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What flow theory is, where it's problematic.
April 20, 2015
10 Min Read
Some notes: this comes from a book chapter you can find on my personal blog. In the book this stuff follows other stuff (posted here at Gama) about J.R.R. Tolkien and Escapism, and occurs alongside a personal story about vanishing into Star Wars Galaxies for a year.
In his book Flow, father of flow theory Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, “We have called this state the flow experience, because this is the term of many of the people we interviewed had used in their descriptions of how it felt to be in top form: 'It was like floating,' 'I was carried on by the flow.'”
We get there once we’ve mastered something, say, Stalking Jedi in Star Wars Galaxies, and then matched that mastery to some equally breathtaking quest, say Take Three Jedi Masters at Once. When we have the skills, and the challenge, we can feel utterly competent, and in the moment. We know what we’re supposed to do, but things are happening so fast that we lose track of our own selves. We’re completely invested. It was a state of mind that Csikszentmihalyi observed in factory workers, CEOs, professional athletes, scientists, pianists.
Action and awareness come together, “When all a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person’s attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over.” It takes enough of our attention that we can’t focus on the bad shit in life. It’s a double whammy, if the experience itself can also be involving and meaningful.
It is, perhaps, the most engaging experience available to humankind. Which can on occasion be a problem. Csikszentmihalyi explains,
Early ethnographers have described North American Plains Indians so hypnotically involved in gambling with buffalo rib bones that losers would often leave the tepee without clothes in the dead of winter, having wagered away their weapons, horses, and wives as well. Almost any enjoyable activity can become addictive, in the sense that instead of being a conscious choice, it becomes a necessity that interferes with other activities. Surgeons, for instance, describe operations as being addictive, “like taking heroin.”
When a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the content of consciousness. Thus enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.
Flow is powerful, so it’s no surprise that in her Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal uses Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory as a major pillar for her definition of games. She calls the gamers who understand flow Happiness Engineers, saying they’re uniquely positioned to help fix reality. But she too seems aware of gaming’s potential to overwhelm, describing a weekend where she, “…spent twenty-four hours playing WoW – which was about twenty-three more hours than I’d intended. What can I say? There was a LOT of world-saving work to do.
“… When Monday morning came around, I resisted the idea of going back to 'real' work. I knew this wasn’t rational. But some part of me wanted to keep earning experience points, stacking up treasure, collecting my plus-ones, and checking off world-saving quests from my to-do list.
“…I did go back to real work, of course. But it took me awhile to shake the feeling that I’d rather be leveling up. Part of me felt like I was accomplishing more in the Kingdom of Azeroth than I was in real life. And that’s exactly the IV drip of productivity that World of Warcraft is so good at providing. It delivers a stream of work and reward as reliably as a morphine drip line.
“…and it doesn’t matter that the work isn’t real. The emotional rewards are real – and for gamers, that’s what matters.”
While Jane only mentions one weekend of “blissful productivity,” Galaxies had me lost for a year. Her book means to use flow as the foundational evidence that games make us happy. Even if flow was ever really about happiness, there’s more happening here. At some point, games go beyond “fun,” or even “engagement.”
Galaxies gave me a first taste of that strange limbo, the awkward space where engagement stretches too long. Whether because the game world is simply too rich, or the alternatives in the rest of the world too awful, the ability to function in any world starts to corrode.
Eric Weiner’s travelogue Geography of Bliss starts every chapter title with, “Happiness is...” And each country gets its own catchy headline. Thailand is, for instance, where Happiness is Not Thinking, and in Moldova, Happiness is Somewhere Else. The former NPR correspondent chuckles at the “self-help industrial complex,” then consults glowing Indian gurus and happiness politicians in Bhutan.
Happiness seems to be the distracted, ephemeral promise of near every television, magazine, and news advertisement out today. A few hours after cracking Weiner’s book open, at the local supermarket I walked by a box for a Snickers-brand ice cream cake with the slogan, “It's what happiness tastes like!” Structured flow – flow that’s designed for us, so we can take the experience and leave – suffers from the same problem as a chocolate cake. Chocolate cake makes some of us happy, for awhile. But not if we eat it every meal, every day. Flavor without substance is just dumb stimulation.
