Monday, July 26, 2010

What is Skill?

"Skill" is a term we throw around a lot in gaming. So what exactly is it? From the dictionary:

  1. the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance
  2. dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks
  3. a learned power of doing something competently; a developed aptitude or ability

Skill is not given to us by the game. Skill is learned and grown from experience; it is a willingness to learn, an ability to learn, and applying it directly to our play. It's your adaptability and your mental "processing power." Greater skill at one task will lead to quicker learning of a similar task, and this is why skill is so important in progression raiding (any raid where you aren't overgearing the content) and PvP.

Things we gain skill in include use of our own computer (your keyboard and mouse, your direct link into controlling the game), ability/spell selection, reaction speed, and awareness of what things are or might be "bad" (be it a boss ability, environmental effect, or even a game mechanic like pulling aggro or going out of healing range). The speed and accuracy of these things are what make a skilled player... and they are born out of the ability to learn, mental quickness, and experience.

Skill is NOT:
  • Gear
  • Sims
  • Research
  • Meters
  • Mods
  • Macros
  • Hardware
All of the above are TOOLS. Tools are very separate from skill. They are used to better your character and can impact your performance, but they do not in themselves make for a skilled player. Unskilled players, if given these tools, won't become skilled players just because of the tools: they will become skilled players through experience and an innate ability to learn and react quickly.

I have known players who have failed to improve after being given all the "right" tools. On the flip side, I have known skilled players who didn't use many of these tools at all (we just about all use some mods!). Skill and tools help each other to make a better player, but they are not the same thing.

How do they relate?

In my rough opinion,

Skill + Tools = Player Performance

Skill, or the ability to learn from experience while adapting it to a new situation, is very important. Various tools(when used correctly) add to your situational awareness and aid in processing information, such as perusing logs or comparing gear or knowing what stats you should focus on to what caps; the stats on the gear itself will aid in your overall output and survivability.

A player with a lot of appropriately-used tools can make up for some failing of skill; likewise, a player with a lot of skill can make up for some failing of tools. A player who makes great use of tools while being highly skilled makes for an exceptional player. Though it's not always fair to count on one's luck with gear drops in the game as a measure of their ability as a player, you cannot deny that a person with a legendary weapon should have an edge over someone with a weapon from a heroic 5-man.

Not all tools are accurate or appropriate, either. In a simple example, we could say "Wow, that guy has a i-level 9,000 shirt! He must be AWESOME!" while the shirt is all +spellpower and he's a warrior. While that is unlikely to ever happen, there are some more realistic examples: like sims that don't take into account your own raid composition, or BiS lists that aren't made for a WotLK 10-strict itemization, or suggested rotations that assume you'll have full raid buffs, or that someone else will take care of a debuff that you would otherwise need to apply (mangle/trauma, IFF/misery, totem juggling, etc). Or situations where you could spike the meters through the roof by AoEing on a pack of adds while some other mob should be CC'd or interrupted or single-target-bursted down before it wipes the raid: because you topped meters, you think you did everything right.

This relationship is why we often see people mistakenly equating various tools to skill: they ultimately both impact a player's overall performance. For example (allow me to beat a dead horse for a paragraph), Gearscore is often used as a limit on invites to pug raids because it's a measurable component of the overall performance you would expect from that player. It does not measure actual player skill in the slightest, of course, but some players do like to imagine that it does. What Gearscore does allow is for a raid leader to ensure at least one crutch (being gear with a lot of raw stats) to lean on towards success in an otherwise unknown mash-up raid. Even if I don't like seeing people use Gearscore, I can't deny that gear does contribute in some amount to a raid's success: gear is specifically why we see WotLK 25-man guilds clearing through the lower-iLevel (and less itemized) 10-mans with relative ease. However, gear is just a tool (one that can be misused), and a player not having gear does not mean they can't make up for it with skill... just as a geared player may not necessarily be skilled.

Short of the long: if the guy with the legendary is dead in a fire cuz the internet dragon ate him for the fiftieth time, he's worthless against the raider in blues who is alive because he learned at level 12 that "fire=bad."

How would we measure Skill?

