The Neurological Basis for Ladder Anxiety
By: Jeff Bigg (Life Gaming)
There I was, on a clear Saturday afternoon, getting ready to go up for my last climb of the day. I was 13 years old at the time (What a lucky number!) and this little Boy Scout just needed to do one last run to get his Climbing Merit Badge. As I climbed, the rocks quickly sapped away my already weakened grip. Quickly, I had reached a point at which I knew I could go no further. As was standard procedure, I looked down at my lifeline that was holding the rope, and called out for him to take out the slack - that I was coming down. I checked with my belayer one last time, just to make sure he was ready. Then I let go, and I fell straight to the ground - breaking my arm. This is the story of how I gained my deathly fear of heights.
Now every time I find myself close to an edge, my palms start sweating. Try to get me onto a roller coaster, and my hands start shaking. Because heights are so common, I’ve become very experienced with this feeling of fear. So, when I went to get onto the Starcraft II ladder, I quickly recognized the symptoms. I had what many players now have to deal with on a regular basis: Ladder Anxiety. Articles and discussions in the past have talked about what exactly this is, and how to combat it. However, today I plan on taking an entirely different approach to this problem. I plan on tackling the problem that is Ladder Anxiety strictly from a neurological and biochemical standpoint, so that we can take a look at what exactly in the brain is causing us to feel the way we do, how that works, and how we can use this knowledge to create targeted methods of combating the monster that is Ladder Anxiety.
I must open with a disclaimer. This article is based on theories and general understandings in the Neuroscience community in order to explain this phenomenon. I neither have the budget, personnel, nor facilities to conduct any salient sort of scientific study on my own. Much of this article will be based on conjecture and educated guesses, so please take it for what it’s worth - advice.
Now to the meat of things. When most people talk about causes for Ladder Anxiety, they usually cite things such as fear of loss, being worried about rank, and many others. Now, what I want to suggest to you is that, while those certainly contribute to an anxiety reaction, the underlying biological processes play a huge role in determining our fear of the Ladder. To introduce this concept, let’s talk about classical conditioning for a brief moment. To explain classical conditioning, I’m going to use the most famous example: Pavlov’s dogs. In his experiment, Ivan P. Pavlov would ring a bell right before feeding dogs. Over time, he found that when he would ring the bell, even when not giving the dogs food, that the dogs would start to salivate. This sort of a learned behavior is one of the main keys to evolutionary survival. When we humans find a good place to find food, our body gives us pleasurable signals so that our mind can remember where we found that food. On the other hand, say we fell off a cliff once, then if we come close to a high up ledge, our bodies give us the emotion of fear, to remind us to stay away. It’s adapt or die. Connecting back to Ladder Anxiety, this means that there must be some negative things that are happening somewhere in our body when we play Starcraft II in order to give us this reaction.
To find out where this happens, I’m going to explore two major biological pathways, the stress reaction and the androgen endocrine system (a.k.a. Testosterone), that go on neurologically while playing games of Starcraft II to show how these can lead to Ladder Anxiety. The first main thing to point out is the stress that we experience during games. Starcraft has been described as trying to play chess at a million miles an hour, and that can have serious consequences for the brain. The stress reaction, built into the biological functions called the HPA axis and the sympathetic nervous system, helps us by preparing the body for a ‘stressful’ scenario. There are many steps in this stress response, but since I don’t want to get bogged down in details, I’m just going to focus on the last main step: when the Adrenal Cortex releases glucocorticoids - and more specifically cortisol. (Uh oh!)
Cortisol has many effects that are designed to help prepare the mind to react quickly to any danger that might pop up. One of the main effects that we’re concerned about is that cortisol increases your body’s available energy by breaking down your fats, proteins and glycogen to give you higher glucose content. This is so your body would have the energy to think quicker, run faster, and jump higher - all to improve our survival rates. However, cortisol can also be something to worry about. Consider what would happen when you take all of that pent up energy, and you sit down to play a game of Starcraft? According to Robert Sapolsky, world renowned professor of neurology at Stanford University (as well as an expert on stress), when someone, like a chess grandmaster, is playing in a tournament, he or she can expend six to seven thousand calories a day - just on thinking. Not only that, the physiology of these chess players was also measured, and the shocking results showed that these people had similar heart rates and blood pressures to marathon runners. Even though we hardly move when playing video games, our brains use up an intense amount of energy to process information and make decisions.
