Illustration by Sam Woolley
Is there a drug I can take, Limitless-style, that will make me better at video games? Ideally, it would be something legal. And something that wouldn't put me in any medical danger.
There are a lot of drugs on the market that claim to boost gaming prowess. This week, I tried two.
I don't recommend you do the same.
DRUG #1: AMBROTOSE COMPLEX
I've never had to call a toll-free phone number to get drugs. Usually drugs are just a text message away, y'know? But getting a bottle of Ambrotose Complex will require you to jump through some bureaucratic hoops.
Ambrotose Complex is a supplement that you can buy from Mannatech, a company that sells a huge selection of similar supplements. I found out about the product from an email they sent to me titled "Supplements that help video game players" in which they linked to this study of the effects of the supplement, which purports to have "significantly improved visual discrimination and working memory." Sounds good for gaming, if the claim is true.
There's plenty of cause for scepticism about that claim, of course. Back in 2008, the Glycobiology journal published a paper called "A 'Glyconutrient Sham'," written by Ronald L. Schnaar and Hudson H. Freeze.
The paper takes aim at Mannatech's products, noting a lawsuit brought against the company by the Texas Attorney General regarding the claims the company has made about their supplements. If you Google "Mannatech scam," you'll find plenty of information about controversies regarding Mannatech over the years.
Perhaps the most telling summary of Mannatech is the fact that former Republican presidential candidate, current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and infamous weirdo Ben Carson used to be a big fan of their products, though he did end up distancing himself from the company after learning about the controversies surrounding their supplements.
I didn't actually know about any of that when I decided to buy these supplements and put them inside my body. I had never even heard of Mannatech before. I just read the email and decided it would be fun to try them out and write down what happened.
This turned out to be easier said than done. Although Mannatech's website does feature an online store, you can't actually purchase anything from them without calling their toll-free number and becoming a "member". I don't know what my "membership" actually entails, but so far, it means I gained the ability to order their supplements, and I also received a 55-page product guide from them printed on heavy cardstock. I await my invitation to move into the Mannatech cult compound.
The Mannatech employee on the other end of the toll-free number was very kind, although she did sound surprised that I wanted a membership without having been referred by anyone. I had to spell my name for her on the phone and give her both my home address and an email address. (I have a bad feeling my future self will regret giving her that information.)
Once I logged in to Mannatech to place my order, I discovered that the representative had misspelled my name as "Madlyn Myerts." Luckily, Mannatech was still happy to take a credit card number from someone who isn't named that. 60 pills cost me $US37.47 ($50).
Before you become a member, Mannatech only appears to have a few drugs on their website, but once I got my precious member number and was able to log in to the full store page, there were hundreds of different supplements available — several of which have "Ambrotose" in the name.
I went with Ambrotose Complex capsules. Mannatech had also sent me a press release about a product for gamers called "MannaBOOM Slimsticks," which also contain "Ambrotose powders," so I figured if I got the Ambrotose Complex product, I'd be getting the good gamer stuff.
There are two kinds of Ambrotose Complex: tablets and powder. I went with the tablets because they sounded more palatable and have the same active ingredients.
I say "active ingredients" like there's something in these that will actually, y'know, activate. Here, though, is what's in the bottle: Vitamin A (as B-carotene from Blakeslea trispora fungus) and the coveted Ambrotose complex, which is made up of Arabinohalactan, aloe vera (inner leaf gel powder), ghatti gum, and gum tragacanth.
Here's what that stuff does, according to my Google searching:
Arabinohalactan: Everything I can find online about this ingredient involves claims regarding either immune system boosting or intestinal health. Since I already have a pretty regular intestinal situation at the time of this writing, I'm not sure if consuming this will wreck my shit (literally) or what. Having a better immune system sounds good, although it's got nothing to do with my SFV skills.
Aloe vera (inner leaf gel powder): I found some claims that aloe vera juice can help cure constipation. Again, no idea how this will help my video game abilities.
Ghatti gum: I found all sorts of claims about the powers of ghatti gum. It's apparently a laxative! Are you noticing a theme, folks?
Gum tragacanth: This can purportedly be used as an herbal remedy for diarrhoea.
To recap, that's two ingredients that are herbal remedies for constipation, one that claims to remedy diarrhoea, and one that boosts my immune system and (of course) intestinal regularity.
