Sunday, February 26, 2012

Games, flow and work

We're looking at Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, starting here.

One thing she is very good at is linking her arguments to psychological principles, and especially the new positive psychology. One of the first pioneers and forerunners of the field, as far back as the 1970s, was Mihaly Csíkszentmihály. He is famous for his investigation into "flow" - the feeling of being completely absorbed in an activity.

The feeling of flow is one of the happiest that people experience, filling them with a sense of engagement, aliveness and purposefulness. People lose track of time and feel absorbed in something larger than themselves.

Flow can come in the office, of course, absorbed in a new project or a difficult professional task. However,

Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced cheek-SENT-me-high) found a depressing lack of flow in everyday life, but an overwhelming abundance of it in games and gamelike activities. His favorite examples of flow-inducing activities were chess, basketball, rock climbing, and partner dancing: all challenging endeavors with a clear goal, well-established rules for action, and the potential for increased difficulty and improvement over time. Most importantly, flow activities were done for pure enjoyment rather than for status, money, or obligation.

So games are often closely linked to these deeply important feelings of achievement and hapiness.

Csíkszentmihályi also notes two populations who need more engagement - and this reminds me of Keynes' warnings in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren that we discussed about six months ago, and which was a major original motivation for the blog.

[Csíkszentmihályi].. ended his groundbreaking study by warning of two populations in greatest need of more gameful work: “Alienated children in the suburbs and bored housewives in the homes need to experience flow. If they cannot get it, they will find substitutes in the form of escape.”

The trouble is flow is a peak experience. And she notes that "fiero" - a gaming term which comes from the Italian word for pride, and means the huge high that you feel after triumphing in some difficult situation.

We can’t sustain flow indefinitely—as much as we might want to. ... Too much flow can lead to happiness burnout. Meanwhile, too much fiero can lead to addiction—a word that Sudnow never once used in his memoir but which nevertheless inescapably leaps to mind. Fiero taps into some of our most primal hardwiring, and our emotional response can be extreme.

So this leads us to ask whether games are drifing too far from reality. Are they just escapist, a diversion from real life? Are they a more potentially productive form of escape than housewives turning to alcohol, or carnivorous gossip and suburban social ennui?



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