Flow and Counter-Flow

I've been in many game design discussions, and one of the big things to come our way in the last decade or so is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's research on flow. We know, through artists and athletes that flow is a very activity based feeling. It presents itself as we do things and apply ourselves against the world under the right conditions.

Now Csikszentmihalyi's work and thinking is backed up by scientific studies and research, whereas what I'm about to talk about has no grounding other than my own limited life experience. What I want to talk about right now is what I'm calling counter-flow due it's very opposing nature to the traditional conception of flow.

So if flow is our optimal state for pressing ourselves against the world, then counter-flow is the optimal state for the world to press against us. You could use the terms contemplation or meditation, but those are to me activities not descriptors of a state of being. Much like flow, counter-flow only appears under certain conditions. First, you need to have lots of free floating information, second, you need focused time. It's important that time not only needs to pass, but it also needs to be focused, either by being contiguous or by being spent on related activities, but not the same activity.

Counter-flow is not inspiration, but when in a state of counter-flow you will be inspired. The best way I can explain it is that you will find yourself traversing a web of connections which you have definitely before observed, but never before noticed. Problems which had previously been too large to handle will have their solution simply slide into place. Unlike flow, counter-flow will not necessarily make you happy. Depending on what you discover, it may make you angry, depressed, ecstatic, anxious, or really any of a large range of very powerful emotions. However no matter the emotion, the experience from within the state itself will always be one you cherish, and make a part of you.

So why am I talking about it? First let me get it out of the way that there are some people for whom counter-flow is the real high, who go out of their way to find these experiences wherever they may be. You may have seen them around art galleries, museums, libraries, monasteries, or turn based strategy games... Though the numbers have turned against them, there is still a core of gamers who seek out this kind of experience in their own games. They submerge themselves in slow moving overwhelming walls of information, taking breaks to read up and discuss the vagaries of their recent experiences. On a larger scale though, in my hubris fueled opinion, every great work that is not primarily utilitarian in nature contains both flow and counter-flow.

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