Once again ... no idea how this will help my gaming skills. But it could very well impact my intestinal tract. Hooo boy.
The directions say "take one capsule two times daily with 8 fl oz of water or juice." Does it matter what time? Do the drugs last 12 hours? How long does it take for them to kick in? (I assume it's not instantaneous.) Who knows?
As excited as I felt when the drugs finally showed up in the mail, I found myself very hesitant to actually put them in my mouth. I opened the bottle and gave a whiff. They smelled like a barn — mostly a barn full of hay, but there are some other rank compost-like smells mixed in there as well.
I set out to do A:B testing on these supplements, which meant that I had to play some sober matches first. So, I put the pill bottle away and played some drug-free Street Fighter V matches. To warm up, I played some Survival Mode as Ryu and Chun-li. (I decided to play all of my online matches as Chun-li because she's the character that I play most often, and I wanted to create a circumstance that was as "regular" as possible for the sake of all drug testing.)
Playing against the computer in Survival Mode is completely different than playing against a human, by the way. It's easier, because the AI behaves very predictably. For the sake of this test, I simply used Survival Mode as a way to practice combos and warm up my fingers before getting into real matches with other humans online.
After the warm-up, I went online and played seven matches in a row, sticking with Chun-li the entire time. I lost my first three matches, then won two, then lost one, and then won my last match. So, in total, I won three and lost four.
Around noon the following day, I took an Ambrotose Complex capsule. Although the capsules smell odd, they taste like nothing going down, so whatever plastic Mannatech uses on the capsules is high-quality enough to mask the barn-like stench.
Within 10 minutes, I felt nauseated. An hour later, I still felt nauseated. Around 1:30, the nausea finally dissipated. Instead of playing any Street Fighter matches, though, I ended up writing several different stories and recorded a terrible rap song, which could be considered a harmful side effect of Ambrotose Complex.
I took the drugs again the following day and, once again, didn't end up finding the time to play any matches. I took the supplements yet again for the third day in a row, at which point I finally managed to play some SFV. By then, I figured, I had given the drugs a big lead time to build up in my system. That wasn't intentional, but it did seem like a beneficial way to undergo my gaming test.
Once I finally booted up Street Fighter V, I felt relaxed and great about playing some matches. I started out by playing some Survival Mode to warm up, as I had before. I felt like I was doing a significantly better job, perhaps that's because it was a Friday and I felt relaxed. Once I felt warmed up, I started some online matches.
Once again, I stuck with Chun-li the entire time. I lost my first match against a surprisingly talented Akuma player, but I did score a "perfect" in the middle round. (I lost the first and third rounds of that match.) I then played six more matches. Here's how that went down: loss, win, loss, win, win, win. So, out of my seven matches, I definitely saw an improvement compared to my A testing. This time, I had won four matches and lost three. I also felt more relaxed and focused while playing.
After winning my last three matches in a row, each to a different opponents, I felt pretty cocky and I was having fun. So I decided to play another match. I ended up facing off against an Akuma player again — possibly the same Akuma player from the beginning, although I wasn't certain. I played this Akuma twice in a row, and I lost dismally both times, thereby bringing down my overall win/loss ratio to a much less exciting tally of five losses and four wins out of nine total matches.
To recap, I won 45% of my matches on Ambrotose Complex, in comparison to winning 42% of them while sober. That doesn't seem like a significant enough difference to be worth the price tag or the hoops that I had to jump through in order to get the pills.
I chalk up my sense of relaxation, and my marginally better performance, to the placebo effect. I did enjoy the experience of having the drugs, and while I was playing my matches with the benefit of the drug, my wins felt more compelling and exciting because I was mentally crediting the drugs.
When I won three matches in a row, I thought to myself, "This drug could really be working!" The prospect of finding my own Limitless solution was very exciting and fun. But then, when I lost my final two matches, I thought to myself, "Nope, this drug doesn't do anything."
I think a lot of my own Street Fighter performance has historically relied on how I'm feeling on a given day. If this drug does absolutely nothing other than trick me into believing I have an asset on my side, even if only briefly, then it could be construed as worthwhile. But I don't think that my secret weapon necessarily needs to be Ambrotose Complex. Wearing my favourite T-shirt could very well produce the same positive effect.
