Lana Polansky has written a really excellent article titled “Against Flow” and I suggest that you go read the whole thing in its entirety before reading this post. If you can’t be bothered, at least read this excerpt:
This is all well and good if we’re trying to make a specific kind of object, evoke a specific kind of experience. But more than that, it works as a kind of ideological container. “Flow” evokes a certain set of aesthetics—minimalism is readily apparent, but so are certain articulations of soft futurism, New Age-y transcendentalism, and a variety of naturalistic modernist approaches. We think of water. We think of the cosmos. We think of pure mathematics. On the other hand, it works as basically synonymous for the kind of “escapism” offered in so many F2P games, and the kind of intense, aggressive focus (or “immersion”) demanded of many “core” AAA games. Flow works both as the desired affective experience for most games, as well as an aesthetic container. How fortuitous that it finds its root not in any specific heritage of art, but in psychology.
This is the frustration. None of the games which achieve flow are necessarily, individually distasteful. The problem is that the form of “game” as we understand it currently implies an extremely limited set of subjective experiences which are fundamentally mechanistic and affectively numb. The celebrity of “flow”, among other things, in games discourse has encouraged a situation where games which are ideologically (and aesthetically) confrontational or self-aware don’t make it through any of the culture’s major value systems.
Polansky is right on the money when she’s calling out the “ideological container” of flow, and I want to take this critique slightly further than she does in her already-long-and-comprehensive essay.
When we talk about flow in game design, what we’re almost always talking about is a series of unexamined assumptions coming out of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, a book that is about half study and half philosophical pondering about the nature of experience. And this latter part is sort of strange, because “flow” gets evoked as a state that can be reliably evoked through specific design parameters. There’s no shortage of Gamasutra posts and industry talks to at least get you in the ballpark of replicating a particular kind of subject state.
That’s all well and good until you start really trying to pin down the understanding of experience that the flow adherents are actually talking about. The problem with “going with the flow” as an argument is that it comes with quite a bit of baggage as far as how we understand experience to be. Some people will describe flow as a discrete psychological state where players are engaged to such a level that there are no physical or mental blockages between their perceptions and what is happening in the game. Some might describe it as a blending of one’s understanding of self into a coexistence with a game avatar in order to treat flow like a synonym for the ruthlessly nonsensical “immersion.” Still others might signal it as a state-beyond-experience that draws the human into a beautiful relationship with the beyond in a weird mimicry of the Hegelian sublime.
Flow is a concept that is so vague from conception to execution that you can fit anything under its common usage umbrella. It’s a marketing term for the design class, only a few notches higher than the fan favorite “visceral” in its ability to say nothing at all.
The over- and nonspecific use of flow isn’t really anyone in particulars’ fault. It was a wiggling concept from the beginning, and that’s an attractive thing when you’re working in as wiggly a field as game design. It has enormous breadth, and its existence as a qualitative and quantitative (without privileging either significantly) metric surely enables a designer to do some kind of theoretical work in that wiggly field without being beholden to pure data-driven design methods.
Flow is a political wedge in a lot of ways, a term that industry and designer can at least agree on, but it’s also an unstable one. The more weight the industry puts on flow, the more “wiggle” gets stripped out of it, and the more it looks like a conservative metric, the “ideological container” that Polansky so accurately identifies.
And I think it comes down to the vagueness. The more void a concept is the easier it is for power to bend it to its ends. Maybe it’s time to abandon flow altogether as a way of talking about design (alongside “affordances,” perhaps, another design theory hand-me-down term with an immense amount of baggage). Say what you will about game feel (which at least can account for purposeful friction) or the MDA model (which can deal with disconnections between the mechanics and aesthetics within the dynamic paradigm), but at least they have room for negativity in a way that the purely positivist “you have it or you don’t” flow model cannot embrace (it can tolerate it at best).
But we need new models, new ways of thinking, and not just those that come into being through the measurement of response time and the amount of sweat a player produces when shooting enemies.