If we could provide a "skillscore," how would we do it? I imagine, for purposes of awareness, it would involve the statistics tracking: number of times you've died to cleave as a DPS/healer, or died in fire, or got hit by a death beam. It would need to be more particular, though: how many times you did these things when the raid was still mostly alive, as I know I use these insta-death mechanics to facilitate a quick wipe when we're resetting a boss for another try! Or whether the tank was still alive, as top-threat dps or healer is sure to die next after a tank goes down. You could measure reaction times by monitoring combat logs, especially in the case of healers or interrupts, or tanks swapping taunts or using protective cooldowns. It's possible with algorithms, but that's only a rough sketch that doesn't cover every possible thing that could happen in a raid, and whether it's that player's fault.

Some other aspects of skill are much harder to quantify: what about those times a tank decides to run LoS from healers? Or carries a cleave or whirlwind right over their squishy fellow raiders? Or how about spell selection--how do you measure that, when it needs to be adaptable from boss-to-boss, situation-to-situation, PvE to PvP, raid comp and spec and talents and lag all contributing to your choice? What about those times a player's just "off" that night, due to mood or lack of sleep or dehydration or family distractions, or a major need for a bio break in the middle of a 15-minute-long encounter, reducing their attentiveness?

How exactly do you measure the full extent of someone's ability to perform their job, without being able to measure their skill? All we can do is to play with a person and see how quickly they learn in a new situation: their adaptability, learning speed, and reaction times. It's not a quantitative measurement, but there is a definite qualitative bar you can place any given person on and say "yeah, she's pretty good," or "wow, that guy sucks," or even "HOLY CARPS we need to recruit that person NOW."

An Example

I spent some time, long ago, trying to help another player who was having a lot of trouble. They were very nice and willing to learn. I sent them all of my mods and macros. I helped them set them up over vent. I walked them through how I chose spells, how I wove my spells when healing, etc. Their gear was on par for the content, and was on par for the others they were healing with. They had a good computer and didn't have a high latency. They didn't die very often to "bad stuff;" they seemed situationally aware.

But they just didn't improve.

I worked with them for a long time. I still feel bad to this day that I never saw any increased performance out of them. All I could do was shrug and say "keep trying." As much as I liked them, I knew the only other possibility was that it had to be an issue of player skill. It was something difficult to pinpoint and quantify, but the result was clear: a poor healer.


Skill + Tools = Player Performance

Don't say gear = skill. Don't say mods or sims or spreadsheets = skill. Those are tools to help you in your growth and ability as a player. Skill, on the other hand, is your adaptability, your experience, your willingness to learn, and your mental reaction time all rolled up into one incredibly-difficult-to-quantify ball of "skill."

You can have a skilled player who doesn't make use of many tools, like spreadsheets or having great gear... just as you can have an unskilled player walking around with a Legendary and quoting EJ (and then dieing in a fire). When recruiting or even looking at a random person standing next to you at the inn, keep that in mind before judging their "skill."


Aoife said...

well said, Kae.

Kaethir said...

I agree (almost) completely.

I would say, perhaps, that you pull gear out of the "Tools" category and say Gear + Skill + Tools = Player Ability, but they are not necessarily equal scales.

For example, lets say you are trying to create a (completely NOT arbitrary! ;) ) "player-ability" score. Your Gear score would range from 0-10 (hey you're level 1, what do you want??), your Tools score could range from 0-10, and your "Skill" score could range from -10 to... 30?

That's right, you could have all the best addons and all the best Gear and still be just a 10 because you have no skill whatsoever, while that "idiot" over there with no addons and crap gear but immense amounts of skill is still a 30.

My example is of course randomly pulled from thin air but you get the point. Gear HELPS, Tools HELP, but there is no making up for a complete lack of skill.

Moonra said...

I go through the 'an example' part lots of times as a classleader. You can try but it ain't there you won't get anything out of it (old guildleader said that ones about a new tank, stuff like that gets remembered)

The only wait to fully measure skill is to play with that person side by side in several different encounters, after a while you're both tuned to help each other and perform as an individual. THAT is skill

Kae said...