By the way, this drug didn't affect my poop at all. I was expecting some intestinal distress, given the ingredient list, but I maintained a pleasant level of regularity throughout this entire experience, despite the fact that I took this supplement for three days in a row. If Ambrotose Complex were going to affect my intestines, I would think that three days would be enough to rock my poop situation, but nope. Sorry for the lack of humorous poop stories, folks.
I'm as disappointed as you are. (No, I'm not. I really didn't want to give myself diarrhoea for the sake of a story. But the fact that I was willing to risk that says … something. I'm not sure what.)
The worst side effect I experienced was the hour of nausea on the first day that I took the drug. I think that was only due to my anxiety about having put something weird in my body. It passed within an hour and a half, and it didn't happen at any other time while I was taking Ambrotose Complex.
DRUG #2: STIMPACK
Unlike Ambrotose Complex, Stimpack was blessedly easy to obtain, and it has multiple active ingredients that I actually recognise even without resorting to Google. 45 capsules cost me $US34.99 ($46). The bottle boasts that it's the "Number One Gaming Supplement," and the instructions tell the user to "Take one to two capsules with 226.80g of water, 45 minutes before gaming session. Take up to four capsules daily. Do not exceed recommended dosage."
All of this sounds a lot more official than the squishy description on the Ambrotose Complex bottle, which offered me absolutely no impressions on what time I could expect it to kick in (if ever).
One Stimpack capsule contains 100mg of caffeine. A cup of coffee contains about 95mg. So, if you pop two of these, it should be similar to downing two cups of coffee in a row. Stimpack also contains 60mcg of vitamin B12, as well as theobromine and L-theanine.
Theobromine is also present in coffee and chocolate; it's not too mysterious or unusual for it to be packaged with a caffeine pill. L-theanine is derived from tea leaves, and when it's combined with caffeine, it supposedly helps with alertness and reaction time. It supposedly offsets caffeine jitters.
All of this sounds very promising, particularly in comparison to the dubious effects of Ambrotose Complex. Plus, you can order Stimpack from normal websites like Amazon, and you don't even have to call a toll-free number or anything in order to get a bottle. The main downside is that I have no idea how Ben Carson feels about Stimpack, and that's obviously a mega-important factor when ordering any supplement.
On my Stimpack testing day, I took one pill at noon. After only 20 minutes, I could feel my heart rate rising. By the time 45 minutes had passed, I felt downright uncomfortable.
I drink one cup of coffee every morning, and my Stimpack testing day was no different. Taking a Stimpack pill at noon should have felt, more or less, like drinking a second cup of coffee. It felt a lot worse than that. My whole body felt jittery as fuck.
"Jittery as fuck" is not a good way to head into a Street Fighter V match.
Like all previous tests, I started out with Survival Mode as a warm-up. During the first Survival Mode match, I could feel my hands trembling uncontrollably, which made it very difficult to play the game well. My breathing also felt shaky and ragged. I took a short video on my phone to demonstrate my shaking hands.
After taking that video, I decided to go put on a heart rate monitor to see what it said. Ordinarily, my resting heart rate is around 70 in terms of beats per minute (BPM). I'm a petite 30-year-old woman who exercises multiple times per week, so that's a typical resting heart rate, given my situation. On Stimpack, my heart rate was fluctuating between 90-110 BPM.
That can be a normal resting heart rate for other people, depending on their typical activity level, but for me, it felt like a significant and uncomfortable place for my body to be, especially given that I was just sitting still on my couch playing a video game.
After completing some Survival Mode, I didn't feel "warmed up." I felt freaked out. But I headed online for my matches anyway.
As usual, I played as Chun-li the entire time. In my first match, I faced off against a player who had chosen Kolin, a relatively new character in SFV. This player did not seem very experienced. I lost my first round, though, throughout which I felt very distracted. I won the following two rounds.
While waiting for another match, I continued to feel noticeably fidgety and nervous, in spite of having won two rounds in a row. (Usually, winning a match gives me a warm, relaxing sense of satisfaction.) I decided in that moment that even if this drug improved my gaming performance, I wouldn't take it again, because of how bad it made me feel. I glanced at my heart rate monitor: 105 BPM.
In my next match, I faced off against a Rashid player. I lost, real bad. During some points in the match, I noticed my heart rate elevating to 110 BPM. I felt like I was fucking up many moves that I ordinarily wouldn't. After that match, I realised that this was the first time in a very long time that I had actively not enjoyed playing Street Fighter.
