I'm a big fan of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: his book Flow is one of the most important thing I've read in the last ten years, and one of those argument and concepts I constantly refer to in my everyday life (not to mention writing about on this blog). I think promoting flow states is one of the healthiest things contemplative computing can do. But one of the first objections I get to the idea that flow is important in contemplative computing runs like this: "My son [or husband] plays spends hours totally immersed in video games. That's definitely a flow experience. And you argue it's a good thing?" (And yes, the subject usually is male.)
They have a point. It's definitely case that game design companies have tried hard to get players "in the zone," in that state where they forget about everything but the game, and don't care about anything but getting to the next level.
Flow has four major components, Csikszenthmihalyi writes in his rapidly-approaching-classic-status book, Flow. "Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems," he says. "Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous."
Here's the problem. Game designers have read Csikszentmihalyi carefully, much in the way aspiring Wall Streeters read Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker: less as an exploration of the moral complexities of design, or as a guide to live the good life, than as a how-to manual. (I'm working on an article on how designers have ignored the moral dimensions of Csikszentmihalyi's argument.) They've learned how to create what I would call flow-like states: mental states that are very absorbing, but which don't offer the long-term gratifications of real flow experiences-- or only do so for a very small number of highly self-aware people.
But it's not just game designers who've done this: an even better example might be machine gambling designers, as Natasha Dow Schüll argues in her new book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. As a review of her book explains,
In her book, she looks at what the industry has done to make those devices more compelling. For instance, video slot machines now deliver frequent small wins rather than infrequent large jackpots, to better sustain what she calls "the flow of the experience."...
Schüll's book delves into the lives of compulsive machine gamblers—not the folks playing social games like poker around a table but the smaller percentage of the population who play alone at electronic slot machines or video poker terminals with such intensity that they enter a state of total gambling immersion, shutting out the world for long stretches of time.
As she puts it elsewhere, there's an "intimate connection between extreme states of subjective absorption in play and design elements that manipulate space and time to accelerate the extraction of money from players." This creates players like
Mollie, a mother, hotel worker, and habitual video poker player, who recounted for Schüll her life as a gambler—running through paychecks in two-day binges, cashing in her life insurance. "The thing people never understand is that I'm not playing to win," Mollie says in the book. Instead, she was simply trying "to keep playing—to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters."
So clearly flow states are things that can benefit game companies and casinos, and can lead people to do things that are pleasurable (or at least narcotizing) in the moment but self-destructive over the long run. Does that mean they should be avoided?
The problem is that flow can be a phenomenally valuable thing, and indeed you can argue-- as Czikszentmihalyi does-- that its pursuit is one route to the Good Life. This is really central to the book: as I noted when I first wrote about it,
What I really like about the book is that it's interested in the fundamental question, what is happiness? Csikszentmihalyi's answer is a bit counterintuitive, but quite rich and interesting. This means he's not just interested in isolated experiences, but in the overall shape and tone of life: it's an interest in values rather than merely specific ends. "Happiness is not something that happens," (2) he argues:
It is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.... It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly. [Reaching happiness involves] a circuitous path that begins with achieving control over the contents of our consciousness. (2)
This control, he explains, feels like this:
We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like. This is what we mean by optimal experience.... Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times.... The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. (3)
So at its best, flow is something we experience when we're doing hard things not easy ones, when we're most awake and productive, not passive or consuming. I think if anything has changed since Flow appeared in the early 1990s, it's that we've had a couple decades' experience with industries that have learned how to get us to have experiences that feel like flow, but aren't. They tap into our desire for challenging, engaging experiences, but don't deliver the moral rewards or self-improvement. The qualities that make flow powerful and redemptive can also make its manufactured versions dangerous and self-destructive.
Caitlin Zaloom also makes an interesting comparison between financial trading and gambling:
The whirl of markets can also deliver more sensory satisfactions. In the midst of a deal, traders can fully give themselves over to the moment, achieving the optimal experiences that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Although traders would prefer the analogy with skilled, masculine counterparts like fighter pilots or soccer stars, machine gamblers, like slot or video poker players, may be the accurate comparison case. The architecture and technologies of both markets and casinos structure chaos, creating environments that spark flow experiences. In the heyday of open outcry trading, derivatives exchanges used just this language to justify the markets they made. The pandemonium of the trading pits, they claimed, channeled market competition, helping buyers and sellers make deals as the prices of currencies, pork bellies, and stock indices rose and fell. In the pits, bodies crowded toward every bid shouting matching offers with red-faced tension. Now that derivatives markets have moved online, order seems to reign. Prices and lots blink across screens second by second in neat rows. Whether on the screen or in the pit, the market organizes an experience of acting amid structured chaos that ushers the players toward feelings of mastery and rapt states that athletes and video poker players alike call “the zone.”
Gamblers, like traders, seek out the zone, and gambling spaces and technologies assist in the quest. The anthropologist Natasha Schull has analyzed how gaming architects and entrepreneurs assist players’ entry into the zone and heighten their flow experiences by employing easy curves in gambling floors, engineering ambient noise, and creating a sense of comfortably enclosed space to usher gamblers toward absorption in the games. One leading design firm, she reports, calls this the “immersion paradigm.” They fashion environments “to hold players in a desubjectified state so as to galvanize, channel, and profit from” the experience of gaming oblivion.7 During play, gamblers lose sense of space and self. Completely captivated by the swift shifts in their glowing cards, their sense of their own presence dissolves into the smooth motion of poker hands through time. With credit cards racking up a tally and waitresses offering ample drink, gaming designers make sure that only bathroom breaks interrupt.
Traders, like gaming designers, manipulate bodies, machines, and mental states to promote peak experience; and they pride themselves on the ability to delay the call of nature while they are holding a position. The gaming industry employs the intimate experiential requirements of the zone to encourage gamblers to play “faster, longer, and more intensively.” Similarly, traders engage with machines and frame their senses of physical and social space to merge with the flow of the market.