Many people have heard and likely used the term 'muscle memory' during the course of their life. It is commonly used to describe the process through which people perform repetitive tasks with great speed or accuracy. While this is the outcome of developing muscle memory, a better way to describe it is as 'unconscious memory'. I am a musician and vocal coach, I have been playing music since the age of five, first learning guitar and then branching out to play Piano, Saxophone, Violin and a host of other instruments that I can play, though some, not particularly well. I have over the intervening years developed both muscle and unconscious memory for playing these instruments and for singing, in turn I have taught others how to play these instruments and they have also developed their muscle and unconscious memory. I am not a biologist, or psychologist. I am a physicist at heart, but many years of study unfortunately fail me in this particular area. I speak from personal experience, kindly shared wisdoms and knowledge passed on to me by my teachers. This is a loooong post, you may wish to tackle it in stages. a Good place to stop would be when you see bold and underlined text as those are the section headings.
There are a few misconceptions about muscle memory, in particular - the term itself is a misnomer. The memory is stored in the same way as any other memory, in the mind. Muscle memory is much like speaking, over time it develops on its own and for the most part is achieved without much conscious thought. The biggest misconception is that muscle memory is how people actually perform tasks, it is not. They perform tasks with either conscious thought or unconscious memory. To illustrate this, if you were to ask a sufficiently skilled guitarist to play an E chord on the fifth fret of their guitar, without looking, they would immediately play the chord. They can do this because they remember how playing an E chord on the fifth fret feels. If you then asked how they did it they would likely respond “muscle memory”, playing a single chord or note is the only time at which they are using solely muscle memory. If you asked them to play an E chord and then an A chord, one after the other then they begin to use unconscious memory as well.
Unconscious memory is developed by the same process and is always used in combination with muscle memory to perform actions. The feel of playing the chord itself is muscle memory, however transitioning from one to the other is performed by unconscious memory. You do not remember how it 'feels' to move from one to the other, there are too many combinations and possibilities to do this, instead over many hours of practice your mind learns how to transition from one shape to another, or from one part of the fret board to another without you being consciously aware of how you do it. The actual muscle memory is only used to verify that your hand is in the correct shape and your arm is in the correct place, and it is also partially conscious.
If you asked a guitarist to hold their hand in the shape of an open E chord without the guitar in their hand they will be able to form the basic shape, but if you were then to put the guitar into this they will often not be in the correct shape. This is because part of the stimulus for muscle memory is the guitar itself, without it the muscles do not have a reference for correction, therefore what feels right without the guitar is rarely correct with it. However, if you ask them to move their hand from an open E chord to and open A chord or vice versa, they will be far more likely to get the shapes correct, this is because the part of the brain that stores the information for transitioning from one chord to another does not rely on the stimulus of the guitar, it is, unlike muscle memory, a completely unconscious process. The only conscious thought used is the initial request of moving from an E chord to an A chord, and subsequent commands to change shape, the actual action of changing shape is handled by memory alone. The reason why making the shape of an E chord is hard without the guitar is that you cannot consciously verify that your hand is in the correct place.
Why does anyone, do anything?
So you may be asking yourself, what does all this waffle have to do with gaming? Well, simply put, everything you do has to do with muscle and unconscious memory. Nearly every action you perform uses some combination of them, whether it be where your tongue needs to be placed in your mouth to create sounds when speaking or walking up the stairs to your bedroom. Any action that is repeated often will eventually lead to the development of muscle and unconscious memory. Musicians have a much more intimate relationship with these memories than most, they are more aware of the development and the results as it is something talked about a lot by their teachers and musician friends. Gamers often do not recognise that they are using these memories to play their games, day9 refers to what I would call unconscious memory when he talks about remembering to make probes and pylons. Most pro-gamers do not have to remind themselves, they have developed unconscious memory that performs this process for them, freeing up their conscious mind to do other things.
A few weeks ago I was giving a guitar lesson and my student and I got on to the subject of gaming, and it turned out we both play SC2. After much “what league are you in” and “wanna play some 2v2?” he asked if I could give him any tips on how to develop muscle memory for SC2 hotkeys and other actions. I essentially gave him a twenty minute version of the previous five paragraphs to illustrate that he already had the muscle memory needed, now he needed to develop unconscious memory and that the only way to do that is practice. I am not a pro-gamer, I would say I am a good gamer though. One reason I would say this is that I have very good hand co-ordination because of years playing a guitar, my hands do things essentially on their own leaving my mind to focus on other things.
