Against Flow

At the beginning of Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde, art historian Susan Best discusses her methodology for tackling the “neglected” area of subjective experience in art criticism, writing,

“Assuming the custodianship of feeling in this fashion might seem inevitable or even retrograde given the traditional alignment of femininity with feeling and emotion as opposed to the masculine domain of thinking and reason. The stereotype that women are more emotional than men, as well as the common idea that emotion is a disruption to thinking, must surely rest upon a familiar binary logic. Why, then, perpetuate or reinforce such views?”

I’m by no means done with the book, and so take my use of Best’s work here as a preliminary reaction. Still, it’s always refreshing for me to come across art criticism which treats the “affective” dimension of art as worthy of the substantial consideration given over to “form”, technique, historical and social connotations and so on. After all, the way art “makes us feel” is an indispensable part of why we continue to produce and enjoy it, and why it may make us feel a certain way can open the dam of normative expectations, giving way to waves of self-knowledge.

But the “why” is a difficult, even scary question. It can even be vaguely insulting and come off as presumptuous: “I know what I like”, “My feelings are my feelings and that’s that.” On the obverse, some react to this question of subjective experience by hedging that uncertainty: they center the whole of their response around themselves, their own expectations and their own personal histories (this is, of course, what we often refer to as “confessional” writing although I think that term comes loaded with its own problems). This isn’t to say that I think self-awareness in the authorship of media criticism is ever a bad thing, but where the dialogue with the work is lost in favour of a more comforting platitude about personal experience, what’s also lost is an engagement with what a piece is doing to make an individual feel one way or another.

From my own absurd hill on the landscape of art criticism, I’ve often lamented the fundamental dearth in games discourse (meaning popular, public intellectual and academic discussions about games) of engagement with other disciplines within the fine arts, and for that matter a great deal of the humanities. The role of affect in games—of how games use their tools to communicate meaning to a player and how that player subjectivizes that meaning—reveals a multifaceted gem of aesthetic, poetic, spatial and technical interplay. An attentive, interdisciplinary approach to these facets seems appropriate, and I think this is happening at least in certain areas of criticism.

Nonetheless there’s an obvious and overwhelming mindset at every level, from the production to the consumption to the discussion of games, which prefers to pathologize player experience. It’s normative; for all our sound and fury about games being an art form, we’re much more likely to consider them as machines with necessary functions. They’re “fun”, or culturally reaffirming, or sociologically interesting. They’re instruments for us to “train our brains”. Our responses can be measured, quantified, formalized and optimized. We’re not interlocutors with works of any affective power or insight; we’re demographics to be catered to, and are we not entertained?

It’s here where this obsession with achieving “flow state” rears itself, almost unconsciously, even in the more progressively-minded of our broader game development culture.

For the uninitiated, “flow” refers to the psychological phenomenon coined and described by famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It describes that feeling of being “in the zone”, when a person’s task perfectly matches their skill level; they’re neither bored nor overwhelmed, and can therefore commit their undivided focus to the task “for its own sake”. There are obvious benefits to taking advantage of flow for educational or productivity purposes, and it can even be therapeutic to shut off the feedback of the mind and indulge fully in a special task.

I don’t so much take issue with the theory or the phenomenon; I should at least pay a token gesture to the fact that I’m not arguing against games which are designed to manifest a flow state. At least, not necessarily. Here I’ll rattle off some games whose design philosophies are rooted in flow, reflexes, muscle memory—Geometry Wars, Bit.Trip, Rez—which I happen to be quite fond of and will play for the same purposes of indulgence or escapism as anyone else does. But here I think we can trip ourselves up: I think these games have more in them than flow—this total, assembly-line kind of focus—allows us to really engage with.

Flow has clearly become adopted as a high watermark for what constitutes “balanced game design”. Development textbooks teach us how we may achieve flow; industry figureheads contemplate flow in their lectures. We even have a beloved indie game named after the phenomenon. Now, it’s frustrating that I should have to insist that  yes, of course games which deliberately encourage flow—perhaps for meditative or distractive purposes—have their own kind of value. But I think the reason that flow is such a sought-after quality in games is because it resonates with other things which are exalted as “industry standards”, and therefore considered more valuable. The achievement of flow is often associated with fine-tuned mechanics and a polished aesthetic, and coincides with the tendency in our theorizing about player behaviour to favour a psychopathological explanation for how players react to a game. Rarely is an appeal made to aesthetic philosophy or art criticism when we ask questions about why games affect us.

