And it starts sooner than you think.
Image: Flickr/Minyoung Choi
Most studies that look at our inevitable mental and physical decline focus on the precipitous slide that comes once you pass middle age, but the sad truth is that, unless you're a child, in many ways your brain's most dynamic years are already behind you. Researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia were able to discover, using Starcraft 2 players, that you're past your cognitive prime by the time you've hit your mid 20s.
It's hard getting real world data on when one's memory and speed at performing cognitive tasks starts to slip. Even if your cognitive-motor skills slow down, you can often still compensate in other ways. The thinking is that even when the brain starts to go, experience makes up for it. Typists don't lose too many words per minute on account of not being able to read and type as quickly as before because they learn to compensate by reading further ahead.
Starcraft 2 is a pretty ideal way to perform a study on cognitive-motor skills outside of the lab. It's a rich, demanding, and “ecologically valid domain” that players are willing to lose themselves in for many hours per week. It's a game that's based on strategy and speed—to get all RTS-nerdy on you for a minute, it's not easy on your brain to keep your macro and micro game in perfect harmony. And, perhaps most advantageous for research, every game is recorded.
By examining games played by American, Canadian, German and British players, the researchers were able to track just when the body's cognitive-motor decline begins and you start to lag. The chilling results, published in PLOS One, reveal that cognitive decline begins at just 24 years old.
The team examined “looking-doing latencies”—the lag between when players move their view-screen and when they interact with what they find. Turns out those latencies start getting longer as players get older, and can really start to add up.
An example from the study:
A typical Bronze player at the age of 39, equal in all other respects to a 24 year-old adversary, can be expected to be around 150 milliseconds slower in their typical looking-doing latencies, costing about 30 seconds over a typical 15 minute Bronze game containing 200 looking-doing cycles.
Older players have the advantage of experience, which the study suggests helps them hold their own. They use less evolved and complex units, which demand more complex commands to target opponents. They make better use of hotkeys—short cuts for commanding armies—thanks to a familiarity with the game's interface. But still they lag.
There aren't too many old Starcraft 2 players in the professional circuit—and by old, I mean past their early-20s. I used to wonder if this was mostly a by-product of the games relative newness—though it's the elder statesman of esports, Starcraft only came out 16 years ago.
But Starcraft 2 has continued to be, with apologies to a growing minority of female players, a young man's game. At the Red Bull Battlegrounds tournament in New York, I met a player, Golden, who was retiring at the ripe old age of 19. The most successful non-Korean player, Stephano, retired last year at 20.
There's a chance that some of this is cultural. Even if you're a really high level player—one who is making money on the tournament scene—spending all of your time playing a video game while your peers are graduating college, and planning for careers and families is still pretty stigmatized. There are also questions about the elasticity of the wrists—Starcraft 2 is the only sport I know of where carpal tunnel sidelines 18 year olds.
But a contributing factor may also be that, as Starcraft players reach and pass 24, their cognitive-motor skills start to fade and they just can't hack it, as they spend 30 seconds a game (in total) getting their bearings.
As James Murphy eloquently put it, the kids are coming up from behind. That was true in music for the then-32-year-old Murphy, but it's true in a much more literal sense for the Starcraft pro.