I'm Just a Rock n Roll Nerd
Before anyone says anything, credit to comedian Tim Minchin for coining the above term... it describes me perfectly.
One thing I would never do is try to teach better players about mechanics, macro or micro etc. They know more about that stuff than I do, however I can talk with authority about how to learn to do many of those things unconsciously, leaving their mind free to think about tactics and strategy. With that said, I will now attempt to pass on some of my wisdom. Please, if you think what I write hereafter or have written hither to is useless, wrong, incomplete, unclear, brilliant, or otherwise, feel free to say so. However, if you have nothing useful, correct, succinct, respectful, legible, logical, constructive, creative, or worthwhile to say, please, for the love of all things blizzard..... keep it to yourself, you shall merely be an inconvenience that I skip past as I scroll down the screen. I would ask everyone who has something worthwhile to contribute, even those who disagree with me, to not feed the trolls.
Things you might not know
What most people do not realise is that if you can hit any requested key on a keyboard without looking, you have developed all the muscle memory you will ever develop for playing any PC game. Again, muscle memory is simply the memory of how pressing that key feels. Simply put, if you can touch type, you have fully developed your muscle memory for a keyboard. You have also developed the unconscious memory of how to touch type. So now you just need to learn the unconscious memory for playing which ever game you play. For the purposes of this article, I will directly refer to SC2, but you can apply the principles to any game.
So, first off. There are ways to accelerate the learning process, they are simple and you can use them when you are not even playing the game. I will talk about simple techniques for developing muscle and unconscious memory. Lets start with keyboard muscle memory.
Perfection comes with practice
Before I go further, even if you can perfectly touch type already, try these exercises or better yet, just start doing it one handed right away.
Open up a text editor, any will do, but if you want to be flash use Microshaft or OpenOffice. Type this sentence The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The sentence is a Pangram (it uses every letter of the Latin alphabet) Repeat it over and over for about a minute, making sure to hit enter at the end of the sentence, you can look at your hands as you type if you need to. You will end up with a screen like this:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
Oh and make sure you capitolise the T each time using shift.... none of this turning caps lock on for one letter... you know who you are!
Now turn off your monitor, look directly at the screen (do not ever look at your keyboard) and repeat the process for about a minute. Do not attempt to correct yourself or worry if you mess up, perfection can only be achieved through practice. It can actually be both entertaining and enlightening to see the results.If you perform this exercise once or twice every day you will see improvement within a matter of weeks. The more you practice each day, the more benefit you will see, but once or twice a day is fine. It is vitally important that you do it both with the monitor on and off, and also when you do it with the monitor off that you do not look at the keyboard. If you do this exercise correctly you will learn to touch type and at the same time teach yourself a vital skill for gaming, the ability to use the keyboard without looking at it and the ability to keep your eyes on the screen at all times. Honestly you would be surprised by the amount of people who can 'touch type' but only with the monitor turned on, you would also probably be surprised by the amount of pro-gamers who can't touch type!
You can use similar exercises to teach yourself exactly where each key on the keyboard is. Number exercises aren't so important, you will learn those while doing the next exercise. The key is being able to find the letter keys without the need to verify it visually. In fact, while looking directly at the screen, you should be able to see where your hands are anyway, looking down at them to verify you have the correct key is what you need to eliminate.
The “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” exercise is a direct analogy to an exercise I did as child while learning to play the guitar, twenty some years later I can literally play a guitar blindfolded. Don't worry, learning the technique to type blindfolded won't take that long! Once you can do this exercise with some degree of accuracy, start doing it only using your keyboard hand, and put your mouse hand actually on your mouse.
Almost Done! I Promise!
The next exercise is to help your memory develop faster, you will again have no need to be in game, though you can practice it in a Vs Very Easy AI if you wish to practice mouse co-ordination etc. This one can also be directly related to music, if I were talking about a guitar the exercise would be playing scales. In SC2, it is performing action sequences. As day9 would say, gotta make probes, gotta make pylons. To help learn hotkeys and combinations of them, open your text editor.
I will use Protoss and Terran as my examples, since I have only played Zerg twice (and failed miserably). I also have no self-respect and play Terran as my main race (no flames please and don't feed the trolls).
