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.