March 15, 2007


A video game based on the theory in one of my favorite books, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow."
A deceptively simple video game called "flOw," in which players control the feeding and evolution of an aquatic organism, is making waves in the $30 billion market better known for fictional blood and bullets.

The game forsakes typical testosterone-fueled activities of killing, racing and blowing stuff up. Inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory, which holds that people are happy and fulfilled when they are fully immersed in what they are doing, "flOw" is pure Zen.
Let's get a better description of flow than happy/fulfilled/immersed/Zen. In his book -- at page 49 of the 1991 Harper Perennial edition -- Csikszentmihalyi describes flow in terms of 8 components:
First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
(I originally typed that out to use in this article, which I wrote for the "Bloggership" conference. I say that that blogging is a flow experience for me. But this post isn't about that.)

Now, looking at that description of flow, I think you can see that all good video games produce flow, whether they are called "flow" or "flOw" or "fLoW" or whatever. The real question -- assuming you decide you want to live in flow -- is whether you should be finding your flow in games that have been manufactured to produce a flow experience. You can see that part of flow is becoming absorbed for long periods of time in something of a trancelike state. The book highlights individuals who find flow doing productive or healthy things like surgery and rock climbing. If you're finding your flow in something that is sedentary, uncreative, and nonlucrative, well, it might be okay. But maybe it's a problem. And I say that as someone who used to throw away a stupid amount of time playing games like Tetris.


bluethedog said...

I'll check out the book, literally, from the library. What a last name! Makes it easy to find in linkcat. I love stuff like this for sports.

Ann Althouse said...

It's easy to remember how to pronounce it though: Chick sent me high.

bluethedog said...

You certainly do!

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

In short, he's describing kairos time, rather than our more typical chronos understanding thereof. The closest we get in English to kairos is something like "a good time."

There are some interesting overlaps here with String Theory, which posits (amongst other things) at least three dimensions of time.

This leads to some fascinating theological implications, given that in order to have a physical existence we seem to be restricted to three dimensions of space and only one -- chronos -- of time.

God, however, is not, which makes possible things like infinite individual attention in prayer (while we perceive it as just a few minutes of chronos, or, for that matter, within the Christian experience, that Christ suffered on the cross individually for each and every person who would ever live ... yet it all happened in just "six hours."

In the same way that through perspective drawing two dimensions can give us the impression of three, what the Greeks called kairos is simply a chronos -bound impression of the fuller existence of time beyond our current ability to perceive.

'Mihaly,' by the way, is the Hungarian equivalent of Michael, and 'Szent Mihaly' is Saint Michael.

yetanotherjohn said...

My oldest son recently had 3 other boys over for his 14th birthday. Your description of "flow" matched very well with how they would approach playing a game for the Wii called Warioware. The game is made up of short interaction segments involving the player manipulating the wireless remote in different ways (like a pestal, a grater, a saw, a serving tray, signal flag, etc). Because the remote transmits orientation and movement, it can be used to represent a variety of items.

The boys would start a sequence of about a dozen actions. They would be told which action the would need to perform in the sequence and get visual feedback on whether they performed the action acceptably. The pace of the sequences increased as you progressed and after each action, they would get immediate pass/fail information. All was imminently doable, but challenging enough that success was by no means guaranteed.

Each time a new boy took the control, he would obviously sink into the flow state you described. Of course as a parent, what I liked most was they weren't just building incredible strong thumb muscles for pushing a button, but having to get up and move to manipulate the remote during the game.

George said...

"Soon stunted pines disappear entirely and we’re in alpine meadows. There’s not a tree anywhere, only grass everywhere filled with little pink and blue and white dots of intense color. Wild flowers, everywhere! These and grasses and mosses and lichens are all that can live here, now. We’ve reached the high country, above the timberline. I look over my shoulder for one last view of the gorge. Like looking down at the bottom of the ocean. People spend their entire lives at those lower altitudes without any awareness that this high country exists."
--Robert Pirsig
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Allan said...

Surgery, sailing, and freecell do it for me.

Joe said...

Flow, the game, isn't making waves anywhere except in the mind of the publisher. I'm an avid, though not hardcore, computer gamer and I never heard of this game. Looked it up on game sites and the general response is a giant yawn.

Christy said...

Looks like a good book to check out. Thank you.

Joseph Campbell gets into this idea of flow --applying lessons of the hero of a thousand faces to life.

Bart, fascinating comment. I've always wanted tales of time slowing down so some critical task is accomplished to be true.

I'd claim that one of the best literary examples of flow is Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. I zoned when I read it and no doubt the Old Man was in the flow.

TMink said...

A really great book, I recommend it all the time.

I wonder if the hyperfocus that ADD folks get into is a version of flow.


Ruth Anne Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mikeyes said...

The flow experience is well known in sports (just ask Koby Bryant or Michael Jordan)and to sports psychologists. It occurs in all endeavors, especially reading, and usually occurs in persons who are at the elite level of functioning in whatever the activity is (although not always, of course.)

It has been an article of faith amongst individual sportsmen (persons) for decades and is a sought after state of mind.

Revenant said...

The book highlights individuals who find flow doing productive or healthy things like surgery and rock climbing. If you're finding your flow in something that is sedentary, uncreative, and nonlucrative, well, it might be okay. But maybe it's a problem.

Videogames stimulate the mind while rock climbing stimulates the muscles. Both activities are uncreative (aside from the minority of videogames support user creativity as part of play) and nonlucrative.

So it is far from clear to me why rock climbing is "good flow" and videogames "may be a problem", unless there's some underlying presumption that exercising your body is better than exercising your mind.

Ann Althouse said...

Rock climbing involves the mind too. And you forgot "sedentary."