Front Hum Neurosci. 2021 Dec 20;15:777779. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2021.777779. eCollection 2021.
Motor learning occurs over long periods of practice during which motor acuity, the ability to execute actions more accurately, precisely, and in less time, improves. Laboratory-based studies of motor learning are typically limited to a small number of participants and a time frame of minutes to several hours per participant. There is a need to assess the generalizability of theories and findings from lab-based motor learning studies on larger samples and time scales. In addition, laboratory-based studies of motor learning use relatively simple motor tasks which participants are unlikely to be intrinsically motivated to learn, limiting the interpretation of their findings in more ecologically valid settings (“in the wild”). We studied the acquisition and longitudinal refinement of a complex sensorimotor skill embodied in a first-person shooter video game scenario, with a large sample size (N = 7174, 682,564 repeats of the 60 s game) over a period of months. Participants voluntarily practiced the gaming scenario for up to several hours per day up to 100 days. We found improvement in performance accuracy (quantified as hit rate) was modest over time but motor acuity (quantified as hits per second) improved considerably, with 40-60% retention from 1 day to the next. We observed steady improvements in motor acuity across multiple days of video game practice, unlike most motor learning tasks studied in the lab that hit a performance ceiling rather quickly. Learning rate was a non-linear function of baseline performance level, amount of daily practice, and to a lesser extent, number of days between practice sessions. In addition, we found that the benefit of additional practice on any given day was non-monotonic; the greatest improvements in motor acuity were evident with about an hour of practice and 90% of the learning benefit was achieved by practicing 30 min per day. Taken together, these results provide a proof-of-concept in studying motor skill acquisition outside the confines of the traditional laboratory, in the presence of unmeasured confounds, and provide new insights into how a complex motor skill is acquired in an ecologically valid setting and refined across much longer time scales than typically explored.