Moonwalking with Master Chief: Using Multiplayer Maps to Hack your Next History Exam
The counter hits zero and you and your team spawn on one of many metal platforms, which are all linked together and for some reason fixed to the side of a mountain. You guys rush across the catwalk. Your squad splits at the juncture, with two players continuing to move forward, while you and your buddy take a hard left down a ramp.
You and your friend are veterans. You guys party up with each other all time and operate like a well-oiled assault rifle. You jump over the plasma grenades, leaving them for your partner, who’s a master when it comes to sticking an enemy.
You make it to the next lower platform, dash to the left only to find that one of the Reds beat you to the rocketlauncher. You throw a frag without thinking, but it’s too late. The Red’s in the air and has fired a rocket at your feet, sending your body in a ragdoll motion off the platform. You respawn before your corpse ever hits the ground.
This time you run all the way across the catwalk to grab the sniper rifle to exact some revenge on your rocket-happy enemy. It’s gone. You can’t go back with Rocketman on the loose, so you frantically jump onto the man-cannon and are launched into the sky. Soaring through the air, you see on the distant platform a Red sidestep from behind a pillar. Demonstrating some terrific marksmanship, the Red snipes you before your feet ever touch ground.
Okay. Fuck the catwalk. You go left and head straight for the main platform. The shotgun had to have respawned by now. Despite all your bad luck thus far, there it is! You pick up the shotgun, glance to your right and see one of those pesky Reds running down a ramp to the platform just beneath you. You drop down to the landing below, ready to finally get a kill. You couldn’t ask to fall into a better opportunity.
There they are with their back to you, only a few steps away. Perfect! You sprint forward to close the gap, ready to blast your way onto the scoreboard, when out of nowhere you hear your friend yell through your headset to get back just as a white-hot plasma grenade sticks to the prey you were stalking. You turn and see your buddy, at what seems to be an impossible distance, and your last thought before the plasma grenade blows you both away is that you’re going to have to watch the replay of that throw.
I’ve put a substantial amount of time into the Halo: Reach multiplayer. While reminiscing about these good old days with my split-screen partner in crime, the Co-Op Kid, I realized the depth of detail that we remembered from our favorite maps. We could easily recall the locations where all the best weapons would spawn, and vividly visualize the path to get there.
I found it fascinating that we could mentally walk through these maps in our minds despite the many years we’ve now spent away from the game. And yet, I couldn’t remember what year the Civil War took place in American history. I tried to recount other major historical events and was shocked at the very few that I could actually remember.
I’ve always marveled at the human mind from a philosophical perspective—I think, therefore I am. Does free will exist? Are ideas invented, or discovered?—basically pondering the vague shit that lacks any kind of satisfying answers. But I never really questioned memory and how it functions within human consciousness. Why could I reach as far back as Halo: Combat Evolved and remember every patch of grass and mound of dirt from Blood Gulch, but only remember a handful of the U.S. Presidents and what term they served in office?
As it turns out, the human brain does a relatively poor job of retaining facts and figures, but is exceptionally well-equip when it comes to remembering spatial information. Lists of words and numbers often pose a challenge for the average person to memorize, however it takes little effort when navigating around town. The reason that the human brain operates this way is a byproduct of its prehistoric evolution.
I should state right now that if you’re looking for an accurate lesson in Paleoanthropology, you will not find it here. I’m a self-proclaimed moron who’s profoundly curious and easily distracted. Most information to follow is a high-level summary of others’ well-researched mid-level summaries. I would refrain from using this material to sound intelligent at a cocktail party and save it for a mildly interesting topic of discussion to have during the next raid with your crew.
Now with that out of the way. . .
More than a million years ago, and for many years to follow, our species functioned as hunter-gatherers. The mind for an age of information was unnecessary. However, the ability to recognize patterns within nature was paramount to the survival of our species. Knowing where to find food and the way to get back to your tribe was the difference between life and death. Because of this, the brain evolved to adapt to this environment that was full of perils and scarcity.
Further research on memory led me to the American journalist Joshua Foer (like the number), who wrote a fascinating book chronicling the year he spent training for the USA Memory Championship. It was in his book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, that I learned about the techniques used by mental athletes to memorize arbitrary information—long strings of numbers, the order of a shuffled deck of cards, lines of poetry—with something called The Memory Palace being their cornerstone tool.
The basic concept behind the memory palace is to take otherwise arbitrary information and associate it with a place and location that has relevance to you personally. To accomplish this, mnemonics–which is another name for mental athletes who specialize in memorization–take a structure that they are intimately familiar with (your house, school, office, etc) and picture said information at a specific location within the structure.
It helps to be creative when visualizing what you wish to remember, as the information will be more likely to stick in your memory. Visual imagery is a powerful stimulus when it comes to human memory. The more bizarre and zaney an image is, the more likely the mind is to take note due to that unnatural sense of something being out of place.
Furthermore, creativity is only part of what makes a good mnemonic. For mental athletes competing on a professional level, it is essential to have a vast arsenal of palaces at their disposal to avoid confusing the different bits of information in need of memorization. I have no ambition to participate in the USA Memory Championship, but it would be nice to have at least a handful of palaces to draw from. Being the borderline hikikomori that I am, I was at a loss for locations other than my house. Or so I thought. . .
