Five Things I Learned About Working on a Goal (From Super Hexagon)

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Note: for everyone who’s rolling their eyes, this isn’t really a post about video games, it’s about getting better at things, the challenges you face and how to deal with them. Super Hexagon was just a game that helped me understand a lot of this.

There are a lot of people who get really defensive when someone dares to suggest that video games might be a waste of time. “No!” they cry. “Video games improve reflexes, quick thinking, spatial reasoning and problem solving!” To hear them tell it, video games will also make you breakfast, help you fit into that dress you’ve had your eye on or make you look like Liam Hemsworth (super hot). Others might take a more philosophical view, claiming that any time spent having fun is time not wasted, which is a contender for “Argument Most Likely To Have Been Made by a Teenager.” I should know, I used to say it myself.

It all comes across as so much justification to me. If you spend 8 hours a day pouring effort and energy into self-gratification, of course you’re going to react angrily if someone calls you out on on the triviality of the exercise, because deep down you know they’re not entirely wrong. As a medium, video games have spectacular potential to make people reflect on themselves and their actions, but the majority of them at this point are frivolous fluff, fancy toys for the digital age.

However, like any task you set yourself, even the bare-bones, arcade-style high-score games can teach you things about yourself depending on how you deal with the challenge. Super Hexagon by Terry Cavanagh, my Game of the Year 2012, was one such game. You have to guide a triangle through an ever-shifting maze. If you hit an object, you have to start over, and the goal of the game is to see how long you can last before you become overwhelmed. It’s extremely difficult, and absolutely merciless. It’s the act of improving a skill distilled into its purest form, and as my times slowly lengthened, I began to reflect on how I was coping with it. Here are five things I learned about working on a goal from Super Hexagon.

1.  You’ve got to be humble.

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The worst thing you can say to yourself when trying to get better at something is “I SHOULD be able to do this!” We’ve all been there, it’s only natural to get frustrated with a lack of progress, but all you’re doing is holding yourself to standards you haven’t yet reached, and having a go at yourself. That’s not helpful, it’s just empty self-flagellation. Who cares if you think you should be able to do it? You’re not able to do it right now. That’s why you’re practicing, right? So you’re able to do it in the future.

In Super Hexagon, you might have played a level hundreds of times, memorised the patterns and you’ll still fail within seconds. “My high score is 0:54! Why am I still crashing at 0:09? Aren’t I past this? Haven’t I improved enough?”

This really hit home when I was trying to learn fingerpicking. I’d come across a song I wanted to play, look over the tablature, and before I knew it my fingers were tripping over themselves. Other times I’d try to play at faster speeds and give up when I realised it sounded stilted, coarse and uneven. I thought I SHOULD be able to do it because I’d had success in similar areas, but the cosmos (and your body) doesn’t care about your personal sense of justice.

You’ve got to be humble, recognise that you’re not going to meet with success instantly even if you’ve had previous success, and just get to work.

2. You’re training your brain to not be a complete dumbass.

Super Hexagon, and by extension all reflex and skill based games that involve repetitive patterns, has a way of revealing to the player what a complete dumbass their brain is. The mind is so quick at processing situations that before you’ve even done anything, it can see the mistake you’re about to make, think “Oh my God, I’m going to fail, why did I do that” and then make the mistake. All in the space of a few nanoseconds. And yet it’s powerless to, you know, actually stop you from making that mistake.

You become very familiar with this feeling. A pattern will appear in Super Hexagon, and you’ll think “Okay, I need to go left here but I can tell I’m going to go right and I’ll have to start all over” and then you’ll go right. In a game like Ikaruga, I’d often see one bullet out of hundreds flying towards my ship and think “I’m going to plough right into that” and then make a beeline for it. I couldn’t help myself.

Your brain is, by default, a complete dumbass. It’ll make mistakes over and over again, and the more you make those mistakes, the better you become at making them. Practice makes perfect, after all, for the good and the bad. The trick is to identify those mistakes, then train your brain to not make them. The only way to accomplish that is to repeat the action, always being aware of what you actually need to do, until your brain finally gets the idea and your successes begin outweighing your failures. It’s that simple.

