When I was growing up, the consensus of the intellectual crowd was that video games were bad for you.
No good could come of sitting in front of a screen instead of going outside. Video games were going to turn our brains into mush.
In some more extreme cases, violent video games were blamed for school shootings.
Since then, however, there has been a quiet revolution.
As video game use has spread, the number of scientific studies about video game use has kept pace.
There are, of course, some negative findings. Chief among them is that some people develop video game addictions. While this appears to be only about 1.5% of gamers, the number of gamers generally continues to rise and this problem grows with it.
Most findings, however, have been positive.
They do this through a number of different mechanisms.
Today, I want to focus on games’ ability to induce flow.
What is Flow?
Flow is that feeling when you are lost in an activity and the time just whizzes by.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” in the mid-1970’s when investigating this phenomenon. The interviewees described the state as being carried through their work as if a river current were pulling them along.
In his book, Flow, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that there are three conditions needed to reach a flow state.
First, there must be structure and direction. This means that your task or activity needs to have clear goals. You also need to be able to see your progress. You need to be able to feel yourself getting closer and closer to a finish line.
Next, you need to be able to get clear and immediate feedback. This means that you need to know when you are moving closer to the finish line and when you are moving farther away. If you can stumble for hours without knowing whether you are doing something right or wrong, you won’t be able to get into the headspace that allows you to reach that flow state.
Finally, there needs to be a match between the perceived challenge in front of you and your perceived skills. If you think a task is too easy, you will get bored. If you think a task is too hard, you will get anxious. You need to be able to find that match between difficulty and skill.
Flow and Happiness
Flow leads to both short term and long term happiness.
In the short term, we are happier when we are in a flow state. That feeling of being so lost in a task or activity that the rest of the world disappears is enjoyable.
The book lists a number of studies to prove this, but think back to your own experiences for proof. You feel good when you are conquering a challenge at the very edge of your skill level. There’s a joyful triumphalism that comes with that achievement.
Studies also find that flow leads to longer term happiness (often called “life satisfaction”), as well.
The cause of this is less clear, but I would posit that a large part is growth.
When we are in a flow state, we are working at the edge of our skillset. This leads to growth and expansion of those skills.
You can also easily see that growth. You see your progress towards that goal. You see that constant advancement. You learn that you can conquer obstacles and hit targets.
Flow leads to growth and personal development. Growth and personal development lead to increased confidence and self-esteem. Increased confidence and self-esteem lead to seeking more opportunities to challenge yourself, which leads to more flow.
It is a virtuous cycle of growth and happiness that improves your life over time.
How Video Games Lead to Flow
Video games appear to be specifically built to achieve the conditions necessary for flow.
First, we need structure and direction.
Most games have very clear goals and objectives. You save the princess. You kill the bad guys. You conquer the world. You eat all the dots while avoiding ghosts.
Some games even have far more literal structure and direction. In the original Mario or Sonic games you started on the left and had to progress to the right. Most modern games still have areas of the map that you cannot enter to keep you on a relatively structured path towards your goal.
Second, we need clear and immediate feedback.
Video games have this in droves. If you fall down the pit, you die and start the level over. If you get shot, your health bar decreases. You can quickly tell whether what you are doing is helping or hurting your quest.
Third, we need a match between difficulty and skill.
This, to me, is where video games have the drastic advantage over real life.
When you start a new game, you don’t know how to play. You don’t know the controls or the structure of the world. The beginning of the game matches that lack of skill with a lack of difficulty. The early levels or stages of the game allow you to build up some basic skills in a low pressure environment.
As you get better at the game, you face more difficult challenges. With each level that you beat, the next becomes more difficult. As you conquer each new challenge, you get better at the game.
In this way video games are able to keep you right at the edge of your skill level, maximizing your chance of reaching a flow state.
Gamify Your Life
I think we need to try to learn some lessons from video games.
It is great that video games can make us happy, but we can’t be playing video games all the time.
Instead, we should find ways that we can gamify our lives.
Remember our three requirements:
– Structure and direction
– Clear and immediate feedback
– Match between difficulty and skill
We need to work to structure our tasks to include all three.
Set clear goals. Create mechanisms to track your progress. Break the task into pieces and tackle the more difficult parts after building up your skills.
Let’s say that you don’t read often and want to start reading more books.
Set a clear goal. I will read one book per month for the next year.
Create a mechanism to track your progress. Set up a goodreads.com account and start tracking your reading progress. Goodreads will track the number of books you’ve read and will even tell you what percentage of your current book you have read.
Match the difficulty and skill. If you are not a big reader, don’t start with War and Peace. Don’t start with a book that you feel like you “should” read. Start with something that genuinely sparks your interest and would be easy to get into. As you build both your reading chops and your ability to sit down and focus for extended periods of time, it becomes easier to move on to other books. It also becomes a lot easier to know what you like, which allows you to expand your repertoire, as well.
On another level, you can also adjust your goal to match your skill. If after a few months you find that reading one book per month is a breeze, then bump up your goal to two. Continuously make the goal more challenging as you become better at meeting the challenge.
We can take this type of framework and apply to all sorts of different areas of our lives. We can make ourselves a lot happier if we treat more of our lives like video games.
Have you experienced flow? What were you doing at the time? Do you have any experience with gamification of other areas of life? Talk to us in the comments!