Go with the flow, pomo.


[I’ve written about this before, but here’s another stab in the dark]

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” describes flow as

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Reading this got me thinking about ‘the zone’, which is just my mental sticker for what this chap calls ‘flow.’ Great games are one that smooth the passage into the zone, and keep you there. Duff games are ones that trip you up on the way.

Tekken puts me in the zone, sometimes. Pro Evo gets me there longer and more often, which is why I play it every day. I have moments of being in the zone with Guitar Hero, but just small patches in songs usually, rather than whole songs, or whole sessions. Elite & Civilisation were early masters at helping players into the zone, and then locking the door behind them. Ted Friedman said in a research paper that:

“When a game of [CivII] really gets rolling, the decisions are effortless, instantaneous, chosen without self-conscious thought. The result is an almost-meditative state, in which you aren`t just interacting with the computer, but melding with it.”

When come friends and I installed CivII on the Utica College computer systems, we played throughout an entire Sunday without noticing the passage of time, which isn’t all that unusual. I guess World of Warcraft might be the modern pinnacle of flowtacular gameplay, but having yet to try it I can’t say for sure. But my main point being, games get you into the flowzone faster and make you stay there longer than most other cultural artifacts, and that’s largely why I love them.

All about flow – (37signals)“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,”


11 thoughts on “Go with the flow, pomo.

  1. LuckyLuckless

    If a game is good, it flows. You look outside, it’s daylight. You look back out, in a time period of what you think is maybe ten minutes, and find it is indeed still daylight. Albeit, 24 hours later.

    I’d say the ‘zone’ and the ‘flow’ are different.

    I guess it’s the White Men Can’t Jump fixation, but I believe being in the ‘zone’ is when you just so good it’s unfair on the opposition 🙂

    I’ve only experienced that in brief moments, mainly during the pinnacle of my CS’ing days where admins would honestly believe I was hacking and ban me, or if playing in a league, the opposing clan would demand the demo for the match to examine 😦

  2. Loading screens take you out, which is why Tekken and CivII are good. Tekken’s loading screens are brief, and CivII’s non-existant after the first one.

    It’s like a book or film. Anything that reminds you “this isn’t real” – be it loading screens, dodgy controls or otherwise – takes you back out of the zone.

  3. NWM – Absolutement – but what’s required to get you into the zone in the first place?

    And LL, I can see your distinction between the zone and the flow. But is the zone really partially dependent on the ability of your opponents? Can you only be in the zone when you’re being challenged and you soar magnificently above that challenge?

  4. LuckyLuckless

    Beating an AI is fine and nice, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Though saying that, beating people online doesn’t mean anything at all other than that your e-peen gets bigger.

    I’ve played many games, and have rarely felt in the zone. I can count the number of times on two hands, and I remember each and every time very vividly. None of the experiences arose from single player games, nor in fact even my beloved WOW.

    CS and Quake 3 are the culprits. Usually at times when I’ve just performed some act so worthy of video game glory I wondered if I could go ‘pro’.

    I guess the reason I’ve only felt like that specifically in these games is that whilst it’s all good and fine to be playing single player, it’s always within a defined set of parameters. You’re essentially playing programming, a script written by some developer out there. No AI as yet is as adaptive as the human brain, and so beating it becomes merely a series of moves, basically learning what it will do. Capitalising as such on the program.

  5. LuckyLuckless

    Though saying all that. I will point out that this only applies to me out of the three of us (though I also hazard a guess the majority of online FPS’rs feel the same as me).

    I’m sure other people hit zone easily enough playing other games (NWM laughing continuosly as he pounds my character in Tekken, or taking out a weapon in an FF game – yourself skewering me in Soul Caliber or running through Rezzy 4).

    For the hardcore online gamer, who loves PVP in all of its forms, AI is nice, but nothing more than a trainer. The RTS genre is notorious for this mindset too, whereby AI is exploited for winning as early as possible (DOW, Starcraft, Age of Empires). You will find the best players of these games don’t even play the single player anymore, they find it so easy 😦

  6. On the other hand, I find it hard to get in the zone in multiplayer. Not talking so much about online here, but more about console gaming with friends. Because, fun as it is, you get taken out of the game by conversation.
    DoW puts me in the zone, sometimes. Depends on my mood. Galactic Civilisations did, for much the same reason as CivII or SimCity. Freelancer did.
    Single player is most likely for me to get into the flow. The zone, I guess, you can define as “that bit where you’re top of your game”. Which I get – and I know Chris gets – on Tekken or Guitar Hero periodically.
    Thing is with the programming, as Mr Luckless puts it, is that it gives you your rules. Rarely does something like GTA put me into the flow, unless I’m just bashing through missions. True sandbox actually bores me a little.
    Chris approaches this differently. Look at how long we each took to finish, say, Shadow Of The Colossus. He wandered about, hunted lizards, sunbathed, took in the scenery. I did too – but I was always conscious of wanting to defeat the next boss.

