If there is one general rule about the limitations of the human mind, it is that we are terrible at multitasking. When devoted to a single task, the brain excels; when several goals splinter its focus, errors become unavoidable.
Still, clear exceptions challenge that general rule. For decades chess has held the exalted position of the Drosophila of cognitive science—the model organism that scientists could poke and prod to learn what makes experts better than the rest of us. StarCraft 2, one of the world’s hottest computer games, might be overtaking chess: its added complexity may confound researchers initially, but the answers could ultimately be more telling. In this real-time strategy game, players exert a godlike role over a cluster of creatures, leading them to develop their economy and prepare for skirmishes with a neighboring society. The winner is often the person who can make the most moves, as many as six actions a second.
For researchers the appeal lies in the data each game generates. When two players face off, their computers each produce a record of the actions taken during the game. These logs reflect what a gamer was thinking at every stage of play. “I can’t think of a cognitive process that’s not involved in StarCraft,” says Mark Blair, a cognitive scientist at Simon Fraser University. “It’s working memory. It’s decision making. It involves precise motor skills. Everything is important, and everything needs to work together.”
Thousands of these gamers are now contributing to a project under Blair’s watch, called SkillCraft, to learn what separates experts from novices when it comes to attention, multitasking and learning. By comparing the techniques and attributes of low-level players with those of other gamers up the chain of ability, the researchers can start to discern how skills develop—and perhaps, over the long run, identify the most efficient training regimen. Blair sees parallels between the game and emergency management systems. In a high-stress crisis situation, the people in charge of coordinating a response may find themselves facing competing demands: fire alarms, a riot, contamination of drinking water. The mental task of keeping cool and distributing attention among equally urgent activities might closely resemble the core challenge of StarCraft 2.