(Cognitive) flow


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Flow-state, flow experience; a state of mind characterized by maximum focus on the current task.


A well-known overview to the topic is titled Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Csikszentmihalyi 2008 [1990]), where (e.g. on p. 49) we can see common characteristics of this state, like enjoyment, altered sense of time, deep involvement; and also a few conditions for achieving it:

  • clear goals,
  • chance of success,
  • immediate feedback,
  • no distractions.

These are features of games, or at least good games, but Cskszentmihalyi does not spend much time with "our" medium, the most in Flow Activities chapter (p. 72) where even an overview of Caillois typology appears, but games reappear consistently as a comparison, metaphor, or a "benchmark" of enjoyment, with encouragements to make work "like a game" or family activities to be playful, etc. Music gets into focus in a dedicated chapter, The Flow of Music, with a (p. 111) quote stating:

So far we have considered only how flow arises from listening, but even greater rewards are open to those who learn to make music. The civilizing power of Apollo depended on his ability to play the lyre, Pan drove his audiences to frenzy with his pipes, and Orpheus with his music was able to restrain even death. These legends point to the connection between the ability to create harmony in sound and the more general and abstract harmony that underlies the kind of social order we call a civilization. Mindful of that connection, Plato believed that children should be taught music before anything else; in learning to pay attention to graceful rhythms and harmonies their whole consciousness would become ordered.

This quote and some following remarks on education, show the broad strokes that the most popular book on "flow" takes towards the topic. The term is used to conceptualize not only specific activities, but a meaning of life, culture, and such grand topics, and, understandably, some subjective framing and bias is practically unavoidable, here the visible tendency has some "conservative" flavour, around "order vs chaos" and "family values".

The term "flow" was originally introduced in Beyond boredom and anxiety (Csikszentmihalyi 1975), in a much more narrow, restricted usage. That title itself already provides sufficient context for a chart that is a staple of game studies literature.


This chart is understood with challenge and skills taken as "objective" values (not in relation to "levels" from a specific person). In general, it is assumed that in a well-designed education process, a person moves up the flow channel when learning new skills with minimum step-outs (when challenges provided are too difficult or too easy). There is also a variant chart where "low skills" mean low usage of one's current skills, and analogously for "high" and "challenge".


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