Mind and reflex: A look at reaction speed for gamers

Whether you are playing a strategy or an FPS game — Against AI or against players who lurk within the shadow realms of CoD lobbies, fragging you from other side of the map in first ten nanoseconds of a match: Reaction time is one of the most important metrics that’s taken into account when it comes to gaming and esports. What sets apart professionals and speedrunners from the average player is their reaction time.

Average reaction time falls between 200 to 300ms when it comes to your average player, but esports professionals manage to score consistent times of 150 to 200ms. Besides their consistent practice and warm-up routines. What makes them so fast? I have compiled a list of highlights from the depths of the internet. Let’s take a look.

Women vs. Men

"We found no significant differences between male and female subjects in SRT latencies, SRT variance, CVs, SOA effects, or hemifield effects. A number of previous large-scale studies have found longer SRT latencies in female subjects, along with increased variance and CVs (Fittro et al., 1992; Fozard et al., 1994; Anstey et al., 2005; Dykiert et al., 2012b; Vincent et al., 2012). However, other studies have failed to find significant sex differences (Annett and Annett, 1979; Gottsdanker, 1982; Der and Deary, 2006)."

There are no consistent differences between sexes when it comes to reaction times according to research. Except in one research paper, it says that women have faster times registering the visual stimuli, whereas men have a slightly faster reaction when it comes to reacting to the visual stimuli. We may say that men act without thinking then?

There’s also the decline in discrepancies between sexes' reaction times into the 20th century. It’s been speculated that as women get more opportunities to get into fast-paced sports the difference gets lower.

Is it age?

Credit: US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health

Yes and no, but nothing surprising here. there’s a latency of 0,5ms that goes up with every single age after 18 and upwards. But it appears that it applies to everyone consistently and very minimally. And it’s thought that it’s not the registering of the visual stimuli but the physical latency of depressing the mouse button that comes with age.

But there’s also another interesting finding in research over the matter: younger age groups have faster reaction times but marginally lower accuracy hit-rates when compared to older age groups. The older we get, the better we analyze and respond to visual stimuli. Experience plays a large role when it comes to correctly assessing the situation.

Has it anything to do with being left or right-handed?

Not this time, and very interestingly the accuracy got better as the target moved to the opposite side of the shooting hand. This has been thought because opposing hemispheres of the brain are responsible for the motor reflex coordination of the other side of the body. The left side of our brain coordinates the right side of our bodies and vice versa.

Can sleep help?

Yes, definitely. Significantly quicker reaction times have been reported by people who get their full night’s sleep. There’s also the factor of the natural circadian rhythms of different people. Some people are night owls and perform better at night whilst some are more energetic in the mornings.

Adding to this, an experiment on sleep deprived soldiers concluded that they are given caffeine after their period of wakefulness improved their reaction time over other soldiers that weren’t given caffeine. And when it comes to the ideal consumption 300mg seems to hit the mark, in another research caffeine over this amount didn’t improve reaction times over people who didn’t consume caffeine.

How much difference does practice make

Yes, yes, yes. Overall, the practice had the most effect on decreasing the reaction time compared to other factors. People learned new motoric skills by practising and thus the process became more and more automatic. It’s not only just physical practice either, mentally practising and visualizing the action that’s going to be performed also has affected the reaction time. According to the studies on reaction speed published on NIH, the mental practice study group had better numbers in comparison to the study group that didn’t practice mentally.

Just imagine getting those headshots. Seriously, just imagine.

IQ and Hick’s Law

IQ plays an interesting role when it comes to reaction times according to research over Hick’s Law - which I will come into, in a second. Higher the IQ, higher the processing speed and decision making. Without any prior experience or knowledge over the subject whatsoever. In this case, it’s more about decision-making capabilities than reacting reflexively.

Hick’s law states that: reduce the number of stimuli and get a faster decision. But an exception to this is that the players are aware of the stimuli that are awaiting them and have made their decision prior.

In this case, two players with zero experience in a 1v1 scenario: Player with the higher IQ wins. Theoretically of course since this hasn’t been tested yet in a gaming situation but when experience’s taken into account, players with the higher experience will usually prevail over their opponent.

That explains the seemingly impossible reflexes we see in esports matches. Headshots without even seeing their opponent, nanosecond blocks in fighting games. Just like a professional boxer with their footwork and gloves, an esports cyberathlete has superhuman muscle memory and decision making speed with their use of mouses, controllers and keyboards.

Play more, sleep more

When it comes to reaction time, age and IQ play a somewhat marginal role whilst sex and education play none. Being ambidextrous may improve your accuracy somewhat but this only provides a beginning advantage over right or left-handed people. In the long run; resting well, practising (even mentally visualizing) and experience are scientifically the major factors when it comes to reaction time.

Do you think anyone has the chance to make it when it comes to esports with enough practice and experience? If the short answer is yes, don’t forget to check the matches of your favourite esports teams and make some predictions on Luckbox.