Talking to Yourself

Words: 1397 Approximate Reading Time: 8-12 minutes

Following up on the essay from last week, I wanted to also share another piece of advice for helping to process information as you play a game. If last week’s idea of taking notes felt somewhat obvious and natural, this one will probably feel strange in comparison.

The advice I am offering is to talk to yourself about the game. What are you seeing? If you see an obstacle, what do you think you need to do to get past it? If you encounter a new mechanic, how do you think it works and what possibilities could there be to test it out? If you die, what killed you and what could you learn from that experience?

I presented this idea before in the tips I gave for tackling puzzle games. But this advice can be relevant for systems outside of just puzzle solving. Because to some degree, many game systems and the interactions between them involve some kind of “puzzle” in a very broad sense. There is a problem that needs to be solved, and there may be a variety of possible solutions, but discovering those solutions requires thinking through something. It may be tactics and strategy, it may be your equipment, it may be your levels and stats, or it may be some specific item you need. Whatever the case, knowing how to approach those challenges through the lens of seeing them as problems that can be overcome through the use of careful thought rather than bashing your head against the wall over and over again is a useful skill to build up. Play smart.

While this may well seem a weird habit to build up, it’s not that alien. Your brain is already processing information as you play, whether you think about it consciously or not. If you get hit by something you probably get a bit annoyed or frustrated or surprised, but you are also filing that little piece of information away and processing it for later. Eventually when you connect enough information, you usually intuit how to react to these situations. You learn to dodge or block more effectively, what the tells are, when you have an opening to attack, and so on.

Of course, your brain is usually doing this through some combination of language and association. Some part of our thought processes can be perceived as words and sentences – an internal dialogue with ourselves. Of course, that dialogue is easily cut off for any number of reasons. We can get distracted, for one, but just as important is the fact that those internal dialogues are not entirely composed of language. That brings us to association.

A fair amount of how we process all sorts of information – speech, arguments, symbols, colors, etc. – are through associations. Invisible connections that you make between two different ideas. You connect a particular song to a particular moment in time in your life or an emotion, and that association may be unique to you. You see a tree, and perhaps your brain tries to discern exactly what type of tree it is, whereas others may simply see it as a “tree.” The point of these associations is that they will make sense to you, but not necessarily to anyone else.

A core challenge of creating art of any kind of trying to get through that barrier – to communicate an association in your head to someone else without being able to spell out precisely what that association is. Plenty of cultural context, historical changes, and personal experience makes that difficult, and part of the task is being aware of those limitations – seeing the things that bias us and how events might appear to someone else.

Which I bring up because both designing a game and playing a game involve these same issues from the opposite direction. From a design perspective, creating systems only works if they will make sense to the player – someone who is specifically unfamiliar with the system at the start. The invisible connections about how to progress through the game must be brought to light, and that is easier said than done.

But from a player perspective, there is a need to interpret and understand. To see that design and figure out what we are meant to learn. If a game is designed well, it will at least be trying to talk to us through a variety of languages. Not just dialogue, but environment, challenge, and all sorts of other systems. Knowing how to listen becomes an important skill.

And I go through all of this to say that by talking yourself through the learning process, you can learn to listen. Talking brings so much of that subconscious learning into the light, and helps to solidify lessons. Sure, you can think that when you get hit by a particular attack you will try to be more careful. But if you say why you got hit, you can more consciously determine how you can react next time, and so increase the chances that you actually follow through.

In saying this, it is important to be aware of some of the drawbacks. Because talking in this way demands attention from your conscious brain, you are quite literally dividing your attention. Some things will pass you by. If you’ve ever watched a playthrough of a game on Twitch or YouTube where the player was offering commentary of some kind (joking, talking about another subject, etc.), then you’ve very likely seen them miss something – a piece of scenery, a bit of dialogue, an item that was right in front of their nose. What has started to become known as the “LP/streamer tax” is something that you can encounter yourself in the comfort of your own home.

But that drawback doesn’t have to be permanent. By which I mean you can still allow yourself to play slowly. You do not need to comment on everything. The point is simply getting into the habit of talking to yourself through your engagement with the game.

I do want to stress, though, the idea that this process has to do with processing information. I have written before on types of commentary which can effectively become barriers to authentic play. Talking to yourself in this context as a way of helping or augmenting your play is about thinking aloud when you are trying to decipher clues and hints that the game is giving you. It isn’t about how you think a bit of dialogue was funny, or messing around with a bug you’ve found, or a joke you thought up about a cutscene you’re watching. Ultimately, your play is your play. You may choose to engage with the game as you wish. But these are not the kinds of talking I mean when I offer this advice.

In suggesting this, I fully acknowledge that a reader may feel too embarrassed to try this tactic out. Especially if you do not live alone, and thus might have your running monologue overheard by family or a roommate. I do not offer this advice with the promise that it will make you a better player or improve your gameplay. You are not playing badly if you elect to keep your mouth shut. You can ignore my suggestion if you so choose.

The point of all of this is to use our vocalizations to solidify our thought processes. To slow down and play a bit more deliberately by forcing our mouths to catch up to our brains – thus giving our brains a chance to actually think over what we’re saying.

Walking the line between mindless grunts and exclamations and overthinking is difficult. There is likely no single correct answer, and every person needs to find their own balance. If we vocalize too little, we aren’t getting any mental benefit (though it probably does offer a bit of catharsis to vent your frustrations). If we get too caught up in our vocalizations, then we stop actually engaging with the game because we are too caught up in thinking about it. At the end of the day, this should be treated as an experiment. Where it seems to be interesting and helpful, figuring out that happy medium would be a good idea. Where it seems to just get in the way, sticking to silence will certainly be the way to go.

But at least give it a few shots.

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