Go with the flow

Even though games have been part of human history since the beginning of time, it wasn’t until most recent times that formal studies on it began.

Not so surprisingly, games lay upon a great deal of psychology, sociology and many other -ologies. Among the erudite that have studied human behaviour there’s one psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied what he would later call Flow.

Flow is a mental state that is achieved when a person reaches full involvement during an activity, characterized by fulfillment, joy and absorption. Its presence is visible in any kind of activities and, particularly, games.

According to this theory, human activities fall within 8 possible categories that reflect the mood of the person towards such activities; each activity presents a challenge or resistance and the result depends on the skill level of the performer.

For example, if something is easy and the performer already mastered it, then it’s boring; au contraire, if the activity is difficult but the performer barely has the required skills to overcome it, then it results in anxiety and frustration. It’s only when the challenge is high and the person is qualified, that a state of flow can be achieved.

I’ve had the chance to experience this, firsthand. Here are some of my experiences:

  • I studied Computer Engineering and one of the courses related to the study of programming languages and the different available paradigms. I loved it and really applied myself, the result was that I scored 89/100. It was such the level of absorption I had that the following days of vacations, while playing FIFA, I couldn’t think off but of what rules needed to be true so that I could score a goal (we did a couple of projects with Haskell and Prolog). It turned out to be kind of annoying, as I couldn’t focus on playing the game, but it’s a fond memory I keep.
  • The next episode I can recall was after playing the first season of The Walking Dead and, a couple of year later, Mass Effect. I couldn’t talk without constantly thinking of what kind of repercussions would arise from my answers.
  • The last one (and the most recent) was while playing Valkyria Chronicles. The game is a strategic RPG where, during certain phases of a match, the player moves freely using mechanics of a third-person shooter but with a restraint over the number of steps the characters can move around. It was funny how whenever I chatted with someone, outside of the game, I’d be careful of how much words I was typing, as if I could run out of steps.

Every single time, it felt great to be able to experience direct evidence of such state of flow.

If only we could tailor mundane activities so that they can be completed with a sense of accomplishment and focus… oh, wait.

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