Perceptual learning in Stepmania

In high school when a bunch of my friends and I played Stepmania, we used to make fun of one guy a little who would ask the better players for tips all the time. For example, they’d suggest hitting the keys harder, and he’d come back later saying, “I’m hitting the keys as hard as I can, and I’m not getting any better!”

Indeed, Stepmania and other music rhythm get swarms of newbies begging the experts for anything to help them. The only advice that has held up is “Practice. A lot.” But, as I plan to talk about more in future posts, there’s a difference between “practice” and practicing a targeted skill that will yield enormous gains. When I used to get destroyed in Beatmania by gaming guru Sean Plott, he once suggested the same (and now he lives out that advice through the targeted learning and effective practice that he teaches Starcraft players in his Day[9] Daily show).

Can we figure out a practice shortcut for Stepmania?

I was influenced by research in perceptual learning that found that people learn relative time between items rather than particular auditory or tactile signals. To improve in timing accuracy, we need to learn those spacings to a very high degree of precision. In Stepmania there are many song choices with hundreds of notes each. Memorizing the spacing patterns of a particular song may be a contributing factor, but there are just too many — what’s needed is a strong ability to adjust on the spot. Luckily, there is instantaneous feedback: arrow judgements rating each finger press with a score from “Miss” to “Flawless”.

Perfect: not good enough

Now, you need to be able to compare those judgements to your actions. You have three choices: watch the arrow animation after you hit the key, feel the tactile feedback from hitting the keys, or listen to the beat produced from your fingers. I don’t think anyone does the first. Experienced musicians may benefit more from the second. But I would say the third is far and away the best method because it’s the most salient way of getting that timing information. Yet so far I have done this very little. It’s much more tempting to listen to the real music. This finally explains the advice to hit the keys harder — it just doesn’t do any good unless you listen to them!

I tried it out on one of my most frequently played songs: I listened to the beat made by my fingers, carefully watched the arrow judgements, and let the real music fade away. The performance from my previous best of 74% went to 86%, or eliminating about half of the mistakes to a perfect play. That’s with zero practice of this newly developed skill. What may be more amazing to some people is that I didn’t make this simple connection before, but I think it really illustrates the power of observing the right thing as a lesson from perceptual learning.