When combined with the pleasurable draw of a good video game (i.e. Starcraft II) these periods of intense mental activity can cause serious harm to players if left unchecked. When you get really drawn into a game, it might seem like you could play for hours on end, without needing a break for anything. This feeling mainly comes from the adrenaline in your system, but also because you have all of this excess energy circulating in your blood. Unfortunately, we can’t have our glucose production running so high for so long, as it’s unsustainable. Long exposure to cortisol’s effects, as a result of continual stress, can burn you out. Even if you aren’t thinking as much as a chess grandmaster, your body now has all of this excess energy that it’s not using, which ultimately requires more energy from your system to take that extra glucose and store it back into fat. The bottom line is that when we play with full mental cognition for long periods of time, we end up feeling worn out afterwards, just like we would if we had gone running without food or water for half the day. Furthermore, long term exposure to cortisol can have some nasty effects: reduced mental function, reduction in neurogenesis, and even diabetes. This deprivation that the body experiences time and time again after playing on the ladder, along with these major negative side effects of cortisol, could lead to Ladder Anxiety.
However, just high levels of thought and stress will not be enough to give you an anxiety reaction. Otherwise people would be afraid of activities that invoke a similar response, like roller coasters (just typing it makes my hands shake) or intensive action movies. Since I seem to be the only one afraid of amusement parks, and good action movies still gross millions of dollars, I think it’s safe to say that there must be something more to this reaction. I believe that something is the androgen endocrine system - a.k.a. testosterone.
Testosterone already has strong associations with behaviors such as aggression and risk taking. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the big T hormone plays a major role in competition, and more specifically winning and losing. First off, before I get into the gritty details of how testosterone would affect competitive gamers, let’s discuss the general purpose of this hormone. While many believe the myth that only males have testosterone, science has shown us that this hormone is prevalent in both guys and girls. Testosterone, when secreted, tends to lead to higher sexual arousal - meaning that the body feels that it’s ready to reproduce. With reproduction, the most important fact of the process is that it takes two, so the body needs to find a mate. That’s why, when we see behavior from people with high levels of testosterone, it can generally be described as trying to look impressive. People want to look their best for potential partners, and especially around competition. And this whole concept of competition for ‘mates’ is where things really get interesting.
Testosterone affects our emotions related to competitive behaviors by making us more responsive to winning and losing. According to a study done at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, people with higher levels of testosterone who recently won in competition usually chose to compete again, while people with similar levels of testosterone who recently lost tended to avoid competing again. Taking a look back at our concept of competing for mates, this whole process makes quite a bit of sense. In the context of the study, winners would gain a higher social status and better access to limited resources, making them far more attractive candidates for reproduction. Therefore, if whatever task these winners did made them look better, then the brain is going to want to repeat that, whereas losers are not going to want to look any worse than they already do.
In a game like Starcraft II, where people can tell in real time whether or not they’re doing better than another person, this sort of a reaction can be very relevant. Furthermore, the study I referenced earlier goes on to discuss how individuals with high levels of testosterone will perform better on cognitive tasks when they’re winning, and worse when they’re losing. It’s as if the body is trying to do its best to ensure a repeat performance. This is why people can tend to get on losing streaks, which can be severely discouraging. In fact, most people tend to stop playing when they’ve lost, or just had a series of losses. These failures are the brain’s last impression of how that activity went as a whole - meaning that our response is going to be to try and avoid these behaviors in the future. This is where we get people who say they’re worried about losing, or they’re worried about their ranking on the ladder. This physiological response that testosterone gives the system, in combination with the consistent deprivation that I discussed earlier, I believe, is the main reason why we face Ladder Anxiety.
Before we move on to how to use this knowledge to combat this fear, there are some key points that need to be discussed. Even though both guys and girls have testosterone, males have a much higher concentration of the androgen, which begs the question of whether or not we would see this phenomenon as much in females. According to a Portuguese study published in the Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2009, it was shown that women soccer players also experience this “testosterone responsiveness to winning and losing.” However, the study also claims that it did not find such changes “in women playing a videogame, … or competing on cognitive tasks.” This creates a bit of a conundrum for Starcraft II. On one hand, this could mean that the ladies have less to worry about when it comes to Ladder Anxiety. However, I don’t believe that the study really took a look such a cognitively competitive game like Starcraft II where one directly gets to compare their performance in real time. I suppose that, until such a time when an academic study is done on women playing competitive video games, we cannot know for sure.