And sure, I love cake as much as the next guy – probably way more – but I can only eat so much of it. Some games go on indefinitely. Though I haven’t exactly given Jane McGonigal a fair shake yet, I’m not convinced that every game fulfills “…genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.” Like a lot of art, game experiences might take us outside ourselves, connect us with cool shit the likes of which we might never have seen otherwise. If she means the kind of escape Tolkien is talking about, I absolutely agree. To some extent, social organization and high technology have dug some deep moats between the planet’s human beings, her creatures, and her boundless physical beauty. Past that?
There’s a difference between flow that we can take from the world – that we consume like a Hot Pocket – and flow we create. In one, the experience is carefully structured (by someone else) to mete out rewards on just the right schedule, so that a mass audience can detach. So that with minimal effort we can feel one of the most powerful experiences available to humankind. Flow is just a good mix of challenge and skill. We can feel it at the start of a task (easy to learn) or even with the complexity of a massive task (hard to master). In both cases, good game design ensures that we’re always given hints as to where we ought to head next, or just how to better build ourselves up for the larger challenges. Those hints usually come in the form of rewards.
Jane talks about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, in the happiness research. That the extrinsic “American Dream” goals: money, power, cars, can go so far as to make us unhappy. That’s certainly in-line what the research suggests. But the rewards, goals, what have you, which evoke the structured flow in games are by and large extrinsic. They’re gold, credits, currency. They’re rideable tigers, floating jet bikes, and other thoroughly pimped rides. They’re palatial mansions on Naboo, legendary swords, achievements, visible skill rankings, visible titles, and all manner of status symbols. That’s hard to see, because we’re still struggling with a more fundamental misconception about games.
The big problem in naming a book “Reality is Broken,” is that it establishes from the outset that false dichotomy between “games” and “real life.” The distinction is what’s broken. If all you can see is someone winning a staring contest with a computer monitor, it might look intrinsic. Like the motivation to sit twenty hours at a time is all coming from within. It looks just as much like flow as it does pathology. When you know how rich these worlds can be, about the people you can meet inside, the treasure troves of fun and the abysmal bullshit grinds, it becomes clear that they’re a place that’s real, imperfect, and changeable as any other geographical subsection of the planet. We can go after trite readymade goals (and many do), we can find readymade flow (and many do), we can also build our own flow, and in so doing learn a thing or two about ourselves (and many do). To be fair to Galaxies, I made a lot more of my own flow there than in later online games, say Warcraft or League of Legends. To be fair to Jane, I can’t be too judgmental where book titles are concerned.
Free flow – flow experiences we build ourselves, after listening to both the world and ourselves – show us that, in Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “…the old riddle “What is the meaning of life?” turns out to be astonishingly simple. The meaning of life is meaning: whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.”
If we can discover some “harmonious theme” to the chaos of our lives, then we can take steps to building for ourselves the experience of flow in more and more places. The individual who embodies free flow – who sticks to a goal, builds their skills, and tackles big problems – the universe might not be there cheering them on, life might be awful, but they have perhaps the most powerful gift an individual can give to themselves: purpose.
It gets really easy to just rely on the experts, who can build engagement into our entertainment, our jobs, our lives. We might get a lot more motivated (intrinsically and extrinsically) to do those jobs, and live those lives. But in so doing we might not notice the worlds we could’ve liked a lot more, which could have meant more, had we been the ones making them flow.
Games aren’t autopilot for happiness. That doesn't exist. They reveal life by giving it a basis for comparison. A fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you snatch it out. Galaxies did just that. It transported me to rich worlds populated by strange automated creatures, shady guilds composed of shady human beings, and people I’m still grateful to have in my life. It wasn’t exactly a shining golden age for the part of me doing misdeeds in Gig Harbor, but it wasn’t completely bereft of merit. Even without any so-called “experience language” I’d learned – first hand – a few things about fun, and the futility of grinds.
“...some readers wanted to know if they should move to happy places like Iceland or Bhutan.” Wrote Weiner, in his Geography, “Perhaps, if that is where your heart lies, but the point is not necessarily that we move to these places but, rather, that we allow these places to move us.
“I believe, now more than ever, in the transformative promise of geography. Change your location and you just may change yourself. It's not that distant lands contain some special “energy” or that their inhabitants possess secret knowledge (though they may) but rather something more fundamental: By relocating ourselves, reorienting ourselves, we shake loose the shackles of expectation. Adrift in a different place we give ourselves permission to be different people.”
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