Multitasking is a skill that is fairly useful in any competitive game. Even if there’s not a huge need for external situational awareness, the ability to multitask lets you do things while paying attention to other elements of a PvP match such as in-game resources, the timer (if present), and the actions of enemy players. If you can’t multitask, you are stuck focusing mostly on what you’re doing and can’t adequately counter what the enemy is doing.
League of Legends requires a lot of multitasking. While it’s not a true real-time strategy game, LoL still requires players to be aware of the minimap, the current state of minions at their location, and the potential positions of enemy players who are not visible on the minimap. Couple this with the “normal” flow of a PvP game where a player must juggle her positioning with that of her opponent, and you have a game that is very taxing on a person’s mental resources. While multitasking is a hard skill to develop, learning it is intensely satisfying when knowledge about the “big picture” leads to a decisive, game-winning play.
This week in The Summoner’s Guidebook, we’ll look at how you can improve this critical skill. Even if you don’t play League of Legends, it might be worth it to follow along. While many examples I’ll be discussing will be LoL-specific, the broader concepts we’ll cover after the jump can be applied to many different games, whether competitive or not.
Multitasking is a fight against nature
The first critical rule of multitasking is that it’s technically impossible. Understanding your limitations is important, and our brains are incapable of having two simultaneous conscious thoughts at the same time. We can’t be thinking about two things (or more) at once.
However, while literal multitasking is impossible without having a multi-core frontal lobe (maybe someday we can have cybernetics that let us?), we can still do two things at once by programming routines into our brain that can be accomplished with subconscious thought.
Consider driving for a moment. Most of us have neural pathways for our drive to and from work or to our significant other’s house or other key places that we travel to often. It takes virtually zero mental effort to drive to and from these places; the only things that require conscious thought while driving are other drivers. Naturally, because car accidents are extremely dangerous, it’s important not to multitask while driving, but because we have those pathways in our brain, we think that driving to work is so easy that we can do it while talking on the phone. The problem with doing that is the same as above: If you’re focusing on talking (communication mandates conscious thought), you can’t be focused on driving. If something bad happens on the road and we’re focused on talking, it takes a really long time to react — if we react at all.
Video games are a little bit more forgiving than driving a car, though. Also, little things like checking the minimap in League or verifying minion health for last-hitting take much less time than carrying on a conversation or typing a text message. While it is possible to be ganked from an unexpected direction while we’re verifying some simple task, it’s somewhat unlikely. In fact, if you check the minimap and see an enemy champion’s portrait, you likely have a programmed response already: Put your eyes on your character and get to safety ASAP!
Tasks that can be programmed in League
Free up mental time to observe enemy positions and actions, including glancing at the minimap. Because enemy champions are the single most significant threat to your continued survival, you want as much attention as possible focused on them. Just as importantly, slaying enemy champions is the most effective way to gain an advantage in any LoL gametype.
We can squeeze in a quick glance at the minimap any time we make a decision to take action and begin performing that action. For instance, if I observe that my opponent is not at a threatening distance and a minion can be last-hit, I can go for the last hit. My hands and mouse coordination take care of the actual action of clicking on the minion while I glance at the minimap, and if anything is out of the ordinary, I can react appropriately and/or communicate it to my teammates. If I don’t have enough time to communicate whatever information I see, I can take the action to move my champion back a bit to buy me some time to ping the minimap or talk on voice chat. While I’m pinging the minimap, I can also look back at the screen and observe a situation happening in front of me. I don’t need to look directly at my mouse cursor to know where it is; I have enough practice moving my mouse that I can get it to where I want it with just my peripheral vision and without much thought.
When I’m playing Dominion and moving through the jungle, I (like many players) like to look around on the minimap and check the status of things visually. These things need only a quick glance, as the most important thing to pay attention to when moving in the Dominion jungle are the things around your character, such as ambushes. If you have your screen elsewhere, you need to actually spend more time looking at the minimap (where your character can see what’s around him or her) and not at your team’s Wukong picking up a triple kill.
Last-hitting is a very good skill to automate in your mind. While you can never fully automate it, you can dramatically reduce the brainpower needed to effectively last-hit with practice. While last-hitting precision is the main cited reason to practice last-hitting, the value of doing it with less mental focus is also huge. Any PvE elements that you can automate should be automated; this is especially important for junglers, who need maximal map awareness. I often select my target mob while jungling and pan the camera away from my character, rotating my abilities without looking at the screen until I need to actually click on the mob (I jungle as Udyr, but there are others, like Shyvana, who are also very good at this). This lets me jungle while watching my allies at the same time, which will let me plan future ganks after I’m done with my current camp.
One thing that had a very significant effect on my ability to multitask is smartcasting. When I first started using smartcasting, it felt really awkward, but it greatly improved my ability to do skill and ability combos and also reduced the amount of conscious thinking I had to do. While at first I was dubious about using it for skillshots, I found that letting my instincts do my aiming generated faster and better results than aiming with the skillshot templates. Put more broadly: Anything that reduces the number of inputs you need to perform a task greatly reduces the amount of mental energy needed to do that task. I feel kind of silly even writing that — it seems as if it should be obvious, but I really want to emphasize the benefits because they are huge.
Play other games!
There was a really famous swordsman who wrote in a pretty famous book, “To learn the sword, practice carpentry.”
Watching the minimap in LoL is hard to measure. The ideal amount of time you spend looking on the minimap should be somewhere between “all the time” and “every 10 seconds.” It’s more likely that we get lucky and see a gank coming due to minimap awareness and good ward placement, pat ourselves on the back, and think we’re doing “good enough.” The truth is probably the opposite. If you’re watching the minimap less than every 10 seconds, you’re not doing it enough.
The best way to learn to multitask is to practice StarCraft or another real-time strategy game that has a production queue. It’s pretty simple: If you are spending your money as fast as you are making it and keeping all of your buildings working at full efficiency without over-queuing, you are multitasking well (or you’re not fighting at all!). There are some really good build order testers out there for StarCraft II that let you practice without an opponent, and you can simulate combat by spending as much time as possible moving units around while keeping your base working at full capacity. If you can do this even remotely well in an RTS, you will be well-prepared for anything LoL can throw at you.
High level StarCraft players have told me that one of the best ways to practice is to learn to play Tetris. I can see how that might be true, as you want to watch the “next piece” display, the current game state, and your current piece. With that information, you can make an optimal play (Tetris is a solved game) for the best possible score. I’m not sure how true this is, as I am terrible at Tetris since I do not know how to play optimally.
Many MMOs, particularly those with healer/buffer classes, can teach you to multitask too. I think that, of all the options I’m aware of, playing an MMO healer is the most relaxing way to practice this skill. MMO healers need to react to multiple game-states, both what is going on in the battle as well as allies’ lifebars. If you have buffs that must be maintained, those have to be kept up at the same time too. It is not as good as playing StarCraft, but it is much easier and much less stressful (though being an MMO healer is probably the most stressful of MMO roles).
I’m sure there are many other ways to practice multitasking; the point is that it’s a skill that is relevant to many different fields, not just League of Legends or even gaming. Good luck and have fun!