(Dont) Just go with the flow
New book by UCI digital media scholar challenges popular ideas in gaming
By Christine Byrd
Video gamers can spend hours intensely focused on leveling up—progressing to the next level of skill and challenge—in a virtual world, while their everyday troubles fade into the background. Called “flow,” this profoundly immersive state is familiar to artists, musicians and athletes, and has become a popular topic for self-help gurus, business leaders and fitness trainers. But video game scholar Braxton Soderman urges caution.
In his new book, Against Flow: Video Games and the Flowing Subject (MIT Press, 2021), Soderman, assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine, aims to “create a little turbulence in the smooth flow.” Among his criticisms of flow in relation to video gaming is that it can be used to manipulate players for profit and socially isolate them.
“Developers of video games and apps design their technologies specifically in order to produce these intense states of concentration, to addict people to these kinds of experiences,” says Soderman. “It’s not always totally beneficial. There are ulterior motives to invoking flow, especially in business.”
Money, of course, is the driving force behind most game design, not happiness. Game creators are not trying to induce flow purely for the player’s enjoyment, but to monetize the gaming experience and make a profit.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s pioneering work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience popularized the concept in the 1990s. But because Csikszentmihalyi wrote many other books and articles, Soderman argues that flow must be understood within the broader context of the author’s work. For example, Flow was part of Csikszentmihalyi’s reaction to the failures of Marxism, in which the individual disappeared into the social revolution, so it’s no coincidence that he conceived of flow as a deeply individual state.
“It can be beneficial to temporarily disable self-critical, self-reflective impulses, but if you read the theory of flow closely, it pushes away the external world and pitches the idea that happiness can only occur when you’re engaged in a particular task,” says Soderman. “The worry is that pursuing flow pushes out concerns of real life and disconnects people instead of connecting them.”
Soderman has played video games almost his entire life, starting at age 5 when his grandparents gave him an Intellivision game console. One of his favorite games, “Astrosmash,” in which the player shoots down incoming asteroids, was groundbreaking at the time because its level of difficulty not only increased with success but decreased if you died and lost points. In other words, it was the perfect recipe for flow.
“Csikszentmihalyi said you need a balance between skill and challenge to have flow,” says Soderman. “A game like ‘Astrosmash’ that manipulated difficulty levels while you’re playing, created that for players, and it meant you could play that game for a long period of time.”
Which, of course, Soderman did.
Later, as a graduate student at Brown University in the Department of Modern Culture and Media, Soderman returned to the topic of video games, an academic area still in its infancy, and examined games in terms of politics, gender and aesthetics. Independent game developers were flourishing and experimenting artistically, as well. One such game that caught Soderman’s attention — and absorbed some of his time — was called “flOw” by thatgamecompany. The game explicitly drew on Csikszentmihalyi’s theories, making it easy for players to balance their own skill with the challenge of the game, as they swam around gobbling up beautiful, abstract creatures.
In 2014, Soderman joined UCI’s Department of Film and Media Studies, drawn to the campus’ strength in game studies. Today, the university offers a degree in computer game science, a robust esports program, and an emphatically cross-disciplinary approach to research. Not to mention, the region is home to game industry powerhouses like Blizzard and Riot, as well as numerous indie developers.
“UCI is probably one of the best places to study games right now in the entire country,” says Soderman. “What really attracted me to UCI was its historical legacy of accepting games and video game studies as a legitimate form of research. It was one of the first institutions to embrace and study games as art objects.”
Soderman’s research interests within the digital world remain eclectic — he’s written about everything from generative art to ticker tape technologies. And he teaches a wide variety of undergraduate courses on topics including digital media, virtual reality, how film and video games influence each other, and a seminar about the Netflix series “Black Mirror.”
Soderman is already working on his next book, a collaboration with UCI anthropology professor Tom Boellstorff, who studies virtual worlds. Talking over coffee one day, the two of them discovered they both loved playing Intellivision as kids. The game console developed by the now-defunct Mattel Electronics came on the scene in 1979 as a competitor to Atari. When the company went out of business, die-hard fans kept the Intellivision games alive, and soon they will release a new video game console called the Intellivision Amico in fall 2021.
United by their shared love of Intellivision, Soderman and Boellstorff embarked together on writing a history of Intellivision, interviewing more than 100 people who worked on the product, and conducting research at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. The Intellivision system, and Mattel’s corporate culture, fit into Soderman’s broader interest in the idea of play — another topic that Csikszentmihalyi explored — and how it is being manipulated by businesses.
“Games are obvious flow activities, and play is the flow experience par excellence,” wrote Csikszentmihalyi.
Play continues to hold a central place in Soderman’s life as the father of two young children. But he’s careful to limit the types of games and amount of time his kids spend on video games.
“I love digital media and I love games, but I’m hyper-aware of how they steal people’s attention,” he says. “And how games manipulate players, especially children.”
As with flow, Soderman worries that the concepts of play and playfulness are already being manipulated by capitalism. Entrepreneurs, he says, are being encouraged to harness playfulness and creativity to establish “playgrounds of profit” instead of creating more open, inclusive environments that actually make people happier.
“Play is an activity that is really about creativity, exploring possibilities, and freedom,” he says. “But it can be hijacked and used in a way that’s ideological.”
The concept of play, like flow, is one that Braxton will challenge us all to step back and think about critically. Because, as he shows in Against Flow, getting lost in a video game for a while can be fun, as long as you don’t end up swept away in a lonely current of someone else’s profit.
Officially out April 13, Against Flow is available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, MIT Press, Penguin Random House and Target.