3. You will eventually need outside help.

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If you’ve played Super Hexagon to the final level, you might have involuntarily shuddered at the above picture. It’s probably the most difficult pattern in the game, because it doesn’t resemble any other pattern, the route through it is not immediately clear, and the final level is so blisteringly fast that you don’t get a chance to take a look at it before you’ve already messed up. It caused me to give up on the game, 40 seconds from 100% completion. It was just too much hassle for me to figure out.

I believe the best way of learning is to teach yourself, make your own connections and re-examine your previous beliefs, but inevitably you have to seek the advice of others. Luckily, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who’ve been in the exact same situation you have and will tell you how they got through it. It’s not a personal failure, you’re not an idiot for seeking help. It’s just a way for you to keep moving forward which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is more important than any belief that you should be clever enough to figure it out by yourself (see #1).

After reading some guides written by others, I discovered that the route through the pattern is Right, Right, Left Left Left. It took an hour for me to train my brain (see #2) to adapt to that sequence of key presses, but I can get through the pattern now. Rad.

4. You get burned out after a series of successes; let it go

I actually first observed this when playing Super Meat Boy. Craig and I would pass the controller between us, trying to outdo each other’s times, shaving a few milliseconds off here and there. It was the best kind of competition: not for glory, but to push each other and see how good both of us could get. You can get so caught up in trying to succeed, however, that you become blind to what’s actually happening. Craig would set a series of particularly excellent times, and begin to falter. He began making rookie mistakes. He was convinced that if he played for long enough, he would recover, and I’d eventually have to force the controller out of his hands. Same thing happened to me with Super Hexagon. I’d get close to my record several times, feel like I was on a roll, begin to falter and continue – even though it was obvious I wasn’t achieving anything.

If you’ve done really well in one session and then begin to make silly mistakes, it’s time to take a break. You’re burning yourself out and training your brain to make those mistakes you’ve worked hard to avoid (see #3). This is the point where it’s easy to get caught in the trap of #1. You’re not doing yourself any favours by failing repeatedly at objectives you breezed past ten minutes ago because you think you’re bound to recover. You’ve done well, you’ve improved, now take a break and come back to it later. You’ll be a lot kinder to yourself if you do.

5. If you’re patient, the impossible does become possible.

This video is the final level of Super Hexagon. You don’t have to watch it for long, it’s just there to illustrate how quickly you’re forced to react. When I began that final level, I was convinced I was going to give up playing entirely before I managed to last more than 3 seconds.

When I say “making the impossible possible”, I don’t mean it in a trite, condescending way. I think most people think they’re capable of doing most things acceptably if they put the time in, they just can’t be bothered or have no interest. And I’m certainly not talking about things that are beyond the reach of 99.9% of the population, such as running a mile in under 4 minutes. I’m talking about those things you’re pretty sure you could do, and would like to, but give up on quickly because you’re not making the kind of progress you hoped for.

Patience is the key. You’ve just got to be patient. I truly believe that ‘determination’ is much more about allowing yourself the time to improve than it is about teeth-gritting willpower. Getting better at things takes time, and if you’re patient enough while you keep working, I guarantee that one day, sooner than you’d expect, you’ll look back on where you were six months previously and marvel at how far you’ve come. It’s inevitable. You’ve just got to stop worrying so much about how quickly you’re progressing and be content with simply progressing.

I’m not saying you should keep all of the above in mind at all times when you’re trying to improve in some area of your life. I’m certainly not saying you’ve failed if you forget one or all of the tips I’ve given. I barely remember what I was doing ten minutes ago. This advice isn’t in my head at all times, it just helps when I do manage to remember it. No-one’s perfect, and advice like this isn’t a cheat code to success. It’s an ideal to aspire to. The next time you’re frustrated with a lack of progress whether it be in art, music or even a video game, don’t immediately start berating yourself.  Take a breath and consider whether or not you’re falling into one of these traps.

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