Disconnecting: Achieving Flow States in Games

Written by Stephen Patterson

When you can disconnect the switches that cause you to focus consciously on your surroundings and concentrate only on the task at hand with clarity, that’s called flow. Usually the term is used when discussing creative processes, whether that be a complete dedication to the piece you’re writing or to the picture you’re painting. It’s state of abandonment almost, shedding the outer world and narrowing down your thoughts to a single goal. I find it most often when I’m writing pieces just like these, but it also appears in games – to serve a similar purpose but with important distinctions. So which games can help achieve a flow state, how do they do it, and why do we want to reach it?

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My thoughts on the topic are brought about by my recent return (or relapse, depending on how you view the topic) to a game which is one of the most capable at achieving a state of flow, for me and for many others. I’ve been using Diablo III: Reaper of Souls this week in order to disconnect from reality, and it does an incredible job or investing you solely in its systems, not only to achieve a metaphorical, creative state of flow, but also a physical sensation. A sensation of moving around the game environment efficiently and quickly, maximising time gaining experience and gathering items searching for the next legendary item dopamine hit. It’s chemical, powerful, and consuming. Rutledge narrows it down succinctly: ‘The balance of skill and challenge keeps the player’s brain aroused, attention engaged and motivation high.’

Where else do we find flow states in gaming? Mostly, it’s those experiences where you feel as though you can multitask by listening to music, podcasts or watching TV at the same time. We don’t necessarily do this because the game we are playing is boring or lacks engagement, it’s that the mechanics of playing have been honed to a fine art of efficiency; we exert a level of creative control unlike that which we find in other pursuits which permit more creative thinking and implementation. Have you ever played a driving game and found that you can think about something clearly and in-depth for minutes at a time without looking at the track, yet you begin to hit incredible lap times? You’ve achieved flow. A state of subconscious control where the actions you are taking are automatic and yet perfect.

So how do games train us to perform tasks subconsciously while maintaining a high level of precision? The thought of those two elements working in tandem seems contradictory, an oxymoron. The main cause, evidently, is repetition of basic structures. When we play Diablo for 100 hours, we become so attuned to the UI layout, frequency and rarity of certain items and the map design that traversing any part of the experience can be done without requiring new thoughts or strategies to develop on a conscious level. When we play Forza or Gran Turismo for the same length of time, the handling physics and characteristics of the vehicles becomes second-nature: correcting slides and hitting the apex of each bend is now ingrained on a subconscious level. So much so, that we can abandon the game for months and it will still be ready to go the next time we play. So much so that we can operate the game at a high level while switching off our turbulent, worried minds and focus solely on the screen in front of us as it flickers by imperceptibly.

The games that achieve this so readily are those which tend to be frequently questioned from a psychological standpoint. I’ll often mention how games create and intentionally design a ‘skinner-box’, a design style which rewards actions with appropriate rewards, creating a cycle whereby the player continues to play repeatedly in search of the next big score. Those that are most successful incorporate random chance: Diablo, Borderlands, and Destiny to name a few, whereby enemies have random chances to drop extremely rare or powerful equipment, encouraging us to return often to find what we’re looking for. All of these design choices however help us to reach that flow state: the more time we put into the experience, the more familiar we become with the structure, and the more capable we become at operating it at maximum efficiency at a subconscious level.

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The real question of my article however is this: why would we want to achieve a flow state when playing a game? As described above, often we reach this point because our brain chemistry wants to feel the rush of reaching the next paragon level, or seeing the streak of light that emerges when a legendary weapon drops. That has decidedly negative connotations – fundamentally, we aren’t learning new information, or accomplishing new goals when we’re in flow in a loot game or driving around a course for the thousandth time. The positivity I attribute to the state as it occurs in games is one which, as many of my points here are, veers off in a more abstract, perhaps philosophical direction. When we reach flow, the world surrounding us melts away into the periphery of our senses, and with it, everything that we could think about which brings us down or challenges us. Although it contradicts my usual focus with games, which is to be challenged cognitively, socially and culturally by the characters they portray and the stories they tell, the existence of games as subconscious escapism and enablers of flow is powerful and often necessary.

This concept sounds similar to the transcendental, almost meditative properties I’ve attributed to games like Abzu and Journey, but differs in a fundamental aspect. Those games are experiences that don’t tell us to shut off our emotional self, but instead to elevate our thinking to higher and more abstract level, to view problems from an outside or ‘top-down’ perspective. Like an out of body experience. In our loot games and driving simulators however, the goal of achieving flow is one where we’re closing out our conscious mind entirely. There’s not a specific motive or aim; doing so grants us a few hours of pleasurable and mindless disconnection. Whether or not we can see flow states as fulfilling and meaningful is debatable, however from my perspective they feel liberating and detaching. Csikszentmihályi (often referenced on the topic) in Flow: The Psychology of Happiness prompts us to think about flow as both positive and negative: ‘The question regarding flow is not only how we can make it happen, but also how we can manage it: using it to enhance life, yet being able to let go when necessary.’

To summarise my thoughts, I believe there is a great deal of positive results from playing games to achieve a flow state, and using it to help us become disconnected from the surrounding world. However, it’s clear from games which are most often cited as ‘repetitive’ and ‘addictive’ that there are negative impacts from becoming too heavily invested. Finding that balance, alongside flow, is important in allowing us to get the most from our escapism.

If you’d like to hear more on this subject, take a listen to this episode of the Note to Self podcast on WNYC. It explores the influence of video games on positivity and using them to battle anxiety and depression. 

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