difference to feeling encouraged to continuing practicing :)

  14. I also came from the primer. Your theory is a lot like the fighter pilot John Boyd’s, though it departs after observation. Boyd’s was how to adapt to a changing environment. His was: Orient, Observe, Decision, Action.

    I made a collection of the zip files of his work:

    Hopefully, it could help flesh out your theory or make for interesting reading.

  15. Kinda only got to give Boyd a cursory look but it’s funny because I heard the OODA loop used a lot for business mumbo jumbo and with the little I see about the OODA loop now it’s like “wow way to totally read this the wrong way you business nerds”. Totally see what you’re getting in.

  16. I’m not surprised about the business nerds. If they worked in sales one should be surprised if they didn’t get it wrong.

  17. Pingback: Flow Chart Fighting: A Bad Thing? | Going for Broke!

  18. IMO the OODA loop is just a reiteration of the Scientific Method oriented towards warfare. besides these concepts and strategies, I believe fast and slow thinking would further describe this type of information.
    Daniel Kahneman goes into more detail about this in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

  19. Great explanation! I tried to explain this concept to a friend and all i said was “stop mashing and panicking, and try and play more reactively”, which tbh probably created the stacking problem that you mentioned. I showed him this article, and he thouroughly yelled at me and proceeded to feverishly try and practice this in usf4. Thanks for having an explanation that gives me someone to play proper local versus with.

  20. good article, but saying things like “that’s retarded” or “that’s gay” seems really unnecessary! you could’ve just wrote *dumb* or *stupid*.

  21. YEEEEAAAAH I wrote that forever ago and the use of ‘that’s gay’ was supposed to be more reflective of the way people would complain back in the day but it’s just stupid and gross and needless. Considering this is like the only thing I wrote worth even having up, I’ve edited the image. I don’t need my dumbassery marring the article. Thank you for pointing that out.

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