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Anxiety, Boredom and Flow

Is there consistency between Csikszentmihalyi's notion of Flow and the system of Experience?

Glenn Storm, Blogger

January 8, 2010

13 Min Read

Previous Post: Difficulty and Crisis and Opportunity   

In the previous post, the Lens of the System of Experience was used to describe a duality inherent within the common Game Design balance consideration of difficulty. In this post, the Lens is used to see how that duality aligns with the formal psychological concept of flow, as introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Everyone should feel encouraged to join the discussion and comment on or debate the assertions presented. All relevant comments are welcome and appreciated.

Anxiety, Boredom and Flow1

When we begin a new task and the relative difficulty is low, the system of Experience is operating on novel concepts, and thus Motivation is likely to direct Attention to continue the task because Efficiency is being achieved and Understanding is being progressed toward. If this task continues without increasing in difficulty or offering any novel concepts, the system of Experience may continue to make efforts to achieve Efficiency with the current Cognitive Models via continued Attention for more detailed Perception and more accurate Prediction. But if the Attention paid to this task no longer yields an acceptable progress to Understanding as compared to other Attention efforts, the result is boredom. On the other hand, if the task difficulty increases beyond our abilities; which could come about by insufficient interpretation of Perception, major inconsistencies between Cognitive Model subsets, a deficit in Memory relevant to the situation or an inability to make accurate Prediction, the assessments made on the situation may lead to the conclusion that the Efficiency tradeoff for Attention is insufficient; that no reasonable progress to Understanding can be achieved as compared to the Attention cost that effort poses. If the priority for the task is high; that is, the outcome of the effort towards the task is predicted to have a significant impact on overall Efficiency, the system of Experience is in a severe state of conflict that cannot be readily reconciled.2 This is a significant Stress condition which we call anxiety. Game designers understand the management of difficulty; so as to avoid the extreme states of boredom and anxiety, as game balance. It is achieved by matching the challenges posed by the game to the skills possessed by the player. As the game progresses, this balance continues so that as the skills and agency of the player increase, the challenges that the player faces become more difficult. Flow is the term used to describe the delicately balanced state between task difficulty and skills necessary to the complete the task. In terms of the system of Experience and its current efforts toward Understanding, flow is achieved with a balance between the perceived Reliability deficit the current situation poses as Stress and the predicted Attention effort required to achieve a progression of Efficiency gains; as long as both these factors ar e interrelated as a cohesive progression.  

Experience in flow simultaneously acknowledges a succession of Stress conditions as they are met with a relative progression of Attention efforts, and a succession of Satisfaction points as the Efficiency gains acquired are able to be applied to the subsequent challenges. A linked progression of challenges, or Stress conditions, yields a progression of skill, or Efficiency gains, that make the subsequent challenges easier, or requiring relatively less Attention effort; while at the same time the system achieves a significant measure of overall Reliability and Understanding in the aggregate because the challenge/skill progression is interrelated in this way and offers a measure of Reliability. While the system is constantly encountering Stress, it is also constantly encountering Satisfaction, plus it is gaining significantly more Efficiency overall by comparison, due in large part to the relationships between the gains acquired and the subsequent Attention demands and the Reliability those relationships represent. This aggregate increase in Reliability explains why Motivation could be inclined to continue a course of Attention effort in flow, as long as Efficiency gains are perceived to be connected reliably to the Attention efforts demanded by the subsequent Stress conditions and the overall progress made toward Understanding is perceived.  As well, the constant encounters with Satisfaction points would indicate why an audience experiencing flow would reflectively report an overall feeling of happiness, as Csikszentmihalyi found in his studies.


1 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement in Everyday Life

2 When the perceived difficulty of the task represents a random variable that cannot be predicted, the gap between a valuable potential Efficiency gain and the loss paid through the predicted Attention effort represents a risk to the system of Experience that itself becomes a focus that taxes Attention. This concept will be explored further in a future post.

Next Post: Frustration



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