Brief thoughts on learning and meaning

I feel like I’m fighting a bug, so tonight’s entry will be short. My colleague Cynthia D’Angelo posted today about Zelda Speed Runs, a form of “speed gaming” I had not heard of. Basically, one learns – over time and with much community support – how to efficiently traverse a game, gathering all the goodies (or similar goals) in a minimum amount of time. A single run can take 18 hours, so this is not for the faint of heart.  Edit: As Cynthia pointed out in a comment below, the speed run can take 18 minutes, while a “normal” run of the game can take 20 hours.

My first reaction may be similar to many readers’: this is what people spend time getting good at? You have to understand, it takes many many repetitions of a game run (again, these can take 20 hours-plus once you get good at it) to be competitive. People record glitches in the game code that might afford one a shortcut to a particular goal. This is a huge investment in time.

But then I thought about some of my own challenges. Among other pieces, I’m starting to work on Bach’s Chaconne transcribed for the guitar. 256 bars (actually, 64 variations on a 4-bar pattern). Professional violinists spend a lifetime mastering this one piece – once you get all the notes down (and with runs of 32nd notes, there are a lot of them) you still have to develop a feel for how the various variations string together, when to hold back, when to cut loose. It’s going to take me a very long time to master (if I ever do).

So, speed gaming and playing the Chaconne. Neither is intrinsically worth more than the other. To the individual practitioner both activities are engaging. There are audiences that derive pleasure from supporting / spectating the practitioner.

What makes both of these “challenging” – and this is the thought I want to mull over at length in a future post – is rooted in the very nature of human learning. Learning is fundamentally about training neurons to fire in new patterns. This takes time and repetition (in most cases). It’s been noted that humans have to strike a balance between complete inertia – the inability to learn anything new – and over-learning, or the ability to learn new behaviors so quickly that we never adopt habits.  (I don’t think I’m getting that contrast exactly right – I’ll try to research it in that future post I keep talking about). In short, there are good evolutionary reasons why I can’t just read through the Chaconne once and have it completely memorized. I have to train my fingers and my memory to anticipate passages, train my fingers to fly quickly enough over the strings, even work out individual fingerings for each note to make the passage more efficient. It’s a great deal of work.

Oh yes, I wish I could learn it quickly and simply start performing it. But that’s not how we’re wired. It’s both frustrating and rewarding. And with that, I bid you all good night. Really, at some point soon I want to reflect more deeply about biological origins of slow learning, but not tonight. I’m too fuzzy-headed. And as Dragon-born, I still have to locate an Elder Scroll to learn the Dragonrend shout and save the world from extinction.


2 thoughts on “Brief thoughts on learning and meaning

  1. Oh! So I probably didn’t make it clear enough that the current record for any% OoT (the game I mention in the post) is 18 MINUTES, not hours. Yes, this is a game that usually takes 30+ hours to beat, but the glitches allow completion (skipping almost the entire game, obviously) in just over 18 minutes now. It is insane. Other games and other runs may be 4 or 5 hours, which is still a bit time commitment.
    It still takes an extreme amount of time to learn how to do this well, though, so I don’t think the main point is lost. 🙂


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