I think back to Susan Best writing about the myriad emotional responses to minimalist art, with its pretenses of “objectivity”. I think of her counterargument demonstrated by the work of women creating in those traditions yet still marginalized as “sentimental” or “overemotional”, and the very distinction of “feminine” forms of expression as possessing less social capital than “masculine” ones. What does this mean? Broadly, it means that the effect of industrialization and scientism on mid-20th century art was that it reified the “masculine” pretenses of objectivity, rationality and productive labour as highly aspirational, even transcendent. Lygia Clark, in her time, was a dissident of what she called the “concretist” art movement, which left such floaty, incomplete ideas of the subjective realm (feelings and interpretations) by the wayside. In a sense, “reals not feels” has been an ideological institutional superposition for decades. It’s not that surprising that videogames, which derive from the same technology which is used for industrial automation, would follow along this path. It’s in this light that I think “flow” becomes such a valuable piece of capital—as a phenomenon which activates a mute, cerebral part of ourselves—and it’s in this light that I would like to do for games what Best and her colleagues have been doing for visual art and literature.

To be in a flow state is to be in a very mechanical state of being. It’s achieving the kind of ludic transcendence that concretist artists were, whether they knew it or not, pushing in their manifestos. It is a place that is not just pure feeling, but is beyond feeling: a place to escape from the hardships of life, to not be challenged with too-complex obstacles. And it’s scientific! Flow is something that can be studied, quantified, reproduced and adjusted depending on a relationship between the exigences of a game and the player’s scaling skill. It makes answering the question of what makes a good game, and how to therefore set about making axioms for how to make that game, very easy.

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. Take Liz Ryerson writing in the third-person about her game, Problem Attic, comparing it to Braid,

“In Jon Blow’s design parlance, her game was a failure. It was not stripped to its barest elements, it was not palatable in every way except its one challenging central mechanic. It was weird and ugly and hard to parse. It was filled with unpredictable, unanticipated twists and turns, awkward movements, and sudden changes of theme. She had not been thinking about how to make a good video game. She had been thinking about how to express very complicated, seemingly inexpressible feelings through the tools of a 2D platformer, which was what she had in front of her.”

There is very little in Problem Attic which can be said to evoke a flow state. That’s actually part of its conceit, but here is a game that could not provoke the same kind of discourse that Braid did. It’s too “weird”, too jarring. Its themes are not faded into a comfortable, rather sedate make-work exercise but deeply infused into “unanticipated twists and turns”, a digital aesthetics and poetics which demand conscious engagement. (On the other hand, a game like Papers, Please subverts the processes of “flow” which make labour tolerable by deliberately drawing our attention to the oppressively boring—and boringly oppressive—nature of bureaucracy!)

In Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin challenges the ritual of “art for its own sake”, which has historically been a process of concealing or ignoring politics in favour of elitist traditions. Reproduced art, on the other hand, allows us to delve into more material realms, like politics. But have games, which are highly reproducible, actually fulfilled this rupture with ritual? I’m not so sure when flow—this focus on a task for its own sake—is a dominant element in the valuation of games. Where flow has become a shorthand for numbed subjectivity—particularly in the act of playing—and where this numbed subjectivity is elevated as an ideal player response, we have a crisis. It means those intrepid developers who are crafting provocative, dissonant, emotionally challenging games are classified not only as less marketable, but as fundamentally irreligious to the prevailing wisdom of what a good game is supposed to be. It means that the discourse and culture around games arbitrarily limits itself, and tacitly suppresses any lesser known work (or any aspect of a well-known work) which doesn’t buttress that ideology. It creates a climate where experimentation and appreciation of the form’s potential toward influencing different affective experiences is largely unsupported. But when we play, we feel. We should not be numb to this reality, forever in a meditative stupor, but active and aware of it. It’s real, and it’s vital that we embrace that.