The Value of Video Games: Finding Your Flow

Most people who know me probably know that I like video games. They’ve played a nontrivial role in my upbringing, and I can’t actually remember a time when they weren’t a part of my life.

The same could be said about reading, school, my friends, or my family, but all of those things are generally viewed as being formative and positively contributing to an individual’s development. As I’ve discussed previously, video games (and those who play them) carry a lot of stigma, both among the older generations in society and even in some parts of today’s youth.

Broadly speaking, many people don’t believe that video games can have any positive impact on an individual. Some may even believe that playing games can be a detriment, leading only to laziness, aggression, moral degradation, and a host of other psychological and behavioural problems.

I take issue with this belief. Of course, I may be just a little bit biased, but I think that games can have an immense and positive influence on those who play them. So, with the hope of convincing some naysayers that video games aren’t actually the root cause of everything wrong with our society, I’d like to introduce what may end up becoming a semi-regular series on this blog: the Value of Video Games. We’ll begin with a discussion of the captivating phenomenon known as “flow.”

First conceived by psychologist and spelling nightmare Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow refers to a state in which the individual becomes entirely engaged in whatever they are doing, to the point that anything external activity to the activity itself — even the passage of time — seems to fall away. The individual’s attention is entirely captivated and focused on the task at hand. In colloquial terms, this phenomenon is often referred to as being “in the zone.”

Flow has been the subject of intense scrutiny in a myriad of different activities and contexts, and researchers have consistently found a bevy of positive effects. The frequency and duration of flow states are associated with both higher performance and positive influence on the individual’s self-concept, particularly their feelings of competence for the skills used in that particular activity.

Many believe that the impact of flow is much more diffuse, extending far beyond the domain of a particular skill or proficiency. Csikszentmihalyi himself sustains that flow is the key to a happy, fulfilling life. If you’ve achieved such a state — which you almost certainly have at some point — you likely recall the profound feeling of accomplishment that it provokes. This feeling doesn’t stem from any external rewards or validation for one’s achievements, but rather from engaging in the activity itself.

Research on flow states and procrastination has shown that this sort of inherent reward could be crucial to achieving flow. Psychologists often differentiate between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for behaviour; while the former prompts us to engage in an activity because of the consequences that it holds (as when we write an essay for school simply because we’ll fail the class if we don’t), the latter denotes activities that we find to be rewarding in and of themselves. Unsurprisingly, we are far more likely to achieve flow states during intrinsically motivated activities.

This is often why discussions of flow focus on creative pursuits, whether in the form of an occupation or just a hobby. This isn’t to say that one can’t be intrinsically motivated to, say, work in an accounting office, but simply that those sorts of jobs are far more commonly associated with extrinsic rewards like a stable income and upward mobility.

But what about the non-creative activities we engage in during our leisure time? What about, broadly speaking, consuming content? Can we achieve a flow state just by reading a book or watching a movie?

The answer depends a little on how rigidly you define flow, but I would argue that we certainly can. When consuming content, flow primarily manifests itself in what is known as the “willing suspension of disbelief,” in which the consumers cast off the notion that they are reading, watching, or playing a work of fiction and, instead, fully immerse themselves in the world of the piece.

The increase in performance, so characteristic of flow states in other activities, can be a bit harder to observe when consuming content, but it is certainly there. Think of a book in which you became so invested that you couldn’t put it down, spending hours turning the pages until you either reached the end or reality intervened and demanded that you do something else, like make dinner or go to sleep.

There’s no exact analogue for movies or TV shows, since they proceed at the same linear rate regardless of how immersed you are, though of course you can still lose track of time and feel as though a two-hour movie was over in just a few minutes. Flow can also often be demonstrated by an individual’s ability to perceive and interpret the message of the content in question. This stands to reason, after all: if you’re focusing all of your attention on the content, you’ll be better equipped to engage with its message, both at the surface level of plot and at deeper levels of significance.

So, flow states can be achieved through active participation and performance, as well as by consuming content like a book or movie. These two avenues work on similar principles and mechanisms to obtain the same end result, but they are nonetheless definitively distinct.

Video games take these twin processes of participation and consumption and bring them together into one cohesive whole. While playing a video game, the individual can become immersed in the content, story, and world of the game, but the game simultaneously demands a level of performance to complete tasks and make progress. In a well-crafted game, these two components are so intrinsically intertwined that they become inseparable, with each helping the player to achieve flow.

Let’s examine the performance side of video games in a bit more detail. The specific requirements needed for flow to occur vary depending on what theorist you talk to, but most agree that flow must involve a careful balance of difficulty and skill. There must be sufficient challenge to prevent the participant from getting bored, but if that challenge overwhelms their abilities, it can lead to anxiety and frustration.

However, video games are unique among other activities because the player often gets to directly choose the difficulty and sometimes even change it in the middle of the game. The medium allows the individual to change the experience to fit their skill level so that they can avoid both boredom and anxiety.

In recent years, games have even been embracing the concept of “dynamic difficulty adjustment,” in which the game itself assesses the player’s performance and modifies the difficulty accordingly. This helps to ensure that each player finds the challenge level that’s right for them, particularly if they aren’t sure what difficulty to select right off the bat.

Yet one of the most compelling cases for flow in video games (at least in my opinion) is a game that actually doesn’t have a difficulty setting: Dark Souls (heads-up: somewhat offensive language in the video). Dark Souls is famous for being difficult and does not shy away from this fact. Instead, it unashamedly requires the player’s undivided attention and rewards precise, focused activity. Add in a compelling narrative and a bizarrely captivating world, and you have a game almost purely designed to inspire flow in its players.

This is an incredibly refreshing design choice when game developers often avoid high levels of difficulty for fear of alienating or frustrating their players. The success achieved by Dark Souls, its sequels, and other games that take a similar approach (Cave Story is another memorable example) will hopefully send a clear message that there is certainly demand for this level of challenge in games, and I believe that flow is a big part of the reason for that demand.

After all, as noted above, flow comes with a wide variety of benefits, and it turns out that it may have specific effects when achieved through video games. Research has highlighted flow as a possible reason for the scholarly disagreement as to whether or not violent games promote aggressive behaviour, suggesting that skilled players who regularly achieve flow may be protected from any negative psychological effects of the games they play.

There’s obviously still a lot of study going on in this field, and I am by no means the reigning authority on the topic. If you’re interested in a much more rigourous analysis of the topic (recognizing that it’s both much longer and much drier — I tried reading the whole thing and gave up halfway through), there’s a decently comprehensive assessment here.

For my purposes, though, I think I’ve made my point. Video games as a medium are uniquely tailored to enable players to achieve flow, both through immersion in the content and the challenge that the players face. Of course, some games are better at this than others, but a lot of the variation can also be a result of a specific player’s preferences and skills.

The prevalence of flow is just one of the many reasons for which I believe video games have a lot more value as a medium than most people think. As I said at the beginning, this is probably a topic I’m going to revisit at some point so I can explore some of other aspects of games.

In the meantime, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to conduct your own research. Start up a favourite game if you have one, or try something new, even if you’ve never been much of a gamer. Cave Story, for example, is available for free online and is a great way to kill some time. No matter what game you play, though, give it your full, earnest attention. Rather than stepping back from the challenge, embrace it. And above all else, go with the flow.

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