It’s easy to dismiss gaming as a waste of time, but in addition to surprising benefits like improving eyesight and self-esteem, video games can also teach us the best ways to learn. Using data from thousands of online video game matches, researchers at Brown University analyzed how gamers went from noob to owning the competition.

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In the first study, scores from 3.2 million players over seven months of Halo games were analyzeed to determine skill development and play patterns. The team found that those who increased their skills the most over time were also those who played the most each week with more than 64 games, but it wasn’t the most efficient technique. Participants who played fewer games with only four to eight matches a week for their first 200 games, gained the most skill per match. The second most efficient were players who logged eight to 16 matches in a week.

“What this suggests is that if you want to improve the most efficiently, it’s not about playing the most matches per week,” says Dr. Jeff Huang, Ph.D and professor in computer science at Brown University, in a statement. “You actually want to space out your activity a little bit and not play so intensively.”

However, the key is to take well-spaced breaks. Stepping away from the computer for several days is fine, but longer breaks affected play. For example, one month without gaming required 10 matches to regain pre-break skill level.

Strategy game StarCraft 2 was analyzed in the second study to understand how elite players' habits varied from those who weren’t quite as skilled. The biggest difference was that better players used keyboard shortcuts to their advantage, allowing them to respond more quickly. Not only did they use the hotkeys more, but they formed unique, consistent habits that researchers believe helped them remain calm.

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Huang and his team believe these two studies are representative of how we learn in general.

“People have seen this for other things, like studying,” Huang says. “Cramming is generally regarded as less efficient than doing smaller bits of studying throughout the semester. I think we’re seeing something similar here in our study.”

However, practicing or studying for long blocks of time still remains popular. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology advises studying in one-hour blocks followed by a brief break. The university also suggests physical activity every hour like taking a walk or doing jumping jacks.

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