My next opponent was an R. Mika player. I played for two rounds, both of which I lost even worse than before. She got my stun meter up in every single round, without fail; I seemed unable to evade her grabs in time, stuck in my own head and plagued by anxiety. In our second match together, my opponent actually seemed concerned about me.
After my Chun-li got stunned, R. Mika waited patiently for me to get back up instead of capitalising on the moment to attack me. Meanwhile, my hands were still shaking, and no amount of deep breathing exercises did anything to mitigate that.
By this point, I had played six matches and I was very tempted to turn the game off. If I hadn't been testing a drug, I would have turned the game off after only four matches. My seventh and final match connected at last, at which point my heart rate elevated to 111 BPM. I did my best to perform well, knowing this was my final match and final chance to win a round. Instead, I got totally creamed.
In spite of my losses, I felt instant relief upon completing my seven matches and turned the game off right away. For what it's worth, as physically unpleasant as I felt while on Stimpack, I did my absolute best to win every single one of those matches. Even though I didn't ever want to take the drug again, I definitely wanted to see if it would improve my playing, no matter how physically miserable I felt while under its influence.
However, the results speak for themselves. Out of seven matches, I lost five. I only won two matches, and both of those wins felt unsatisfying because they were against a relatively inexperienced Kolin player. It's entirely possible that if I hadn't been facing off against that new Kolin player, I would have lost every single one of my matches on Stimpack.
What was even more humiliating about the experience was that I found myself screwing up very basic counters in the game. The matches didn't feel like an accurate reflection of my current skill level. I was consistently missing anti-airs by hitting the button a nanosecond too late; same with countering throws. In many instances, I was hitting the right buttons to counter my opponent, but not managing to hit those buttons in time.
In other instances, however, I was hitting the wrong buttons to combat the situation at hand. I found myself making very impulsive choices in-game — choices I would never make on a normal day. I performed impulsive jump-ins and I got punished for it, yet I found myself continuing to perform unsafe moves in spite of those punishes. Even in the moment, I thought to myself: Control your breathing. Focus. Pay attention! Yet I couldn't manage to do it.
These Stimpack matches felt like some of the matches I experienced when I was first learning how to play SFIV at fight nights in my early 20s, particularly when playing against trash-talking opponents or at crowded gaming events — high-anxiety situations. Ordinarily, when I'm playing matches online by myself on my living room couch, I'm relaxed and playing in an environment that isn't anxiety-producing, thereby yielding better results than I might have at a crowded public event.
These Stimpack matches reminded me of the old anxiety that I used to feel about Street Fighter, when I didn't feel as confident about what I was doing, or times when I was playing in situations with many people watching me and/or trying to distract or unnerve me. I haven't felt that way during a Street Fighter match in a very long time, and it was a distinctly unpleasant memory for me.
As a result of my experience, it's hard for me to recommend Stimpack to anyone, in spite of the fact that it has several excellent Amazon reviews and doesn't appear to be bad for you, per se. For many people, a dose of caffeine (say, a daily cup of coffee) can have demonstrably beneficial effects when it comes to memory and concentration, provided you don't have other medical concerns or a caffeine sensitivity.
However, taking too much caffeine doesn't seem beneficial to my gaming — at least, not with my body chemistry. I'm also not sure that the additional ingredients in Stimpack ended up having the effect on me that they might have on other people.
I'm aware that many professional gamers swear by stimulants, although the stereotypical stimulant of choice for pro gamers isn't caffeine, but Adderall (amphetamines) or Ritalin (methylphenidate). I didn't snort any addies for the sake of this article, but let's just say that I have enough experience with the world of stimulants to feel very sceptical as to whether a high dosage of either Adderrall or Ritalin would improve my SFV game.
At the very least, I can tell you that taking a bunch of caffeine did not help me out. It actively hindered me, plus it made me feel like total shit for a whole afternoon.
The environment of a tournament is likely to produce a lot of adrenaline in the average person. Part of the training to become good at fighting games, at least for me, involves the quieting of those nerves, and the redirection of that adrenaline into playing better, rather than panicking. When I've competed in tournaments, I've found my own heart rate and my nerves to be my worst enemy. Throwing a stimulant into the mix is a recipe for disaster.
For me, I've found the best gaming drug regimen is a good night's sleep, regular meals, occasional exercise, and maybe an open window to let in some sunlight. (And cocaine. Did I forget to mention that? Love the stuff!)