Go with The Flow

Given my reading so far about problem gaming, it’s clear that a small but significant number of players exhibit problem behaviour. What we need to be clear about are the reasons for this. In my post about the panorama article, it was clear that some, or all, of the case studies had emotional or mental issues which may have contributed to them using gaming as a form of escapism. While this explains the problems with some users, it’s by no means comprehensive. Anecdotally (personal and from friends) well adjusted players can also succumb to this excessive behaviour to the point that their social and professional lives suffer for it.

In an entirely un-related activity came across the concept of Flow State. This is, essentially, the mental state achieved when a person can be said to be ‘lost in their work’. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been studying this mental state since the 1960’s, interested by how some artists and writers become so immersed in their work they eschew food, drink and sleep in a state of high engagement in their task.

He identifies 10 factors accompanying flow state

  1. The task must be challenging and the subject must have a high skill level
  2. High level of concentration and focusing narrowly on the task
  3. A loss of self-conciousness and lack of awareness of self
  4. An altered sense of time, as if hours can pass but it feels only as if minutes have
  5. Immediate feedback so performance can be adjusted and improved
  6. Balance between subject’s skill level and difficulty of the challenge
  7. Sense of control
  8. Activity being carried out is rewarding to the subject
  9. Lack of awareness of bodily needs
  10.  Can become absorbed in the activity losing focus on the external world


You can watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk here, it’s well worth the 20 minutes.


Holt’s 2000 Thesis study showed 22 novice games getting their flow on. They spent an hour and a half playing Crash Bandicoots 2 on the Playstation and almost all participants achieved more or less flow state during their experiences. I found this somewhat surprising as I think the Crash series of games have all been stinkers but hey-ho! 😉

In their 2004 study into why almost 2000 MMO players continued to play online games, their flow experience was considered to be a (or THE) major factor.

Csikszentmihalyi himself describes flow as able to “produce intense feelings of enjoyment and its improvement of performance results in satisfying achievement” so that any flow activity is intrinsically compelling in-and-of-itself. Therefore, it can be easily seen how such activity could easily come to take up a large amount of time for anyone participating in this mental state, often they will not be entirely aware of the passage of time whilst so engaged.

I think I might be getting close to answering some of my questions about compulsive gaming.

Next posting is hopefully going to look at how the dopamine response relates with gaming.


Holt, R. Examining Video Game Immersion as a Flow State. B.A. Thesis,Department of Psychology, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, 2000. Accessed online at www.holtschool.com/headshrinker/R_Holt%20Game_Thesis.pdf (12th Nov 2011)

Why People Continue to Play Online Games: In Search of Critical Design Factors to Increase Customer Loyalty to Online Contents.Full Text Available By: Choi, Dongseong; Kim, Jinwoo. CyberPsychology & Behavior, Feb2004, Vol. 7 Issue 1, p11-24, 14p

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988), “The flow experience and its significance for human psychology”, in Csikszentmihalyi, M., Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15–35

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