domingo, 9 de julho de 2017

Time, entertainment and the state of flow

When we are experiencing certain activities, time passes differently. Time can go fast when we are playing an interesting game, or slowly if we are watching a boring movie. It varies from person to person, but all of us have different perceptions of the time passing. In this context it’s important to highlight that there’s one chronological time (seconds, minutes, hours etc.) and a subjective time (one that affects every single individual in an unique way).

This is a complex subject to discuss in a short post, so I want to talk about these perceptions related to the gaming field. To help me in this mission, I’ll summon the ideas of the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This researcher (1975) has developed the idea of flow to explain some time lapses we can experience when we are involved in some specific activity. Csikszentmihalyi (1975) explains that “flow” is a state in which a person is fully immersed in an action and highly focused to the extent that one can experience, for example, a loss in the feeling of self-consciousness and time experience. To help us visualize this concept, Csikszentmihalyi created a graph to visually explain the idea of flow:

Source: Tolstoy Therapy

In a synthetic way, we can observe that there are two axes in the graph above: one shows the degree of challenge and other shows skill and confidence levels. When we are experiencing a very stressful situation (like an emergency surgery, one very difficult test or a complex work to be done in a short period) we can enter a zone of panic and anxiety. On the other hand, if we are experiencing a very boring situation (a monotonic class, an annoying movie or a non-challenging game) we can enter a zone of complete boredom. Both extremes lead us to states of attention that - potentially - are harmful to our minds.

But there’s one zone of perfect balance between a stressful situation and a complete boredom state: the flow. When we experience a state of flow, we immerse ourselves in a state of mind that we can even feel the passing of time differently. Have you ever played videogames for three hours but inside of your head, only one hour has passed? This is one situation when a flow happens.

Games are excellent examples to illustrate this discussion. When we like the experience of playing certain games (analogic or digital), we can feel immersed in the state of flow. So, one important component of game design is how to engage players in the game experience so that they potentially access the flow state. There’s no recipe for this, but to test a lot of games with different beta testers that could show some interesting ways to do it.

I want to dedicate this post to all gamers that need to wake up early, but instead say “just ten more minutes” (and play for another hour). =)



CSIKSZENTMIHALYI, Mihaly. Play and intrinsic rewards. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol 15(3), 1975, 41-63. Online >> click here.