Skill Acquisition in Destiny: A Chat with Cognitive Scientist Tom Stafford

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Tom Stafford, a Cognitive Scientist at the University of Sheffield in the UK, about a scientific paper entitled Exploration and Skill Acquisition in a Major Online Game.

That game was Destiny.

Skill Acquisition and Learning in Destiny

This was a really interesting paper, and a super enjoyable discussion (even if it was 4 AM my time). I would strongly encourage anyone interested in the details to check out the full paper and accompanying data and analysis, all publicly available.

You’ll find all right it here.

The basics that you should know going in are these:

  • In 2016, 4 researchers from different parts of the world came together to study Skill Acquisition using data from Bungie’s API.
  • Anonymous data on roughly 20 thousand players was pulled for the study, including Crucible combat rating over time, grimoire score, kills, assists, and much more.

And their findings, in brief, were these:

  • They found that the only factor that increased the rate of skill acquisition (that is to say, the only thing linked to players learning faster than average) was practiced spacing.
  • Spacing is exactly what it sounds like: taking breaks, not playing every day.
  • Playing a variety of different activities, playing socially or as a lone wolf, and being curious and exploring the game world didn’t make anyone learn faster.
  • Players who started out better tended to end up better over time as well - it’s a tough trend to buck.

Other References

A couple of other very interesting resources came up during the discussion as well. One of them was a paper about reactions time decrease in older gamers: Over the hill at 24: persistent age-related cognitive-motor decline in reaction times in an ecologically valid video game task begins in early adulthood.

Published by researchers J. J. Thompson, M. R. Blair, & A. J. Henrey in 2014, it explores the effects of age on reaction time and how players adapt to slower reflexes with improved planning. As I comment in the cast, age and treachery…

Another great link I want to point you toward is this article by Anders Ericsson and Robert Poole: Not All Practice Makes Perfect. Those already versed in Crucible study know the value of conscious and deliberate practice, but for some of you it may be an eye-opener.

Ericsson is very influential in the modern study of expertise, so much so that I was familiar with his writing prior to this interview, and you’re missing out if you haven’t encountered his work before.

For More Information

Finally, if you’re interested in the work Tom and his collaborators are doing, and you want to get in touch, you can reach him on Twitter here, or by email here:

If this is well received, I’ll be reaching out to the rest of the team to talk about some of the things we didn’t get into here and maybe some other projects they’re working on as well. Stay tuned!