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zombie wheelchair racing avatar 9:35 PM on 10.26.2011  (server time)
Can you "incubate" video game skills?

As someone who has done research for a living, I often think about how thoughts and ideas tend to get "incubated" in the scientific community. What I mean by this is that it is common for someone to come up with a deluge of ideas to test a theory, have all of those ideas fail, and then be stuck at a roadblock, which can be anything from a lack of resources to an unforeseen technical problem, etc. Sometimes this roadblock can be solved through brute-force methods of simply trying every combination or permutation of things that might get around it until something works. Other times, when the solution isn't obvious, the problem can be set aside, sometimes for months or years at a time, and the people working on it let the problem "incubate." One day through a flash of insight or inspiration, someone might miraculously come up with a clever solution that gets around the roadblock and allows progress to continue. You also hear about this often with people who like doing crossword puzzles, or perhaps have played puzzle games like Portal 2 (aka the Eureka moment). Way back in the day this also happened to me with Arena, the first Elder Scrolls game, where you had to answer riddles correctly to proceed in the game. These days it would be easy to just tap out and get the Gamefaq for a game, but back then, if you didn't know the answer, tough shit.

In the instance of Portal 2, I feel that the idea of incubating would make a lot of sense, since it's common to get stuck at a puzzle, only to try it again the next day and get it after the first or second try. However, I had an experience with Ninja Gaiden 2 recently that made me think this might not be limited to "mind" games like Portal.

I've been trying to beat Ninja Gaiden 2 on Master Ninja mode (because I'm a masochist) on and off for about two years now. At first, I just popped it in on MNM, not expecting to make any real progress since I heard it's largely regarded as the most difficult thing to beat on the current console generation. I'm definitely not above a challenge - I've beaten Devil May Cry 3 on Dante Must Die mode, and gotten through a bunch of other games on their hardest difficulty levels. But you definitely hear from people that MNM is unreasonably hard. I often joke to people that even after I got my PhD., beating the first stage of NG2 on MNM is the proudest accomplishment of my life. This is much less of a joke than you might think.

Anyway, I eventually got to a point, somewhere around the 3rd stage, where even I had had enough, and was just about ready to tap out. The sadistic bastards who made this game have something in there called Trials of Valor, which is basically a gauntlet of fighting regular enemies in the game, 60 to 100 in waves, continuously. The very first one in MNM, where your weapons are still pretty underpowered and your life bar is short, is absolute brutality. After failing for maybe the 50th time, I just about threw my controller through a wall and decided I was done with punching myself in the face. I mean, don't I play these things to have fun?

If Ryu is Ninja Gaiden 2, that's me getting dismembered.

I gave NG2 a break for a good 6-7 months or so, playing a whole bunch of other things that happened to be in my backlog. After defending my thesis, I was between jobs for a bit, and I figured, what the hell, why not give the Trial of Valor another spin?

I beat it on my first try.

I was shocked, and happy as fuck, but I got to thinking, how the hell did I beat it with relative ease when I was pulling my hair out and causing property damage a few months ago? While a lot of games have skills and techniques that are translatable, action games typically require a lot of practice to get really good at. Not playing a specific one for a while will usually cause skills to atrophy. Did I just get lucky? That's the only explanation I was able to come up with. Then, my scientist brain decided, why don't I save somewhere else, so I can keep the save that lets me try to Trial of Valor again, just to see if indeed I just got lucky.

I played through the game a little bit more, then went back to the Trial of Valor again after a week.

Same result, 1st try success.

Now I'm not saying that I could beat it whenever I want to, but to have two successes in a row means that I've truly gained a skill of some sort, though I couldn't name it offhand. Did I somehow recognize patterns better? Was I taking fewer dumb chances? In any case, even though I'm still not exactly sure what happened, this experience in my gaming life taught me that video games are truly problem-solving platforms, even the ones that seem like fast-twitch, hand-eye coordination killfests. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it looks like you can indeed "incubate" an experience and become better at it down the road without active work.

So what of it DToiders, anyone else had this happen to them?

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