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reality is broken

Flow & Unnecessary Obstacles

For me, there is an easy and immediate satisfaction to gaming; however, I’m skeptical that the type of internal reward offered through gaming can be translated into the skin-and-bones external world we live and work in. I, like so many others, have spent hours staring at a screen voluntarily, but half-heartedly, participating in a game with no other intent but to kill time. The rational side of my mind told me that there were a million other, better, and more useful things to do, but the addictive side of my brain said “keep playing, it will help.” It seems dangerous to give gaming the kind of power McGonigal gives it when realistically, the “happiness” triggers she speaks of—the circuitry of the reward centers—essentially contribute to addictions. I’ve never known an addiction to be healthy. Clearly McGonigal is highly intelligent, but the concept of “flow” sounds a little crazed. Drug addictions are the closest thing I can think to compare. If quitting and “winning—” which, I suppose, in an addict’s case, would be achieving sobriety—are equally unsatisfying in flow, then the gameplay—or drug usage— would be endless and infinite.  I also can’t help but think after reading this that now there are going to be millions of kids in their rooms, who never go outside and play or pick up a book, who will attempt to use McGonigal’s theory as justification for playing video games 24-7. I understand that she is certainly not suggesting that we all become video game junkies—her idea, instead, is to integrate the addictive qualities of video games to our REAL lives—to things that help us rather than hurt us. I’m still not convinced with McGonigal’s argument that playing pretend games actually makes us happier than participating in our real lives— that is a sobering thought if it’s true.

Her insight into hard work vs. play on the other hand, is a universal truth: “in our real lives, hard work is too often something we do because we have to do it… Hard work that someone else requires us to do just doesn’t activate our happiness systems in the same way….” Because games are not the only thing that can offer us positive reinforcement, though, it is difficult to fully embrace McGonigal’s enthusiasm and confidence. “Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use”— so does a workout for an athlete or a perfect picture for a painter. McGonigal quotes Bernard Suit’s: “’playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’”—yes, but so is everything else we do in life when it comes down to the basics. We don’t actually have to do any of the things we do, we don’t have to be overwhelmed with self-imposed demands, or struggle with ourselves over self-imposed restrictions—we simply understand the reality of real life rewards and consequences, and we actively or inactively respond and live accordingly. Farmville coins will not buy us real, consumable food. Getting up in the morning and going to work will.  If we turned McGonigal’s theory into practice, we would essentially be making a game out of life. We’ve all heard the old expression, ‘life is not a game,’ but now I’m starting to wonder: wouldn’t it be better if we played it like one? Could we even play it like one, without the reset button and all?



5 thoughts on “Flow & Unnecessary Obstacles

  1. I think it is important that you talk about video games as an addiction. While McGonigal makes some very strong arguments, she seems to blow over this topic as if it is really not that important. Happiness is something that we all should strive for, but you bring up a good point. What is an appropriate way to achieve happiness? Perhaps relying solely on games is a little extreme. Integrating video game concepts into real life is a great idea but at the same time one has to ask if this is really possible. The way real life is set up, and the way it has been since the beginning of our known history, not every single moment can be a game. While games can be encouraged, sometimes the easiest and most efficient way to get a task done is to just do it. It is true that we don’t have to do anything. However, if we were to live by this rule, we would likely end up without a job or home. So in a way, we want to do things, not because they challenge us, but because we want to remain safe. Sure, the challenges video games bring are important, but if we did not do the easy work (such as the normal routine of a job), we would not have the resources to play our video games at the end of the day. McGonigal argues that these are a quick fix to that problem, but she fails to mention something important. There are many people who do not play video games, and they feel challenged. The question is, how would she explain that?

    Posted by jamesste | May 23, 2013, 5:24 pm
  2. We will read more about the issue of addiction in Nardi’s book (My Life as a Night Elf Priest). I think it is worth considering whether or not video games can be addictive in the clinical sense of the term. Certainly they can be habit-forming though. Flow, however, is more complicated. I don’t think you can become addicted to flow in the sense that you could go through withdrawal symptoms. Flow is a desirable mental state because one is operating at a kind of peak efficiency. It leads to happiness and satisfaction perhaps, but I’m not sure that it necessarily involves pleasure.

    I see important larger questions here though. The question of how to live a happy life, a good life, has been at the core of philosophy since classical times. It is the question of eudamonia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eudaimonia. I suppose you could say this is one of the founding questions of my research: how do we live well in the context of digital media?

    Posted by Alex Reid | May 23, 2013, 5:47 pm
    • With respect and interest: if Flow is “a desirable mental state because one is operating at a kind of peak efficiency,” I would think there must be some level of pleasure involved. What is the difference between happiness and satisfaction, and pleasure? Is there any difference?

      I like the point you raise about Eudaimonia– it reminds me of the point McGonigal raised about Eustress and the way our happiness levels process and respond to the various types of stressors. It’s interesting that within the discussion of how a well made video game truly engages an individual, Mcgonigal ended up sparking an entire discussion about the well being of society.

      Posted by jowz24 | May 23, 2013, 9:03 pm
      • Well, let me define terms a little here. By pleasure I mean a shorter-lived experience, e.g., sex, drug-induced, an amusement park ride, etc. Certainly TV, film, books, music, video games and so on can also create pleasure, often to the degree that we find them immersive. By happiness or satisfaction I mean something that is more enduring and less intense than pleasure. Without wanting to sound Puritanical, the pursuit of pleasure does not always lead to happiness.

        The flow experience is neither necessarily one of pleasure or happiness. It is an intense state of focus where one feels that one’s efforts are being maximized in a productive way in an action that is intrinsically rewarding (autotelic, as McGonigal says). Having work or a life that offers opportunities to enter a flow state–i.e. where one is doing challenging work that one finds autotelic–can be a source of enduring happiness.

        All that said, the mind is a tricky thing. Flow states certainly can overlap with pleasure. They can reinforce activities that are addictive and in terms of athletic activities they might lead to unwise risk-taking.

        Flow diagram

        Posted by Alex Reid | May 24, 2013, 7:47 am
    • With regards to the concept of efficiency as it relates to flow, I’m not sure I would consider that to be a valid correlation. From what I read, it is not necessarily about efficiency but rather about working at the edge of ability. It’s about constantly chasing efficiency but never really attaining it because if you attain maximum efficiency, haven’t you won? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of flow? Although, I do understand where the point of efficiency comes into play. If you are referring to maximizing short-term efficiency as it relates to specific levels or playing against teams with a particular skill level, I understand. However, for flow to be in effect wouldn’t you need to have the possibility of advancement? Wouldn’t you need to constantly be chasing this feeling of “maximum efficiency” simply because once it has been achieved, it gets harder?

      Posted by jmlemons | May 24, 2013, 10:38 pm

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