It's not rocket science: Chances are the more you do something, the better you'll get at it. But that's not the only factor in improvement, according to a recent study—and that applies in video games as much as anything else in life.
A team of Brown University researchers, led by computer science professor Jeff Huang, studied seven months of data from Halo: Reach online matches in order to understand which players improved the most. More specifically, they looked at results from the most popular game mode (Team Slayer, aka team deathmatch) and studied players' TrueSkill, a metric designed by Microsoft in order to match players with equal skill levels.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the best players also played the most, averaging over 64 matches a week. However, the more surprising observation came from which players improved faster over time. According to Huang's team, those who played four to eight matches a week improved considerably more per match than the gamers who played eight to 16 matches. "What this suggests is that if you want to improve the most efficiently, it's not about playing the most matches per week," Huang points out. "You actually want to space out your activity a little bit and not play so intensively."
It's worth pointing out, however, that while small breaks can be beneficial, breaks of weeks or months can have detrimental consequences. People who took breaks of one or two days got back up to speed within a match, whereas people who took a month-long break took at least ten matches to get back to their old skill level.
Huang points out that these results could easily apply to other fields, such as working out or studying.
So the next time you're at the gym, maybe take a break instead of going for that two hour marathon workout. Short, intense bouts of high-intensity exercise—even something as short as 7 minutes—can be surprisingly effective.