Why Are Video Games Absorbing and Work Not?

Why don’t people playing video games get distracted by work, rather than the other way around? More importantly, if we can understand why, can we use the knowledge to make productive work more attractive?

Saying that video games are more fun does not convey enough information. It’s the kind of fun that matters.

Video games are absorbing. For insight into absorbing activities, let’s look at Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s research into what he called “flow” Flow is that condition in which you are totally occupied with the task you are doing. It has its name because people interviewed about it most frequently described the experience as being “in the flow.” A flow experience has two benefits:

First, it promotes your happiness. This is a bit strange, because while you’re in the flow you are not happy — indeed you’re not feeling any emotion. You are totally absorbed in your activity. You are not conscious of yourself. Nevertheless, people who spend a lot of time in the flow are happier the rest of the time.

Second, flow promotes your growth. As we shall see in a moment, to remain in the flow you must keep increasing your competence.

There are four conditions for flow. First, the activity you are involved in cannot be too complex. If it is too difficult for you, you will become anxious and drop out of the flow state.

Second, the activity cannot be too simple. If it is too simple, you will become bored and drop out of the flow state.

Third, you must always know what to do next. If you must pause to ponder what your next move is, that in itself will get you out of the flow.

Fourth, you must get immediate feedback on how well you are doing. You must be occupied with current activity and not looking back wondering how well you did nor looking ahead wondering how well you will have done.

While you’re in the flow, you are practicing an activity, and as you practice the activity, you are gaining competence. That means that in order to remain in the flow, the activity must be getting more complex; otherwise, it would become too simple, you would become bored, and you would fall out of the flow. This is the way flow leads to growth.

Flow is a most satisfying state to be in. People seek it out. Given the opportunity, people will gravitate towards flow activities.

Flow is like a secular mystical state. The “Eighth Step” on the Buddhist eight-fold path is “right absorption.” These games might be considered “wrong absorption,” but absorption they are nonetheless.

In the current economic situation, many people are in a state very unlike flow: looking for jobs. For one thing, if you are looking for a job, you do not get immediate feedback. Indeed, if you’re sending out resumes, for most of them you will get no feedback at all. You may not know what to do next: what kind of job to look for, where to look for it, how to apply, how wide an area to search in, whether to consider relocating. Some of the activities in job hunting are incredibly boring. On the other hand, some of the things you may need to do you are utterly unskilled at. It’s no wonder that online job hunters spend so much time at video games — video games are flow activities, and job hunting most assuredly is not.

This indicates how you can improve your performance in other activities — plan them to promote flow.

When you’re embarking on a new activity, it would be good if you could organize it so that you will always be in the flow. If you’re taking a course, let us hope that it has been arranged so that you can be in the flow while learning. If you’re going to have to teach yourself things, right at the beginning it will certainly look too complex: you don’t know how little you can get away with knowing. But as soon as you know some of the most vital elements to include in your activity, you can try to work out a schedule that will make it possible for you to be in the flow.

In arranging a schedule, try to arrange to do simple activities that will give you a complete product or at least a complete part of a product, a complete something you can point to. Producing something will give you satisfaction. It is an indication that you are succeeding. That gives you feedback.

As you repeat the activity, combat boredom by including more aspects or making it more complex. Don’t concentrate on the end result of your activity. Don’t insist that other people see you as a success immediately. That will only delay feedback and promote anxiety. Instead, as you plan out the new activity, focus on the individual parts of it and ways to judge how well you’re doing on those.

If you can plan out a new activity so that you can do it in the flow, it will be satisfying, promote your happiness, and develop your skills much more quickly than trying to force yourself to do it.

Dr. Christopher is offering a growing collection of online income stream courses and eBooks directed at speakers, writers, and self-employed professionals. Dr. Christopher, a Colorado public speaker and seminar leader, prepared these in response to requests from the Speakers In Colorado group.