Gear is as much a tool as any macro, addon, spreadsheet, or research into the bowels of haste ratings, though. It is something outside of your own abilities that you use to increase your performance, which is my purpose in lumping it all together as "tools." The one thing gear has differently from the other tools is that it is controlled by RNG and circumstance, while the others are in control of the player... possibly excepting their internet connection and computer, which may be limited by parents and/or funds.

When you look at assigning "scores" to things, and weighting them, that's when it gets more complicated because too many of these things can't be quantified. The numbers could be anything, but they are ultimately added together as a whole to look at someone's overall player capability. Whether gear is counted separately from other tools wouldn't matter in the end, as it'd be added together anyway (along with skill for that matter). It's more from definition as to why I count gear in the "tools" rather than giving it its own heading. It wouldn't matter to the equation and each component of "tools" can be weighted on its own, anyway.

Kae said...

As an edit, I reworded "player ability" to "performance" in the post, cuz I felt it was a better word for it :)

Kaethir said...

True, but my comment only differs from yours in a semantic manner anyway - namely that while gear could theoretically get lumped in with all the other "tools", IMO it is important enough to be counted on its own as separate from the others.

*shrug* Like I said, it's just a semantic difference anyway. The point remains the same, gear/addons/etc do not equal skill.

Kae said...

Semantics, yup :)

Theladas said...

ah, definitions, definitions. Just substitute and win!

skill + tools = performance
gear + mods + macros + research + simulators + ... = tools
X = skill

You can include whatever coefficients you like for each of the terms above, but they're all of some non-trivial importance in determining a player's performance.

The question is, of course, "Find X."

Ceraphus said...

Loved this post, couldn't have said it better myself. Skill is something that you get over time.

Forreststump (in hibernation) said...

Knowledge without the ability to execute a plan based on that knowledge, is knowledge wasted.

I had an epic reply in mind, but it kinda fizzled... /sigh... Back to my snooze...

Ram said...

I believe gear is not apart of what makes someone skillful.

Having "gear" is completely dependent on the level in which the gear fits. After all, the skilled players I play with were skilled in Blues, all the way up to T10

TheGrumpyElf said...

Excellent read on skill.

As a hunter main I've learned a lot on how to read a tank (no GS addon and I do not inspect or even look at their health total) and know what I can get away with as far as DPS goes. Usually within the first 2 pulls in a dungeon I know how I will have to handle myself with almost any tank as long as they are consistent.

As my bear tank alt I have learned that about 98% of the population of wow has either no skill what so ever or just flat out does not care. People AoEing like mad before I even get the packs gathered for my first swipe. I see that once and I know I have a group of grade school drop outs. Stupid and skill-less leads to disaster.

If you can make it to 80 and do not even have the basic concepts of what the other classes can do and how you need to adjust to the people around you then you have no skill what so ever.

Kae said...

Regarding pugs, any stranger who uses CC during an overwhelming "oops we pulled to much" moment is one that I give a big hug. Any idiot who aoes and breaks it cuz "oooh more adds yay PEW PEW PEW" and then dies from aggro is one that may get a tree root (or clawed paw) imprinted on their backside.

If I'm reading into it correctly, Cata may be less forgiving in the skill front. That makes me happy.

Beranabus said...


I feel you on being able to determine how a tank can handle pulls, although I normally do it with a quick inspect of weapon/shield/stuff like seals. However, when it comes to other people when you're on your tank, it honestly depends on how someone chooses to level. If a person levels 1-80 just through quests, and they're a new player, it might be a bit much expecting them to know what every other class can do. Is it annoying? Yeah. But, taking a bit of time to say, "Hey don't aoe until I get them grouped for a swipe please.", could possibly go a long way, and help some new players out. Now if they continuously act like idiots, yeah they're dumb.

Rhii said...

I'd like to propose you add 'hardware' to your list of tools.

I didn't realize I had any skill until I had the hardware that allowed me to execute properly.

It's not necessarily so that skill always trumps tools, either. I'd never have improved if I hadn't improved my tools, even though I was improving lots of game related skills. The bad hardware put a choke point on how high I could get my performance. It was like an artificial ceiling.


(I still don't have tons of skill though... just enough to get by on)

Kae said...

Hmm a great point; I touched on computer/connection briefly but it's definitely worth being added to the list of tools!