Practice the combination for making a probe using only hotkeys. In my case it would be 8e. If you were a Zerg I believe it would be 8sd, substitute in whichever number you control group your hatch/cc/nexus to. Again, simply practice repeating the action with the monitor off or even just without a text editor up. The key is to have your mouse hand on the mouse, and your eyes on the screen, but to have no direct visual verification. You can practice this at work, school, wherever. Practice all your most frequently used hotkey combinations, when you have those down.. do all the rest. Even practice things like clicking your mouse then hitting the hotkey for an upgrade (forge/ebay/evo should probably be assigned to a control group, things like tech labs probably won't be). Practice these things outside of the game, so that you don't have to think directly about them in game. Being able to look at your supply and think “need to build a pylon” and your hand immediately just does it, without you telling it to, that is the goal. One you can achieve without ever playing the game itself.
Muahahaha! I Lied!
The final technique is one that day9 talks about a lot in his dailies. It is action by association, mainly in the form of “oh i'm at 22 food, time to build another gateway” or “my third stalker is out, time to get blink”. I should just say, that I do not know whether either of those examples would be a good association to have, they are just plucked from the air for demonstration purposes... please, don't feed the trolls... you know one will say something like “wtf noob, why would you get blink with only 3 stalkers... fuck....god damn noob!!!!” obviously not spelt quite as well, and perhaps not with as good grammar. And they likely won't have read this bit because they will already be writing said troll. That rant went on a bit more than I thought, time for a new paragraph.
As I was saying before the troll dropped in, action by association. This is the process by which musicians learn pieces of music to play from memory. It has quite an interesting quirk when applied to a band, the singer knows what to sing because he/she has learnt to associate the lyrics with what the music is doing. If you suddenly can't remember whether you are on the second or third verse of a song, something like a guitar lick or a particular chord strum can spark your memory and you suddenly remember where in the song you are. Meanwhile the band are usually taking their queues from what the singer is singing. I once completely messed up the lyrics to one of my own songs and the band completely lost it, the song lasted two minutes longer than usual. You may be wondering why I shared that bit of information, its because the effect of singing the wrong line had the same effect on my band as forgetting to drop a pylon can have on you winning a game. My mind didn't make the right association because a really hot girl in the front row had one of her breasts fall out of her bra literally six foot in front of me... I got a little thrown. A bit like if a massive army suddenly descends on your base and you forget to drop a pylon for twenty seconds.
This is all by way of saying that you need to develop associations about actions so that you just perform them, even when under pressure or something catches you off guard. The song I messed up was one we had written about two days before, and I barely knew anyway, having a breast suddenly appear right in my eye line just shoved the tentative associations I had made out the window for about twenty seconds. I have found that twenty seconds is about the average length of time that my thought process freezes for when something unexpected happens, things that I do on auto pilot continue but things which don't just stop. For instance, during the twenty seconds or so I was unable to remember the correct lyrics and subsequently sung the wrong ones, I continued playing the guitar perfectly. I had stolen the chords from a song I wrote when I was 14, so they were deeply ingrained. Its basically like players moving from SC1 to SC2, there are a lot of similar things which they just do automatically, and new things which they need to work on. In that sense, they have a great advantage over new players, however if things like hotkeys for the same unit are different in each game, their unconscious memory can be a hindrance.
My Final Words, for real this time
Unfortunately I couldn't think of any really direct ways to translate how I learn pieces of music or lyrics, or how to translate how I teach people that skill into specific gaming terms. The only things I could say would be plagiarised from day9 so I would simply suggest you watch the day9 dailies. I'm sure you can find the thread on TL.net with the archives, watch all the noobie tuesdays, even if you don't play SC2, the techniques for association he talks about can be applied to other games.
Hopefully, all of this has made some sense and will have removed some of the mystery about how people can have 400apm or play an insanely fast guitar solo. Hopefully some will find it instructive, if it has enlightened you in any way then I have achieved my aim. I had great fun writing this, especially the bit where I role-played the troll. I hope you had fun reading it, and if you didn't I hope you found it useful, if you didn't find it useful then I hope you won't hold it against me... I am a nice guy, just trying to pass on some information and more importantly trying to entertain people and myself. If you do hold it against me, then remember this..... I can learn to be a better gamer, you will always be a jackass!
My name is Emy, and I approve this message.