The Origins of Flow

As a reader of MP, there's a decent chance that you're already familiar with the concept of "flow" championed by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced like this, not this). If you aren't up to speed on it, fear not; I'll go into the details in just a moment. The notion is immensely popular among game designers and theorists, whether they want to leverage games' power to put us into a flow state to pursue social good, are using psychophysiological tools to quantify flow and keep players in it, or simply using it as the blueprint for good game design.

But as much as the games community wants to take flow as its own, there's more to the story. I finally sat down and read Csikszentmihalyi's principal book on the topic, and the truth of the matter is that "flow" is much more than a gaming concept.

The first time I was explicitly introduced to flow was in game designer Jesse Schell's excellent book The Art of Game Design (aspiring young game designers, take note: This a quick read and very much worth your time). As I imagine was the case for many of you, this introduction came in the form of Csikszentmihalyi's famous flow diagram. Part of the diagram's appeal is its simplicity and readability, but I'll still go over the basics. Along the x-axis we have a person's skill with respect to some task, while along the y-axis is the level of challenge or difficulty presented by that task. The simple geometry of this skill-difficulty space captures a few important concepts:

  • The key realization, and the one Csikszentmihalyi is famous for, is that there's a sweet spot where challenge and skill are well-matched that he dubbed the "flow channel". When we talk about being completely engaged and truly in flow, we're taking about the flow channel.
  • Moving outside the flow channel to the left, we find the anxiety area. When the demands of a task exceed an individual's skill, she experiences anxiety or stress, unable to handle the task.
  • To the right of the flow channel is the converse of anxiety, the boredom area, where the task is too easy to challenge the individual's skills.

So it turns out this simple plot of skill versus challenge actually tells us quite a bit. It is little surprise that game designers try to keep it in mind while developing a game; make the game too hard and people get frustrated or anxious, but if it's too easy, they'll get bored. But beyond that, the framework captures the evolution of skill. As players get better at a game, the game should get harder, but always in a way that keeps them in the flow channel.

It's fairly plain to see the application of flow to games, but what seems to be lacking among many who cite it is a full appreciation of its origins. It might surprise you to learn that Csikszentmihalyi doesn't mention videogames once in his book, and even in the broader sense, games are not a major component of the story he tells. One could likely couch his discussion of people achieving flow in a non-game activities in terms of something like "psychological gamification", but it's important to realize that his is not a theory of gaming.

Where Csikszentmihalyi's work does have its root is in trying to answer the deceptively simple question, what makes us happy? While it's nothing new to say that stereotypical elements of "the good life" - money, fame, free time, and so on - aren't what actually make us happy, Csikszentmihalyi set forth with empirical rigor to figure exactly what things do bring happiness, and to understand why.

This task began with good old fashioned ethnographic research, interviewing people who seemed to genuinely enjoy their vocations - artists, athletes, musicians, and even factory workers - to gain qualitative insight into what they had in common. The book boasts a variety of these case studies, and half the pleasure in reading it is hearing the stories of people who are able to fully engage in and enjoy the activities of their lives, even in situations where you might not expect it. Moving beyond interviews, Csikszentmihalyi began utilizing a technique called event sampling methodology, in which study participants wear a small pager-like device that buzzes at randomized intervals throughout the day. Whenever it goes off, the subject records precisely what she is doing at that moment, and answers a set of questions about her mood, feelings of engagement, and so on.

The results of this work were enlightening, revealing that many of the activities people traditionally associate with happiness, including leisure activities like watching TV, aren't actually what bring people the most enjoyment. Instead, true satisfaction is associated with activities that fit into the flow channel described above, activities that push the boundaries of an individual's skillset without pushing them too far. And what really makes his thesis fascinating is that this is not a passive process; there are not simply some activities that result in flow and others that don't. A key point of Csikszentmihalyi's work is that almost any task or experience can be converted into flow experience. By creating opportunities for feedback and setting achievable goals within a task, it is possible to achieve flow in a a sport, a game, or even a seemingly boring job. Years of work in this domain led Csikszentmihalyi to establish a set of key elements of enjoyment:

  • A challenging activity that requires skill
  • Complete absorption of awareness by the task
  • Clear goals and feedback
  • A sense of control
  • The loss of one's sense of self
  • Changes in the perception of time

It's clear to see how this maps onto the gaming domain, as any experienced player has likely experienced similar feelings at one point or another, but Csikszentmihalyi takes these concepts in many other, equally interesting directions, discussing flow in work, physical activities, personal relationships, and more. It's certainly not a self-help book in not in the traditional sense, but teaches plenty of valuable lessons along the way. There is much more to be said about Csikszentmihalyi, but the message I want to drive home is that what he's done is about a whole lot more than games. In fact, the "flow" we experience while playing Tetris or Starcraft is an instantiation of a much broader phenomenon, and we would do well to keep that in mind. So if you have the chance, give Flow a chance. It's a highly accessible, fascinating read from which you'll surely draw many interesting connections to games, but with far-reaching implications outside that domain.

The Origins of Flow by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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