Furthermore, in the study I mentioned earlier from the University of Texas at Austin, it actually brings up the relation between testosterone and the HPA axis (remember that from before?). It discusses how, in people with high testosterone, winners experience an acute suppression of the HPA axis, while losers experience no such effect. Why might this be? Well, one explanation might be that these winners, now that they’ve secured greater social standing and more access to resources, have a little less to stress about. Another could be that the losers are experiencing a whole renewal of the stress based on, not the competition itself, but rather the aftermath of losing. Either way, winning or losing with high levels of testosterone directly affects cortisol circulation, meaning that these two causes of Ladder Anxiety are actually related.
Moving on to the solution, let us now discuss some possibilities for how to combat this anxiety. The first thing that we need to rule out is using medication to increase performance. If we tried to suppress our stress response, we wouldn’t be able to have the fuel to perform the intense cognitive thought required to play. If we tried to decrease testosterone levels, we would run the risk of hurting our ability to reproduce in the future. So drugs and hormones are out of the picture. What the root of the problem seems to be is that, as Sapolsky puts it, we have all of these same building blocks that make up how we function, but we end up using these nuts and bolts in a way that’s unrecognizable. So, since we’re already manipulating the system, why don’t we manipulate the system a little more? The way these solutions work lie in the basis of how the problems were created in the first place.
In terms of stress, there’s going to be no avoiding it. Stress already works to help us succeed in competitive gaming, by helping fuel the brain. The two main side effects that we really want to counter are the deprivation of energy we experience, as well as the harmful side effects of cortisol. How do we avoid this? Taking breaks. Believe it or not, it is exactly that simple. Breaks, especially after a win (since, as previously mentioned, this already helps to suppress the HPA axis) can help to lower our cortisol levels, so that instead of experiencing a chronic stress over several hours, we only have to deal with short bursts of the chemical. Also, during these breaks, it’s important to have healthy food and water to refuel your system. Not only does this prevent the burning out that I discussed earlier, it also gives your body a natural boost of energy to help get you back into the game.
In order to deal with our testosterone, we cannot hide from its effects. Our bodies even anticipate competitive events, and start producing testosterone before we even begin. Therefore, in our solution we’re going to have to be a little trickier, in that we’re going to have to trick the brain. The most important thing you can do to prevent the body giving you negative feedback on playing Starcraft II is to always end on a win, thereby bypassing any sort of poor behavioral response your body would associate with the game. Now, when on major losing streaks, that might seem like the last thing that you could do. This is where trickery gets involved. When on such a downward spiral in our play, we need to devise a method to fool our brains into thinking we’ve won. How can we do this when all it seems like we can do is lose? It’s simple: redefine what it means to win. What I mean by that is that, instead of trying to beat the person you’re up against, try to just simply do better than how you did before. It is impossible to win every single game, and trying to do so will only make you bitter and discouraged. Therefore, it is imperative to learn to change what it means to win. That is why we need to take a look at ourselves and define success not as winning, but as improvement. For a good tutorial on how to maximize improvement, there are many good instructional videos and articles out there. Once we’re improving, we can take a look at earlier games that we played and compare our skills in the past to how we’re doing now. If we’ve had a productive session, we can even take a replay from the beginning of our practice, and compare it to the end, so we can see how much better we’ve become. Not only will this help to mitigate our insecurities, it will also help us to become better gamers as a whole. Hopefully, with all of these methods, we will be better able to combat this fear of ours.
To conclude, neuroscience is a strange sort of science, and despite all
that we know, and all that we’ve discovered about it, the human brain
still remains one of the great mysteries of our time. I won’t profess
that what I’ve told you will be the total cure-all solution, nor do I
assume that the physiological functions that I’ve talked about today are
the only ones that affect this phenomenon. Certainly there are
variables that I missed, processes that aren’t fully understood, and
factors that I ignored. I hope though, that despite all of this
information that we don’t have yet, that this article informed you not
only of some of the functions behind Ladder anxiety, but also some of
the general neurological principles that drive how we interact with
competitive gaming in general. Let us take this knowledge, and use it to
make us better gamers as a whole. Good luck my friends, and have fun.
Links to sources used: