A Second Look at Flow Theory in Games.

John Hamon Salisbury & Penda Tomlinson‘s article Reconciling Csikszentmihalyi’s Broader Flow Theory With Meaning and Value in Digital Games takes a deeper look into Csikszentimihalyi’s theory of Flow, and proposes that the “meaningful experiences” Csikszentmihalyi is talking about rely on constructions of value drawn from our personal cultural context.

A Shallow Dive (into the Zone)
The core concept of “Flow” is used to describe a type of heightened engagement with an activity where the participant is so involved in the activity that there is no awareness spared for one’s environment or even self-consciousness. This idea, alongside with the nine conditions that make up a Flow experience are often quoted by video game researchers and designers who are using the concept of Flow as a model of engagement and even enjoyment as a frame of reference in their work.

9 conditions of Flow

Particularly of focus is condition 3, “there is a balance between challenges and skills”, to the extent where it has been advised that games difficulty levels be optimized dynamically according to the players skill. These 9 factors also guide the 2 main discussion of 1) how to players might be motivated to find enjoyment with digital games; and 2) designing appropriate challenges that avoid player boredom or frustration.

The Missing Link & What It Means for Flow in Games
In the authors reading of Csikszentmihalyi’s broader discussions of Flow however, they noticed that he further classifies the instances of engagement and puts them into 2 brackets, which can be understood as Good and Bad types of engagement (depending on the activity that provides Flow?). Putting it into perspective,

[Bad engagement] or [passive and entropy inducing] refers to episodes of Flow experiences that are enjoyable in the short run, but does not lead to a sense of satisfaction and happiness over time. With such experiences, there is a risk of addiction.

[Good engagement] or [growth promoting] describes to a dimension of experience that provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting one into a new reality. A transformation of the individual to a previously undreamed of state of consciousness.

It is this distinction between the types of engagement, the authors note, that is lost in our modern discussion of Flow in digital games. This renders our current understanding of Flow as incomplete and hinders us designing for desirable Flow in games. To put things in perspective, games in their current state elicit the type of Flow that falls under bad engagement. While deeply engaging due to its interactive nature, games not only provide escape and distraction, they also create an environment endorsing addiction.

That said, the authors note that as the reason we feel this way is because the game experience is judged by the individual to lack enjoyment or value, and does not generate a sense of long-term, personal meaning. Citing Csikszentmihalyi himself, they suggest that humans determine what we value in our lives through our social and cultural experiences, and in most cases, these things of value lead toward personal improvement. One major factor contributing to the value of an experience is its legitimacy, which is how much an activity is valued by the power structures within that society. Putting this in perspective, consider the general public’s opinion of games as a waste of time, but think that listening to music or going to the theatre as something classy. Cultural forces determine values for actions, prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that help us tackle the challenges of existence. As such, it would only make sense that Good Flow should yield personal and also culturally relative worth.

Moving On
A simple method of differentiation between the Good and Bad types of Flow experiences, the authors suggest, is to add an 10th condition to the existing list of Flow conditions.

10: The activity must present an opportunity for meaningful growth of the self which is valued by the individual participant.

While it is difficult to see how this influences design interventions, the authors argue that just by adding the discussion of player’s personal values when designing games would yield changes. This transition is crucial, if game designers aspire to have games to be viewed as culturally significant objects, rather than a time-wasting pastime.

Original Article Title: Reconciling Csikszentmihalyi’s Broader Flow Theory With Meaning and Value in Digital Games
Authors: John Hamon Salisbury, Penda Tomlinson
Published: Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association
Original article accessible here.