I reflected on the initial inquiry that led to this exploration of memory and considered the question: It’s true that our brains are built for spatial memory, but does it necessarily follow that the locations of recognition have to occupy a physical space?
I thought back to the multiplayer maps of Halo: Reach.
I’ve made hundreds of attempts to race for the rocket at Reflection. I’ve been fragged countless times trying to get the shotgun that spawned in the stairwell at Pinnacle. With sword in hand, I’ve stalk numerous enemies through the tunnels of Countdown. Like a coward, I’ve played many matches camped out in a base with the hammer at Powerhouse. And I’ve fallen to my death more times than I care to admit at The Cage.
Every map detail seemed to have stuck strong in my memory from the time me and the Co-Op Kid spent traversing the computer-generated terrain. The experience of running around a moderately confined 3D rendered environment in the first-person perspective, triggered the same type of spatial cataloging as navigating your way to school. Additionally, the match repetition coupled with a heightened level visual awareness to ensure survival, helped strengthen those memories.
There is also something to be said for the restricted amount of detail that can be displayed in a virtual setting. In the real world, we are constantly bombarded with external stimuli. To keep us from becoming overwhelmed, our brains never take a break from filtering out irrelevant information. In a digital world, a good deal of that data filtering process is done for us. Due to the limitations of hardware, software is programmed to only render what is pertinent to gameplay.
So, how could the memory palace work with multiplayer maps?
As I stated previously, the concept behind the memory palace is to mentally walk through a chosen structure, and from room to room, visualize representations of the information you want to remember at various locations within each room. This is especially helpful when the order of information is important. Say we had to know the succession of the U.S. Presidents. We could take a map or two, choose a route that would cross paths with every spawned weapon or health pack location, and at each point picture one of the U.S. Presidents.
We could spawn at the Blue Base in Asylum and see George Washington standing there. Because he’s a solid dude, he has his hand held out, offering you the health pack. Next we could move over to where the Battle Rifle would’ve been and see John Adams pissed off because someone grabbed it before him. Then we could run down past the boulders, up the ramp, and find Thomas Jefferson looking like a smug bastard because he’s convinced that the Covenant Needle Rifle is the best weapon in the game and it’s all his. We could continue on this mental jaunt through Asylum, and any other additional maps we would need to use, until we reached the current U.S. President.
Simple, right? But what if we needed to remember a specific date?
When numbers are involved, many mnemonics use what is called the Major System. It’s been shown that when trying to retain large strings of data, it helps to chunk information together, much like how a person’s phone number is separated into three chunks—which seems a little irrelevant today with our entire phone book digitally at our fingertips.
The major system functions as a code to convert numbers into phonetic sounds, as seen in the following image.
By chunking numbers together and using the phonetic sound for each chunk, with vowels freely inserted between coded letters, you can generate words to create images in your memory palace.
I know. That’s a lot to take in, so let me give you an example.
Say I had to remember some obscure American historical event, like when President Richard Nixon nominated Gerald Ford to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice President (for those curious, I’ve been listening to an excellent podcast about the Watergate scandal called Slow Burn), which happened on October 12th, 1973. Now, by using the major system, we can take that date, 10/12/1973, and convert it into a few words that we can use as images in our memory palace.
Let’s start with 10. One can be represented by T or D and zero is represented by an S. There’s not much we can do with this yet. Although, I suppose you could use D, insert an O between the D and S, and come up with DOS and picture a command line, but that was a little before my time.
Anyways. . .
This is where the chunking comes into play. Let’s look at the day, which is the 12th. Again, we can use a T or D for one, and we get to use an N for two. So 10/12 can become: TSTN, TSDN, DSTN, or DSDN. By using one of these sets of phonetic sounds, along with a few vowels, we can generate a word. Let’s use DSTN.
If we insert an E between the D and S, then an I between the T and N, and finally place a Y at the end, we can use the word destiny to represent October 12th. Now, let’s move on to the year 1973.
Once again, we can use a T or D for one, a P or B for nine, a K or G for seven, and an M for three. So 1973 can become: TPKM, TPGM, TBKM, TBGM, DPKM, DPGM, DBKM, or DBGM. That’s a lot to work with. Let’s make TPGM into two words. We can put an A between T and P, and place an E at the end to form the word tape. Next, we can put a U between G and M to form the word gum.
Now during our exam, we can mentally walk through our memory palace, and at a location of our choosing (it doesn’t have to be Reach related) we could picture Nixon and Ford sitting on the floor together (like we had to do during the archaic times of wired controllers) playing Destiny.
Ford could have tape over his mouth, while Agnew offers him a piece of gum—the most absurd thing about this image being the idea that Destiny would ever support split-screen gameplay.
So, that’s it! Now armed with these new tools I expect to hear back from you in the comments that you aced your next exam. As for me, the next time I need to remember my grocery shopping list, I’ll think back to one of my favorite maps, The Cage, and find jelly plasma grenades on the ground, a peanut butter health pack fixed to the wall, and a bread-shaped rocket launcher just waiting for me on a distant platform.