  7. It is harder to get into the zone while playing non-line multiplayer, it’s true, although there do come moments in Tekken or Pro Evo, of FIFA, they are few and far between.

    SotC had me ‘flowing’ the whole time, mostly because the atmosphere was palpable, and the world was so worthy of exploration and investigation. But at no point in that game was I in the zone, I don’t think. Maybe because the controls weren’t quite as fluid as they could have been. Also because fighting each boss was so disconcerting there was never a momentary easing into the serene. I’ve always been more of a videogame tourist that Geoff, anyhow. Which I think might have something to do with him not liking trains.

    The zone, for me, is when I’m no longer thinking about what I’m doing, and what I do is exponentially better than what I can otherwise achieve.

  8. LuckyLuckless

    Like I stated in my first post, I see the ‘flow’ and the ‘zone’ as two different things 😀

    Flow is when I play… something like WOW for eight hours. Or the old Champ Man games for whole weekends, only pausing for pizza and beer. Thief was possibly the one game I truly got into the flow. I was one of those hardcore people who liked to play the game through completely in one sitting, never killing anything and getting the top rating for each mission!

    Zone is when I’m at the top… I’m doing things that are scary almost. An example, and to satisfy your thirst for…

    One time in Counterstrike, I was the last player on a map called cs_Italy on the terrorist side. It was a 32 player server, and the round had gone horribly wrong. I spawned and noted a teamie stating they were rushing market. Two more said they’d go with them. I noted four players splitting away from the spawn to go right through the house. A lone guy on my radar disappeared into the basement section to try and flank far right. I myself decided I’d sit in the middle and snipe any counterterrorists charging through middle.

    The early flurry of violence that followed left around 12 players on the CT side alive still, whilst only half of us Ts still stood. I hadn’t even seen a CT yet. I checked my radar, one T still at market, a couple camping our spawn, the guy in the basement was still alive, as was one T in the house. I went to the basement, to see my guy die to two CTs who rushed down the stairs. I popped both of their heads with my AK and continued forward.

    I see on the top of my screen an AWP (1 hit kill sniper rifle) just took out one of the Ts (had remembered the name of my teamie – always useful for positional play) who was spawn camping. A couple of seconds later, the dot on my radar where the T in the house should be disappears. I run out of the basement, waiting for the CTs to run by the walkway leading out of the house. 2 more CTs drop, but I took a fair amount of damage in the firefight too.

    So, 8 CTs left, and only 5 of us. Another AWP shot and the second T at spawn dies. 4 of us.

    The rest of my team move back to our spawn to ambush the CTs who are obviously now there, and in the ensuing firefight I see 3 Ts die on my HUD reports, with only 2 CTs dropping. So 6 CTs vs myself. I start to feel the adrenaline, as I now know that 25 people are watching me via the dead spectator mode, probably saying how I’m a dead man, or if I have any sense I’ll hide whilst the CTs rescue the hostages.

    I move to the market, the second easiest place to defend, not wanting to go to the CT spawn which is always checked out 101% by rescuing CTs.

    2 CTs coming down the tunnel with the hostages, I pop both their heads as they run down toward me. Someone shooting at me from my left, I jump into cover, duck back out with my pistol, his head pops too.

    Hit once, so almost dead, 3 more CTs. The CT who’d been firing at me had the AWP. If he’d used a pistol I’d have been dead. Drop my AK47 and pick up the AWP. Most people would now go back to the end of the tunnel to cover the hossies, but that’s so obvious. Go back to market with the AWP lined up at the side of the CT spawn.

    Sure enough, 2 CTs come through. 1 shot goes through both, both drop. I hear footsteps round the corner behind me, drop the AWP and pick up an M4 on the floor. Don’t even aim as I run around the corner spraying the rifle at the direction of the footsteps (surround sound FTW!).

    Last CT drops and I win 🙂

  9. Part of me has the same look on my face as Stan’s dad when he first encounters Stan playing WoW in that episode of South Park. The other part of me understood every word and nuance of that story, and thinks it’s one of the most kick-ass things he’s ever heard. And that is the human condition of a not-quite-as-hardcore-as-he’d-like-to-be gamer in the 21st Century.

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