Get into the Flow

controllerI recently re-started playing a video game called Mass Effect. Before Christmas we bought the complete trilogy. I’m about half way through the second game but I decided to go back because:
1) I wanted to do somethings differently
2) I wanted to take the time to explore the game’s universe.

You see, the first time I played through Mass Effect I binged. I mean really binged. I didn’t have much else going on at the time and so I played through the whole thing in about three days. There are a number of theories about why this happens. Why regular people can be sucked into a video game so deeply their skin will begin to meld with the controller. What I want to talk about though, is the idea of ‘flow’.

Flow is a really neat concept. We’ve all experienced it at one point or another. It’s the state where we zone out and are deeply focused on a task. We are so engrossed in what we’re doing we loose track of time, our surroundings, other people, our bodily needs. The idea was developed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a research psychologists who focuses on happiness and creativity.

In a nutshell, flow is a state of intense focused concentration on an action that is innately rewarding. Perception of time falls to the wayside, along with self-consciousness, and there is a sense of personal control over the situation or activity. But the important thing is that the individual must be doing something. This doesn’t just mean physically though. Even though watching TV doesn’t count because it’s a relatively passive process, reading a book which requires a great deal of mental effort counts as an active process and can induce a flow-state.

Clear goals and consistent feedback are both important requirements for encouraging flow But perhaps more importantly, there needs to be a balance between the perceived challenge and the perceived skill. We can slip into a flow-state when we’re playing a sport, creating art or music, writing, reading or playing video games.

Quite a bit or research has been done into examining flow-state in video games, in fact. I won’t rehash it here, but based on the above description of flow, I’m sure you can see how playing a video game can induce the state. The “quests” provide clear goals. If you try a particular move and your character is killed, then that’s immediate feedback. Once you’ve beaten a ‘boss’ you get loot in the form of enchanted swords, fantastic gun upgrades or money: the reward. As far as the challenge level goes, skilled players are more likely to go into a flow state when the game settings are on “Hard”. Where as unskilled players fail to enter flow state when the game play is challenging. This demonstrates the careful balance between challenge and skill. And this is only addressing the logistical aspects of game-play. That doesn’t even address the narrative elements which are becoming more and more complex as the gaming industry evolves.

While there is apparently a lot of debate among gaming academics over the role of narrative in video games, I think that a lot of my flow experience with Mass Effect is based on the story-line. I am a big reader. I will gorge myself on fiction which is why, when I was a kid, I was banned from books during exam time (yes, I was that cool) and why I had to avoid reading any fiction while I was finishing up my thesis. I will park my butt on a chair and not move for days. His Dark Materials trilogy? A week. The last four books of the Harry Potter series? Four days. Hunger Games trilogy? A weekend.

Honestly, I’m not really that into playing video games. I’m a terrible aim and I’m twitchy on the L-stick. If something gets too hard or creepy I will not hesitate to throw my controller to my boyfriend and with a wave of my hand tell him to “fix it”.  So I think I was so immersed in Mass Effect game because I wanted to see what happened next. I wanted to know why things were happening. Why was the villain trying to destroy organic life? Is the Council going to help me out or what? Will my Gunnery Chief stop being xenophobic?

I rushed through the game trying to move from one plot point to the next with the expectation that I could just explore the world afterwards. Apparently I could not. I had over a dozen side quests that I had ignored to power through the main quest-line and I couldn’t really go back to them after I’d beaten the game. So I’ve started again. I’ve modified my character a little, changed her reactions to things and I’m taking my time to explore.

So I think, for me, Mass Effect drew me into a flow-state through narrative. It was the first time I could not put the controller down. I would take a break for a few minutes and then the X-Box would call to me like the drums of Jumanji. This time around, I can play for two hours and then walk away without any resistance. I know what’s going to happen, so this is a far more relaxed run-thought. It’s nice to learn more about this world.

Do you play video games? What was it like the last time you were completely immersed in the game-play? Was it because you wanted to know what happened next or were you itching to take out a troublesome outpost? I’d love to hear your comments below.

Dr. Ash



Clark, C., & Rumbold, K. (2006). Reading for Pleasure: A Research Overview.National Literacy Trust.

Sweetser, P., & Wyeth, P. (2005). GameFlow: a model for evaluating player enjoyment in games. Computers in Entertainment (CIE), 3(3), 3-3.

Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow”, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698

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