Monday, February 28, 2011

Flow: Games for Social Change (Part 3 of 3)

Taking advantage of the use of flow in videogames for education and social activism can be used as a powerful learning and motivating tool.  For example, in the game Darfur is Dying, players must keep their refugee camp functioning in the face of possible attack by Janjaweed militias and is described on their website,

Darfur is Dying is a viral video game for change that provides a window into the experience of the 2.5 million refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan...Players can also learn more about the genocide in Darfur that has taken the lives of 400,000 people, and find ways to get involved to help stop this human rights and humanitarian crisis.

In another social change game,, kids are able to learn as they explore information about the challenges that the Wanzuzu experience while playing a game.  In addition, there are a growing number of teachers who are utilizing specially designed prosocial games in the classroom.

With most prosocial games, people are given a set of clear cut rules, the levels adjust to the capability of the player with a careful emphasis in design to not be too easy or too challenging for the participant, the status of advancement, etc. is provided along the way, and the aural and animated graphics are simple and engaging enough to keep the participant focused and engaged.  By presenting this information in a way that allows for participants to flow as they go, they are visually, aurally and mentally stimulated in an enjoyable—and most importantly—memorable way.

One social change gaming site, Games for Change, “is a non-profit which seeks to harness the extraordinary power of digital games to address the most pressing issues of our day, including poverty, education, human rights, global conflict and climate change. Games for Change serves as a platform for organizations, individuals, government agencies, academics, journalists and the game industry to share best practices, exchange knowledge, incubate new projects and provide access to those seeking to use digital games to positively impact society” (  In addition to “Darfur is Dying, there are games for all ages that aim to inform and inspire participants on subjects such as farming (3rd World Farmer), energy (EnerCity), nutrition (Fat World), human rights (Real Lives 2010) and dozens more.

In order for the development and growth of an autotelic personality to be operationalized, a person must be intrinsically motivated in high-challenge, high-skill situations.  Videogames are just one example of how the optimal achievement of flow and mindfulness can inform and potentially motivate a person to take steps to affect positive social change.

Peace Corps Challenge Online Game:



Saturday, February 26, 2011

Flow: Entertainment and Enjoyment (Part 2 of 3)

Finding flow is important in our everyday existence, but it can also be an important element of our use of entertainment and enjoyment. 

Satisfaction from media as entertainment often share many of the same characteristics as flow, including having focused concentration, a sense of having control over the situation, focused concentration, loss of self-consciousness, a sense that one is in control of the situation, distortion of the sense of time, and the experience of eustress (aka positive stress).  

For example, as world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal, mentions in her recent book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, when playing games, you create positive stress on purpose, and when we reach our optimal goals, we are taking on the best versions of ourselves.

My 20-year-old son began engaging in flow activities at two-years-old.  He loved puzzles so much that we had to turn puzzle pictures upside down in order to keep him focused.  By the age of five he was producing an impressive Lego library, and by eight he was building full-sized Lego robots.  He started training to be a “vidiot“ (videogame player) at the age of nine (and still is).  He soon advanced to playing poker, where his concentration at 12-years-old was so intense that he regularly beat out seasoned players in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Now he is a junior at University as a math major, and when he is faced with linear algebra problems (“the binary numbers are like puzzles, mom“) no one can interrupt his concentration.
Videogames in particular still capture his flow.  Every time he plays, his flow state is exemplified by striving to achieve a goal such as getting to the next level of play in a game.  His optimal state of engagement—or flow—is realized when there is a balance between the difficulty of the task and his skills. If the play is too easy, boredom ensues; too difficult, anxiety is induced and the flow state inhibited. 

Sherry, J. L. (2004). Flow and Media Enjoyment. Communications Theory, 14(4), 328-347.

McGonigal, Jane (2011). Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world.  New York: Penquin Press.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Flow: Naked Housecleaning (Part 1 of 3)

The October 15, 2010, episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” asked the question “Are you normal?”  The entire episode was dedicated to audience and national polls on a wide range of lifestyle questions ranging from “Do you brush your teeth at night?” to “How many times a day do you pick your nose?”  In the last segment, the show profiled a Virginia housewife and mother of three, Cherie Spisak, as she was cleaning her house in the nude.  She said she enjoys it and looking in the mirror keeps her mindful of her form.  When the final question to the audience was posed, “Have you ever cleaned your house in the nude?” almost 25% surprisingly said yes.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, housework is a maintenance activity that tends to be considered “generally negative or neutral along all dimensions.”  In the case of Cherie Spisak, she found a way to remain mindful of her present physical state while turning what is typically considered a mundane task into a more optimal state of engagement. For her, the ultimate reward was being able to take off her existing clothes and put them in the laundry so when all of her housecleaning was done, not even one piece of clothing was dirty in the house.

Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the concept of flow, describes it as, "the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement.”  Spisak’s flexibility and openness allowed her to override the penchant for boredom that often results from the engagement of automatic behaviors.  Doing her chores without wearing clothes provided a way to cultivate awareness, reduce her sense of self-consciousness, stay more focused and on task, thereby improving her experience doing everyday activities.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New  York: Basic Books.